Charity CHAMPs – get involved with microphilanthropy now!

Microactions an excuse for youth? by sylvng
August 29, 2009, 12:44 pm
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I attended Toronto’s first Ignite event on Tuesday, and had to chance to connect with other individuals who are also very interested in the microphilanthropy / microfinance space—including Renjie Butalid of SiG Waterloo, Karim Harji of Social Capital Partners and founder of Social Finance, Ramy Nassar of Engineers Without Borders, and entrepreneur and socially-minded dude Joseph Fung.  Of several great conversations we had, I particularly enjoyed one about the effectiveness of microactions,  a topic that’s always interesting because it can be fairly controversial.

I obviously personally believe that microactions do make a difference (otherwise Charity CHAMPS wouldn’t be here) and in general most of the people I know agree with me (although there’s bias there since I have a tendency to talk to microphilanthropy organizations). Usually the discussions I see and read about are on microcredit and the question of whether it has any long term positive effects (the latest article I read from The Economist quoted studies finding no short term poverty reduction results, but microcredit does positively impact the lives of entrepreneurs).

On Wednesday, however, an interesting line of discussion emerged postulating that the younger generations do less good than the older generations—and microactions might just encourage this behaviour by giving a deceiving sense of how much good is being done.

This idea gave me a lot to think about, as I had not heard it before.  Some of the assertions made to support this argument were that:

  • Baby boomers grew up with a tradition of doing good—for example giving 10% of one’s income to charity, no questions asked.  The younger generation doesn’t have this tradition.
  • The activist culture of the 60’s and 70’s was far stronger than anything today
  • The sizable donations the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) depends upon are becoming scarcer and scarcer.
  • Younger generations are less religious than older generations, and give less through religious institutions.

There were, of course, some solid arguments against the proposition, too—some of which follow.  But first a quick digression.

Microphilanthropy Predates Colour TV

It would be easy to think that microphilanthropy is a modern phenomena given all the excitement about it these days, but in fact it is not at all.  In 1938—fittingly just a short while after the passing of ultra-wealthy philanthropist John D. Rockefeller—microphilanthropy was born in relative anonymity.

A relatively unknown man by the name of Ron Gilreath started an organization whose mission was to fight polio, the most dreaded illness of the 20th century.  His effort began with a newspaper appeal asking everyone in the nation to contribute 10 cents to fight polio.  Over the next 17 years, this initiative became hugely successful, and contributed to the research funds of Jonas Salk, the creator of the first successful polio vaccine.  This organization came to be known as the March of Dimes, emphasizing the national and public nature of the effort, and contrasting it from the private foundations of wealthy families, such as the Rockefellers.

The March of Dimes was the first notable example of microphilanthropy and it introduced amazing new dynamics to the world of good.  Because it let new demographics participate in important efforts, younger, poorer, and less trusting people became included in the force of good.  It also had a much more inclusive and sweeping effect on society, as a much greater percentage of the population could be touched by the warming glow of doing good.   Just as smiling is contagious, so microphilanthropy sweeps a group of strangers with one small gesture.

Changing Demographics

So back to microactions encouaging a distorted sense of goodness amongst youth.  Anecdotally I can see there being some justification for this, although I’d like to see some statistics.  However, even if previous generations did have a stronger sense of moral obligation to give, it seems much more likely that without the existence and accessibility of microactions, youth would probably not give at all, rather than “step it up” and go for “the full 10%”.  Microactions are paving an on-ramp for youth to get back onto the goodness highway, not a side-road to nowhere for meandering in oblivion.

Changing Concerns

Another reason it may seem like people don’t give as much now as they used to is that people give to different things than they used to. Giving in the past was more religious and more local. Now that people are more global in their experiences and access to information, it is harder for the local girl guides and art gallery in Toronto to compete with millions of children in Africa with no drinking water, tragedies of Sri Lankan homes lost in a tsunami, or the inhumane slaughter of dolphins in Taiji, Japan.  We have to be careful not to assume that just because those who used to be the recipients of goodwill may not be receiving the same support there is less support being given overall.

Paradox of Choice

The local supermarket isn’t the only place where there is more choice than ever these days. The rise of sites like Charity Navigator, GuideStar, and even my old project Eye On Development, are a response to the growth in the number of organizations who are trying to bid for your  “goodness” dollars or hours.  These sites seek to help the bewildered population figure out where exactly they should be investing their precious resources.  The younger generation is more accustomed to instant access to expert and peer opinions as provided by,, Amazon ratings, and eBay feedback.  Much like I can’t decide what to order when faced with a long, delicious menu, without such guidance, people can choose to do nothing at all because they can’t decide which action is best to take.  Along similar lines, there is a greater desire for transparency and metrics in not-for-profit organizations, just as there has been in the for-profit world.  Efficiency rates are important enough that many organizations advertise them front and centre on their websites when soliciting donations.  Perhaps youth are donating less, but they may be ensuring that what they donate goes farther than their parents.

Time Will Tell

In the end, I think much of this will have to play out over the coming decades.  The affect that microphilanthropy and microactions have on this generation of givers may be best evaluated when you can compare them to the baby boomers, namely when they are also in their 50s and 60s.  I’m pretty sure that whatever the result it will be better than if microactions were not possible.  What do you think?

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