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A Culture of Disengaged Philanthropy

Changing the world has become so easy you don’t even need to think about it

By Niharika S. Jain

Making a difference has become so easy. With just one click you can support a cause on Facebook. Until recently, in just a few seconds you could have texted “Haiti” to the Red Cross to donate $10 in the aftermath of last year’s catastrophic earthquake. And now, through the new website, you can click to give $1 to the featured cause of the day.

Commonlt called the “Groupon” of the charity world, Philanthroper has been lauded for making giving so simple and painless that anyone with a dollar to spare can do it. The site appears to be incredibly efficient, spending only one percent of donations on transactional fees and giving the rest to the social organizations it promotes. The first few causes—which included organizations that provide free art classes to underprivileged children, distribute free school supplies, and provide free counseling to veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression—typically attracted 100-300 donors each. According to the site’s FAQ , “We're trying to make doing good a habit.”

But is one-click giving really the same as “doing good?” Certainly, it democratizes philanthropy, allowing more people to participate in giving to and supporting causes and organizations that may be creating real social impact. But platforms that strive to make giving as effortless as possible are at the same time giving rise to a new culture of disengaged philanthropy. By making giving so easy that it requires hardly any thought, we are making philanthropy a mindless, one-click act that requires no real engagement with the cause or knowledge of the actual social impact it is creating.

The truth is that making spur-of-the-moment contributions allows donors to feel good about making a difference without necessarily thinking critically about the causes we support. According to a recent Harvard Business School (HBS) study, spending money on others can increase our personal happiness. Thus, even engaging superficially with causes by making quick and sometimes thoughtless donations can allow us to think we are making a difference.

It is even easier to fall into this pattern of disengaged philanthropy when we are surrounded by ads and announcements telling us that with “Just $x” we can give one person clean, safe drinking water, a year of education, or some other social good. Of course, donations can help improve social conditions in various ways, but it is misguided to believe that simply giving money—especially without following up on the measurable outcomes of the project—is enough to effect meaningful social change.

This is not to devalue the new social media and technologies that help raise awareness and funds for a multitude of charities. The problem is that this is simply not enough. Thoughtlessly “Liking” charities’ Facebook pages or clicking once to make a donation is no substitute for being an active, engaged citizen who thinks critically about social issues and social change. According to Joe Green, a Co-Founder of the Facebook Causes application, these new ways of giving are filling a void for a generation that just doesn’t know how to make a difference. “This generation of college students cares incredibly deeply about changing the world, and probably has expressed more interest, in fact, in that of any generation since the 60s but doesn’t understand how to do it,” he told MSNBC.

It is alarming that the modern culture of giving encourages such a superficial interface with effecting true social change. What we need is a culture of active and engaged philanthropy, of citizens who not only support, advocate for, and donate to causes and organizations they support, but who also think critically about social problems and seek to understand how organizations use their donations to make a real difference. Of course, there are different levels of engagement; not everybody spends time volunteering or working for organizations that do hands-on social work, and not everybody goes to rallies or publicly advocates for particular causes. There are roles for people to be involved to a different extent. But if we are to become a truly socially conscious generation, we cannot rely on making a few clicks or sending the occasional text message and expect this to change the world. We need people who will be truly engaged with the social issues facing our generation and our time.

Niharika S. Jain ’12 is a social studies concentrator in Dunster House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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