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April 12, 2012

When philanthropy gets personal

My friend Nathaniel James has a kickstarter-like project going in order to fund a 90-day tour gathering stories and information about “New Giving.” (Yes, this is a self-reflective New Giving project.) He’s got five days left to reach the tipping point so that the project actually gets funded. Nathaniel is a smart, sincere, good-hearted person, so I kicked in a little bit.

But I have reservations. Not about Nathaniel. About this model of funding. I am one of those people who resent it when friends hit me up for a donation for walking 20 miles or biking from here to wherever. If I wanted to give to those charities, I would, and I don’t see why your deciding to walk or ride or bob for apples or grow a moustache should affect my giving. And if it’s not those activities but your friendship itself that you’re bringing to bear, then I’m even more resentful and possibly a little angry. At least at sites like Start Some Good, the projects themselves do good in the world, unlike your request that we donate a dollar for every yard you slip down the Mount Washington Slidey-Rail. Still, as a norm, I would remove friends and relatives from the list of potential funders. If the project is worthwhile and the people are credible (two check marks for Nathaniel’s project), then it will get funded. If not, not.

But where I’d really like to apply this norm is to all the walkathons, swimathons, and begathons: If you can’t raise money from strangers because you’ve pledged to peel 5,000 bananas before sundown, then maybe it isn’t a charitable exercise worth pursuing. And second of all, get off of my lawn!


July 3, 2008

The fallacy of examples

Nicholas Kristof has a terrific column today about how the donation of a goat to a family in Uganda ultimately led to one of the children, Beatrice, earning a degree from Connecticut College, and beginning a path of service for her community. It’s a wonderful story, the point of which is what Jeffrey Sachs calls the “Beatrice Theorem” of development economics: “small inputs can lead to large outcomes.”

Well, yes, of course. In fact, small changes have determined the success or failure of us all. And I have no misgivings whatsoever about this past Channukah having given our children certificates announcing that Oxfam had given goats in their name. Yes, I am a goat-giver, and proud of it.


…I’ve noticed in business writing in particular the frequency of what we can call the Fallacy of Examples (a type of Fallacy of Hasty Generalization). You read some story about a successful CEO as if we should learn from his (yes, usually it’s a him) example. But we are struck by examples frequently because they’re exceptional. As exceptions, examples are the last thing you want to learn from.

Not always, though. Sometimes examples are typical. That’s different. The trick is determining which are which.

An even when you can, you’re still not done. Is Beatrice and her goat an exception? Yes. That’s why her story is so inspiring. As an exception, it may be exactly what we should not be emulating. After all, if she’d won the lottery, we wouldn’t think that giving lottery tickets to the poor is a sensible approach to the problem of world poverty. But, even though Beatrice is an exception, the typical effect of donated goats (and other such small-ish gifts) may be quite good.

That’s why the Fallacy of Examples is a fallacy. Reasoning from examples doesn’t always lead to false conclusions. The reasoning just isn’t enough to tell you what the valid conclusions are.

And in the absence of valid conclusions, here’s Kristof’s list of ways to donate goats or their equivalents. And here’s Oxfam’s program. And, because it’s the Internet, here’s samizdata’s warning that goats cause poverty. [Tags: ]

Ethanz brilliantly contextualizes this post. Thanks, Ethan!