09/22/2013 11:52 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Human Nature and Charity


Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Dan Pallotta's well articulated, logically explained, and factually reinforced argument for running non-profit charities more like for-profit companies convinced me of its efficacy immediately. He had me at "philanthropy is the market for love."

'Philanthropy' is an economic term, and 'love' is an emotional term. Find a way to combine economics and emotion to foster public good, and like Dan said, "society would be transformed."

I immediately thought of a trip to Bolivia I took exactly one year ago to film the story of a wildlife charity called IWY (Inti Wara Yassi, a Bolivian phrase for Sun Star Moon), which through The 30 Postcards Project had come to my attention because of a heart warming postcard sent by an IWY volunteer picturing himself holding a rehabilitated puma. "Best experience of my life;" those were the words in the postcard that pointed my emotional compass towards Bolivia, the poorest country in South America. IWY and its official charity based in the United Kingdom were promoting animal rehabilitation, conservation, and awareness in a country least likely to have such efforts due to economic and political realities. I wanted very badly to tell their story!

Unfortunately, when I brought my crew to Bolivia to film their successes to show the world their good deeds, what I found was not the selfless charity it purported itself to be; it was a scam. Even worse, was finding the hundreds of selfless, dedicated, and philanthropic volunteers from all over the world working tirelessly in back breaking conditions (funding the charity with their own personal money), having no idea into whose pockets their money would ultimately flow. Lured in by the emotional high of being able to walk with jaguars, pumas, or other big cats each and every night, these volunteers quickly and eagerly bought into the fantasy IWY was selling.

In an effort to tell their story, I'd stumbled behind the curtain that kept IWY in business: promote every heart wrenching tale of indoctrinated passionate volunteers in order to solicit donations, while keeping investigative media as far from the financial books and operational policies as possible. Emotion kept the money flowing, and the truth would see it all come crashing down. The pumas, the jaguars, and the monkeys were (and still are) the pets of an organization, whose president did everything in her power to prevent myself (and other journalists) from telling the story: that this non-profit was profiting.

Recent American news stories have been peppered with similar revelations of manipulative and fraudulent charities, praying on the emotions of the vulnerable to cultivate a philanthropic fiction. Organizations such as Kids Wish Network, Youth Development Fund, and Committee for Missing Children enlarge the stain of human greed that blights philanthropic organizations, and helps further separate the non-profit world from the for-profit world.

Although I agree 100 percent with Dan Pallotta's argument that the public good would best be served if the same 'rules' applied to the social welfare organizations that govern for-profit corporations, the inescapable truth is that human nature is inexorably fused with any charity, no matter how it is run. And human nature's drivers of selfishness, greed, emotion, altruism, and society (the human predisposition for associated living) are biologically incapable of being removed from the equation.

Should we use human nature to fool human nature to instigate social good? I'm not sure we have any choice in the matter. Charities like IWY prey on human nature to cloak a for-profit in a non-profit skin. Mr. Pallotta wants to cloak non-profits in for-profit skins. All things being equal the road almost certainly would run both ways, and I personally wish the endeavor every success.

But what must be addressed are the realities human nature would have on such a changed dynamic. We excuse for-profit abuse because greed is human nature and recoil at non-profit abuse because emotion is human nature. Mr. Pallotta uses the phrase "if it's a logical world..." and logic is one thing not imprinted in human nature.

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