Or, “It’s good to be generous, but don’t forget to think critically”
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First off, I’m thrilled for Jessica’s victory.
I met Jess at the CFI Student Leadership conference earlier this summer, and again at the SSA Conference, where we had a good half-hour conversation about her situation and her plans in the movement. We’ve been Facebook friends since then, and I’ve chatted with her online many times. She knows I am supportive of her efforts, and I’ve even written before on this blog about that—twice—and how proud I am of her. My family even popped open a bottle of champagne when we got the news about her victory. Jess is dear to me, and in no way is this article intended as an attack on her or her family; merely some honest feedback from a fellow critical-thinking advocate, an economics student studying altruism, and a friend.
The aforementioned bottle of champagne, pre-popping.
Bloggers Hemant Mehta (the Friendly Atheist) and JT Eberhard, among many others, are promoting a scholarship fund for Jessica’s college expenses, based on the precedent example of Damon Fowler’s scholarship fund last year, which last I checked had surpassed $30,000. (NB: Neither Jess nor her family initiated the creation of this scholarship fund; they are merely the beneficiaries of it). Recently, JT suggested expanding Jessica’s fund to include selling T-shirts with the slogan, “Evil Little Thing” (as a reference to Rhode Island State Representative Peter Palumbo’s faux paus), the money from which would also go toward Jess’s scholarship fund. As of today, her fund is up to around $25,000 US (not including forthcoming T-shirt sales).
I know that supporting one of our own is very exciting and feels like the right thing to do. And it is the right thing to do—Jess deserves and indeed has earned our support.
But there are plenty of ways to support someone: financially, emotionally, morally, etc. Financially, I want to make clear, is only one way to do that.
I do not support the creation of a monetary scholarship fund for Jess, and I mean this in the best possible way, but we—as rational, skeptical, critical-thinkers—should pause for a moment and consider the priorities for our donation dollars.
Before making any donation, for ethical reasons, there are certain questions we must first ask. Among them:
1) Will this donation change someone’s life for the better?
If a donation changes no one’s life for the better above and beyond what they already had, and there are other ways to use that money that would instead, it is unethical to use resources in this way. This is true whether you’re talking about donating to an animal shelter (with the goal of changing those animals’ lives for the better), or an environmental preservation fund (allowing future generations of animals and people to enjoy that land), a scholarship fund (with the goal making college more accessible to someone), etc. Surprisingly, money is often not the “bottleneck” in achieving charitable goals. Take public schooling in the USA, for example: We spent about 3 times more tax dollars per student per year, adjusted for inflation, in the 2007-8 school year than we did in in the 1961-62 school year, yet we are falling further and further behind other countries when it comes to test scores and graduation rates. Clearly, there is something else going on besides just money.
2) To what degree will this donation improve someone’s life above and beyond current conditions?
There are many inefficient charities in the world. In fact, most charities accomplish very little. Charities that demonstrably improve people’s lives are the exception, not the rule. This is because fundraising for charity is nearly always based on emotional appeals, which is a type of informal fallacy, not on demonstrated accomplishment of their goals. This is something we, as skeptics, should recognize, and something for which we should be on the look-out, when we notice our heartstrings are being tugged.
As an analogy, take, for example, this 2-minute video, which makes me cry every time. Turn on your speakers (BC = British Columbia, Canada):
As a vegetarian, animal-welfare activist, former animal-shelter employee, and shelter volunteer, my heart breaks for these animals, and it’s not easy for me to put my emotions aside when I watch a video like this one. Makes you want to get out your wallet and pick up the phone, doesn’t it?
However, the critical-thinking side of me knows that the best thing to do, when making any economic decision, is to consider both my emotional AND rational reasoning. To paraphrase Richard Dawkins, by all means let’s allow our intuition to guide our ethics, but not so much that our brains fall out.
The question we should ask ourselves when we’re considering donating money is one of efficiency. We have an ethical obligation to ensure that our donations are being used as wisely and efficiently as humanly possible.
