Philanthropy Has An Image Problem

So there are a few people in this world who have control of more wealth than they could ever reasonably expect to spend in this lifetime. What are they going to do with the excess? My first bet is that they’ll probably leave their vast estates to relatives. Many people talk about how the 85 wealthiest people on Earth control as much wealth as the bottom half of the human population and they should donate their wealth to various causes. Unfortunately, they do it in a way that implies that rich people somehow don’t deserve to be rich when they could have earned that money by doing something so completely innovative that Earth just hasn’t been the same since. That leads to howling accusations of communism and a rather serious image problem for philanthropy as a concept.

The problem with communism is that it squelches innovation on the level that produces new technologies like Bitcoin and self-driving cars. People are instinctively selfish and will do what they think will benefit them. If they aren’t given an incentive to innovate, they’ll probably shrug off good ideas because they won’t want to put in the effort to develop new innovations when the fruits of their labor is going to be taken from them anyway. The Soviets had a reputation for not being able to build decent refrigerators and, while they did score some early space firsts, they never reached the Moon due to a combination of political infighting and a nation-wide workplace culture of mediocrity.

My point here is that you can’t force the very wealthy to share their wealth if you want to be at all effective. They make their money because there’s a demand for what they produce. The inventor of the ATM lived to see his invention become widely adopted because people liked the convenience of being able to withdraw money when they couldn’t get to a bank before closing hours. The U.S. government paid Robert Goddard’s widow one million dollars for the right to use his patented rocket designs to jump-start the Space Age at a time when that kind of money was looked at like one billion dollars is today. Affluent people don’t earn their money by being stupid and they aren’t going to give it away just because somebody who isn’t quite as successful as them said so.

Philanthropy needs to dust off its image. It needs to get to the point where Pope Francis can talk about caring for the poor without getting blasted for being a Marxist, though it might help if he learned some of the basic rules of debating. You’re not going to convince the wealthiest 85 people on this planet by demonizing them for having more than everybody else. These people are as much a product of the system as every poor starving child you’ll ever see and they’re not going to pay much attention to the people who never did anything for them. That means people who are heavily involved with charitable causes will need to change their language if they want to convince the very rich.

The answer to this isn’t more taxes as some people claim. Government bureaucracies continue the long-standing tradition of cronyism that started with the first dominant bipedal primate that shared extra food with his friends while ignoring the weaklings that hang on the edge of things. Billions of dollars’ worth of foreign aid are lining the pockets of the biggest thugs instead of the poor in foreign nations that those dollars were supposed to help. Anyway, people like to keep control of where their money goes. I’ve talked to people who don’t want their tax dollars going to welfare queens with four brats when it would be more effective to give a hand up to anyone who just needs one to actually do something with their lives. It’s like the guy who offered to give a homeless man a month’s worth of programming lessons and the homeless man made a cool new Android app. This is one philanthropist who knows how to make effective use of his resources – in this case, the time it took to teach somebody how to create a new app.

The Homeless Person Who Launched His Own App

The Rawlemon fits neatly onto many apartment building rooftops to efficiently turn sunlight into power.

New technologies are beginning to change the game. You can get better bandwidth with new fiber optic systems, energy that isn’t coming through the power lines with increasingly efficient solar panels, and food that hasn’t traveled halfway across a continent with more efficient vertical gardens and indoor hydroponics system. It will happen and there will be one fewer excuse for not getting enough fresh produce in your diet when you can just go to the roof of your apartment building and select what you need for your salad while respecting the fact that there are a few solar power spheres from Rawlemon helping to keep power bills at a reasonable level as part of the rooftop “landscaping.”

New technologies can help people who don’t have ready access to financial services, too. Bitcoin is one. If you can carry a piece of paper in your pocket, you can make use of paper wallets. I could see future-minded philanthropists handing out cheap tablets with cryptocurrency wallets and showing their new owners how it works by sending them a dollar’s worth of Bitcoin. Even if the recipients do nothing else with cryptocurrencies, a dollar can really go a long way in some parts of the world. Bitcoin can help local open-air booth owners reach a market that they might not have been able to access before and help people who can offer a service but just needs to reach an audience a chance to reach an international community that might be able to use that particular audience. Coinality seems to be a decent way to line up all the Bitcoin-related jobs on various websites and maybe some employers would be willing to pay in Bitcoin. Some pundits have even called cryptocurrencies “How geeks do charity” when they donate some Bitcoin that’s fresh off the mining rig to their favorite causes.

These new technologies are going to change things on a widespread economic scale. Monopolies that built their power using the old system recognize this and they’re probably going to fight new innovations tooth and nail and do quite a bit of damage before the new systems become the dominant ones. It’s going to get to the point where you can’t slot people into unskilled jobs just to say they’re employed because a lot of those jobs are going to be replaced by automation. It will also mean rethinking philanthropy if you want to be effective in the long term. We’ll have to find solutions that can work in a new kind of market system that will be increasingly dominated by technology.

People are already trying to find solutions for this problem. “Guaranteed income” sounds like welfare on steroids and might help the people who are already being replaced by robots but haven’t yet picked up a new employable skill that would help them become productive members of society again. The problem with this has to do with concerns that it will encourage flat-out laziness. Only the people who have a sense of dignity and self-worth is going to do much more than piddle around all day. The rest of the former fast-food front line employees won’t want to do what it takes to actually become upwardly mobile.

Encouraging the use of freelancers may be a better way to handle philanthropy in a way that keeps people productive. The service industry isn’t going away. It’s just changing to favor the people who have ditched the daily traffic jams. Freelancer and Fiverr are two traditional mainstays. If you believe in helping people keep their homes and cars, make use of AirBNB and Uber instead of large hotel chains and taxi services during your next trip. These are people who rent out extra rooms in their houses and drive people around in their cars because they have bills to pay, too. When you catch your next ride with Uber after having a beer or two at your favorite restaurant, you’re helping somebody in a way that lets him keep his dignity along with sparing yourself a potential DUI arrest at the very least.

And you’ll probably not be surprised that I bring up space colonization as a way to help the less fortunate. These are going to be people who maybe aren’t rich enough to pay for a ticket into space, but do have skills that are needed on Mars. That means you’ll see a lot of people pooling their resources to pay for a new colony way out in the hinterlands of space. A lot of people are also going to be heading out to their preferred colony on a work contract. Don’t get me wrong, there’s going to be a high fatality rate at first and I may sound like I advocate the “Throw a lot of spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks” mentality towards space settlement at times. However, I think it can help swaths of the human population that have been squeezed by any combination of resource scarcity, corrupt government officials, areas that have been torn up by conflict, and large corporations that don’t think that clean water is a basic human right (Yeah, I’m not a big fan of Nestle anymore, either).

Let’s face it, the world is changing fast. Traditional forms of philanthropy are going to go out the window in an era where technology is connecting people around the world like never before. Begging or forcing the very wealthy to give up their fortunes for causes that might actually be questionable in terms of the long-term difference they make won’t work, either. If we want to actually make a difference in the lives of the less fortunate in the near future, we’ll have to rethink how we do charity so we can actually be effective.

Some Guidebooks for Effective Philanthropy

eBay Giving Works

While doing your holiday shopping this year, you might consider helping charity by shopping with the eBay Giving Works. Last time I did, I got a good bargain on a scarf holder with part of the sales price supporting Give Kids the World.