Every December, Americans organize holiday toy drives to give toys to poor children. We see them in our offices, malls, churches, and grocery stores, among other places. They are often endorsed by local businesses, work places, and community centers. But I never give to toy drives, and frankly, I wish others wouldn't either. Before you dismiss me as a scrooge, please let me explain.
Let's think about why people give to toy drives. Many do it because they feel good when giving a gift. Some do it because they want others to have the same wonderful Christmas experience that their families have. There may be others who want to teach their children lessons about charity. And guilt may play a role for some.
All of these reasons are primarily about satisfying the donor's emotional needs and have nothing to do with finding the best ways to use our charitable giving budgets to help others. Are toy drives the most effective way to help others? How does the impact of a toy drive compare to other charitable opportunities? Since the money you are able to give to charity is limited, are toy drives worthy recipients?
I happily give to some of the many charitable opportunities that I believe are better than toy drives. It may be unfair to single out toy drives--there are many other examples of charitable giving that are just as focused on satisfying the donor's emotions. People often give to the medical causes and charities that have touched their own lives, rather than trying to understand what can help others most. They also give to the universities they attended, with little thought about whether these are the institutions that can make the best use of the gift. And people support the arts, music, zoos, and other cultural organizations that they've used and enjoyed. These are all good causes, but donors typically select them more for personal reasons instead of by comparing them to other charitable opportunities.
I realize that this is an indictment of the way most people select charitable causes. Toy drives and other forms of emotional giving don't seem inherently bad, but they may have some negative implications that people don't often consider. For example, for those that have limited amounts to give to charity, emotional giving may reduce the amounts given to more effective charitable causes. More important, when society doesn't differentiate emotional giving from giving exclusively to help others, it seems unnecessary to even ask questions about the most effective ways for charities to help others. All too often, charities compete on their emotional appeal more than their likelihood of generating better outcomes. This ultimately results in more money getting to average charities and less to the best charities.
Donors trying to do the most good would be well-served by starting with a broad array of giving options (not just the university they attended and a few local nonprofits) and evaluating them based on the following questions:
- How important is the problem they are trying to solve? While this judgment is in the eye of the beholder, I find it hard to rank toy drives highly given all the other problems worth tackling. As one example of a more important problem, 18,000 children who die of preventable causes every day. In light of statistics like this, spending Christmas without a toy doesn't seem quite as tragic.
- How effective are nonprofits at addressing the problem? Though this may seem like an obvious question to ask, 65% of donors don't do any research before making a donation. Charities that cannot demonstrate their impact with reliable measurement and evaluation often fail this test. They may have effective programs, but it's hard for donors to understand how effective or compare them to other options.
- How cheap are the solutions? As an example, many medical charities in the U.S. request donations precisely because the care they provide is so expensive, though people in third world countries are suffering and dying from illnesses that are at least as bad, but can be treated for a fraction of the cost. Those who want to stretch their giving farthest will gravitate toward the most efficient solutions.
Nevertheless, giving should not be without heartfelt emotion. By looking at giving through the lens of helping others, the donations that make your heart tingle may line up with what your logical side tells you does the most good.