The video above quotes a statistic of 3,000 animals saved last year, and goes on to say that for hundreds of others animals, help came too late. The implication is that our (collective) donations can save other animals like these in the future. As critical thinkers, it’s our responsibility to ask, at what cost per animal? Are you doing everything you can to keep costs down (making all possible use of volunteers, foster homes, etc)? Are hard dollars your most urgent need? If our goal is to stop animal suffering, is this organization the most efficient one at actually accomplishing that goal? Is money even your bottleneck? (It could be things like lax local breeding laws, insufficient city services as far as animal control, insufficient legal penalties for dog-fighting or animal neglect, or lots of other things besides lack of hard dollars).
By way of example, our local animal shelter here in Columbia, MO took in over 5,000 animals last year, quite a few more than the 3,000 cited in the video. How many of these were euthanized? I don’t know; the website and donor FAQ don’t even say. From my experience there, I would guess roughly 1/3, but that is entirely speculative. Why were they euthanized? Was money even the bottleneck? Vicious animals (e.g. most of those recovered from dog-fighting operations) or fatally-injured animals cannot be put up for adoption, so money would not have helped them. Is the problem that people are bringing in their animals because they are destructive to their households? Maybe we should try to persuade local dog trainers to offer discounts and work with the shelter, if the problem is lack of training, etc. Critical thinking is how we solve problems like these, and as it turns out, money is often not really the root of the problem.
If your goal is to save animals from euthanasia, the fact is that we aren’t even given enough information, by looking at this own shelter’s website and donor FAQ, how much they need to save an animal’s life. So how on Earth can we compare the efficiency of this shelter with another animal charity with similar goals, competing for our donations? We can’t.
The reason charities don’t supply information about their efficiency is that nobody ever asks for it. In most cases they don’t even collect this data at all. This is especially true of charities who primarily solicit large numbers of small-figure donors (i.e. the ones that advertise for donations), versus those who focus on small numbers of large-figure donors.
Large donors tend to be more discriminating, and someone giving away a million dollars wants some quantifiable evidence, preferably significantly so, that their donation made a real difference. But why should a charity bother spending lots of money and time putting together all that data, when you can instead make one commercial and focus on getting 100,000 people to each donate $10, just by showing them sad pictures and providing two rather useless statistics? Especially when you consider that when a charity DOES put together all that data for a big donor, they are now in the position of having to make promises to that donor about results, which they now must keep or face some very bad PR and no donations in the future. Small donors tend not to check up on how much of a difference their donation made a year later when deciding whether or not to donate again, so it makes sense to invest in appealing to them, instead.
I am not saying that charities who focus on smaller donors are malicious nor manipulative. Most of the time, they in fact have very good intentions. But as the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. This goes for charities as well as donors. By being MORE discriminating in where we donate our money, we can in fact do even greater good with the same amount of funds. (NB: This emphatically doesn’t mean we should donate less of our money to charity, rather, just that we should ask more questions when deciding where to donate it).
This is not to say that I don’t support my humane society’s mission in terms of moral or emotional support, but it is why I don’t donate money to them, and support them in other ways instead.
There is a calculation used in charity evaluation called “room for more funding.” In other words, we want to know, to what degree would additional donations advance the mission of the fund, over and above its current assets?
As I said above, there are many ways that we can support Jessica’s future: financially, morally, emotionally, and so on. I left out perhaps the most important one, because I want to discuss it here in more detail: Networking. This is an asset Jess has in spades, one that we can help her grow even more (for free!), and, in my opinion, the reason that her scholarship fund probably does not actually have room for more funding.
The goal of ANY scholarship fund is simple: To make a college education more accessible to its beneficiaries than it would otherwise be. That’s it.
So, the first question we need to ask ourselves is, “Is a college education indeed inaccessible to Jessica right now?” In other words, will she even need help paying for college in the first place?
I propose that the answer to this question, as I say this with all due respect and love for my friend Jess, is probably “no.” I’ve no doubt that the extra money wouldn’t hurt, but is “well, it wouldn’t hurt” really the highest & best use of the limited resource of atheists’ donations?
When Jessica is ready to apply for college, one of her (and her parents’) concerns will undoubtedly be finances. It is for nearly everyone who goes to college. It’s obviously less of a concern for some than others: I doubt the topic so much as crosses the mind of Jennifer Gates, the daughter of Bill & Melinda Gates, who is 16 years old, the same age as Jessica.
