We Need to Think Again About How We Do Good

Pro-social behavior is a big thing (industry?) in the USA. Charitable donations and volunteering are widely spread in the US society. In this post, I’ll address two potential pitfalls of how we do good in the USA (and elsewhere).

Making Donations:

In the two years since my wife and I are living in the US, we made several small donations. A couple of them were to well-established non-profit organizations and were made through online platforms.

This implied that the well-established non-profit organizations had our contact information.

After making the donations, our mailbox (the physical one) came under assault from those non-profits. Virtually every month we receive from them mail that solicits additional donations. These mail-packages are highly professional in both the physical quality and the psychology levers used.

In one such mail, we received a nickel (5 cents) and in another a dime (10 cents). The envelopes had an additional transparent window making the coins visible. This is supposed to trigger reciprocity on the receiver’s side.

Beyond the annoyance of receiving yet another soliciting (junk) mail, I believe there is something more disturbing.

At least in my own case, I made a small (under $50) donation to support the non-profit’s mission (e.g. preservation of history).

I’m under the impression that the mail received from the non-profit in a year costed more than the value of my donation.

As a human being, I instinctively use mental accounts and the reasoning goes as follows: if the non-profit spends more money than I donated on soliciting additional donations from me, it means that it uses my money to try and get more money from me. Consequently, it means that it doesn’t use my money for the purpose that I made the donation – to support history preservation. That’s unfair and it makes me feel that my donation was futile.

Therefore, no more donation next year.

Moreover, I end up paying for receiving junk-mail.


A homeless man told me that he ended up on the streets because, within a 3 months’ period, he was laid off from his blue-collar job (restructuring) and got divorced and lost everything. He also said that a few months after being on the streets, he contacted his former supervisor who was able to get him an interview for another job at a factory in a different city. The pay was good, said the homeless man. Fifteen dollars an hour. That’s almost twice the federal minimum wage. He mentioned that he’s clean and can pass a drug test, thus he is optimistic about getting the job.

But, the homeless man had no money for the train ticket.

He told me that he went to several Christian charities looking for help. He offered to work for pay to do landscaping, construction, whatever would get him the money he needed for the train ticket.

He said he was turned away because all the work the charities needed was done / could be done by volunteers.

Volunteering is free labor. As a principle it is good, but it can do a lot of harm as well. With every volunteer who goes and paints fences, cleans up trash etc. the demand for low-skilled paid labor decreases.

Not all churches, community centers etc. who need their fences fixed and painted would hire a paid laborer, but the overall afflux of free labor from volunteers hurts a target group who volunteers and charities want to help – the poor. What’s even worse: the low demand for low-skilled labor takes away from the poor not only the income, but the pride of having a job as well.

But enough with the evolutionary psychology perspective.

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