Spare Change Isn't Real Change
On a recent flight, the Jetstar team announced that they were doing a charity collection down the aisle; and asked for customers to donate coins – especially if they no longer needed them.
I threw in my remaining New Zealand silver coins, and felt like a good person.
The announcer ended with the line “Your small change can make a world of difference”
That's a great slogan.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure that it’s true.
Millennials are criticised for being selfish and lazy (a claim that’s been levelled at every generation by their elders), but also praised/mocked for being socially conscious.
This odd combination plays out in strange ways.
We’re unhappy with inequality. We don’t like sweatshops, extreme poverty, segregation of any kind, and environmental destruction.
Here’s the catch: whilst awareness is high, generosity is low.
We statistically give far, far less money than our grandparent’s generation.
At work, I find myself constantly sticking up for social enterprises like Thank You, STREAT and Who Gives A Crap.
Some of my colleagues call these “Cause Related Marketing” – a cynical label that seems to overlook a lot of their strengths.
My argument is that these companies are selling products we already use, so why not choose a brand that does something good?
But there’s a line of argument though that I can’t defend against:
In the past, people got their warm feeling of generosity from sponsoring a child, or funding missionaries overseas.
These cost about $400 - $1,000 in today’s money.
By contrast, today we spend $2.50 on water, or $3.80 on coffee, and we get that same dopamine hit of self-satisfaction.
That means when a charity asks us to sponsor a child or help the environment, we feel like that itch has been scratched, and are hesitant to engage.
Yes, a few dollars can solve a problem. But that’s one problem down, a few billion to go.
So back to the Jetstar flight; I’m not sure that my small change, about 35c, can make a world of difference after all.
That 35c doesn't go far, once it gets handled by several staff members, taken to a bank and administered by an organisation. It probably cost them a few dollars to process a donation.
Now, if I was giving that much several times a day? Yes, that could do something great. But once every so often isn’t going to move the needle for causes I may claim to care about.
The danger here is that the things that build our internal narrative of “I am a good/generous/socially minded person” don’t match with the things that actually solve social problems.
Liking and sharing social media posts is a great example. Same dopamine hit, minimal real impact. This has been described as “Slacktivism” and is best exemplified in two words: Kony 2012.
You could be a frequent consumer of social enterprise products and services, and make a grand total impact of $50 per year.
My point is: this is now used as a substitute for donating several hundred dollars per year.
Charities aren’t perfect, and they all have overheads, so not every cent makes it to the beneficiary. Instead, these overheads pay for talented experts, who make sure that they create genuine impact, rather than just technical efficiency.
This is not a reason for spending all your money on yourself, it simply means you should find a charity you respect.
Rule of thumb – if every organisation falls short in your eyes, you’re a jerk looking for a reason to keep your money.
The message should be: A few dollars can change someone’s life – imagine what you can do with a few hundred.
This comes back to tradeoffs:
Generosity without sacrifice isn’t real generosity.
If the only time you’re prepared to help others is when it comes at zero expense to yourself, that’s fine.
Please don’t confuse it will creating real social impact.
If you’re running a social enterprise or charity, it’s worth being careful with your phrasing.
Yes, giving a nice narrative to small amounts of money can be a good idea – it gives a frame of reference to an arbitrary donation.
Just be careful to ensure we’re not sending the message that we’re just a few coins away from solving tough problems.
These causes are important, but they won’t be addressed without sacrifice.