However, I submit that this isn’t for the reason you’d think: I’m willing to bet that Jennifer Gates will get scholarship offers from at least dozens of schools. The reason for this is not that they think she needs help financially affording tuition (clearly she doesn’t); it’s because many schools want to be able to tell other, future applicants, as well as alumni, that “Jennifer Gates is a student here.” These schools know Jennifer Gates can afford to go anywhere she wants, and that she will not make her decision based on cost, but rather, which school she thinks is truly the best for her.
In order to so much as stand a chance at recruiting Miss Gates, all but the very top schools in the world will have to offer her a full-ride. And even among those top schools, they must still compete with each other. They know that, whatever school she chooses, she and her family will be donating many millions of dollars there for many years to come, so it is in their best interest to attract her as a student in any way legally possible.
I think that Jess Ahlquist is actually in a better bargaining position when it comes to her choice of colleges than even Jennifer Gates. The reason for this is that Miss Gates, although I’d assume she’s a credible student, has not made a name for herself in the world yet. A quick perusal of Google doesn’t turn up anything particular newsworthy outside of the fact that she’s Bill & Melinda Gates’ daughter. The only thing I could really find about her at all personally is that she rides horses.
Jessica Ahlquist, on the other hand, has her own Wikipedia page (something even Jennifer Gates lacks). Jess has appeared on ABC News, in The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, the Associated Press, etc. She has spoken at multiple major conferences already, done a Reddit AMA, and she will speak alongside Richard Dawkins, Dave Silverman, Lawrence Krauss, Dr. Greg Graffin (of Bad Religion), Tim Minchin, PZ Myers, James Randi, and others at the Reason Rally in March in Washington, DC. She has the explicit support of thousands and thousands of people around the country and the world. And she still has another year to go before applying to colleges!
When Jessica is ready to apply for colleges, she will have something even more valuable than $25,000. Consider her circumstance if she decides to apply to, say, Oxford: She will likely have little trouble getting an enthusiastic written reference and personal introduction & tour from none other than Professor Richard Dawkins himself. If she decides to apply to Harvard, she will have no trouble whatsoever getting a written reference and personal introduction from James Croft, or any number of others, and so on and so on. This list could go on for quite awhile!
There is a concept in economics, called opportunity cost, with which (I hope) everyone reading this is already familiar. The idea is simply that when you make a choice about how to spend your money (or time, or any scarce resource), the cost of that choice is not only what you pay for it, but also what you’re giving up by not spending your money (or time, etc) on your next best alternative.
There are a limited number of dollars available for donation by those supportive of separation of church & state issues. It’s important that we think critically here and ask ourselves how much help Jess really needs affording her college of choice, and if additional dollars from us is the absolute best use of our finite resources.
With Damon Fowler’s scholarship fund, his situation had some important differences: Damon’s parents were NOT supportive of his efforts, and as I understand it, he was kicked out of his parents’ house after coming out as an atheist, and had to leave the state to live with his brother. With the exception of the scholarship funds raised by his supporters (myself included), he is on his own as far as paying for college. In Jessica’s case, we don’t even know her parents’ financial situation (not that it’s any of our business), but we do know that they are supportive of her efforts (as I understand it, her father helped file the lawsuit), and as people who value critical thinking, I think it’s only appropriate that we consider whether or not her family has a true, pressing need for this money, above and beyond Damon, or the ACLU, American Atheists, the SSA, CFI, or other worthy causes to which we could donate, instead.
By donating to Jessica’s college scholarship fund, we are not donating to other organizations or young activists who may need it more. There are a lot of people, young campus leaders in the atheist movement, who cannot afford to attend the Reason Rally, or promote quality events on their own campuses.
If you want to support the future of the atheist movement in the United States, and again, I mean this in the best possible way to Jess and her family, please considering donating to the Reason Rally, American Atheists, the Secular Student Alliance, or the Center For Inquiry in honor of Jessica’s victory. The last two of these routinely help fund local events for campus skeptic groups, things like bringing in guest speakers, and setting up regional conferences to help spread awareness of atheism and introduce a younger generation to a lifetime of critical thinking and freethought. If you are interested primarily in supporting separation of church & state issues, please consider donating to the ACLU, or the Freedom From Religion Foundation, again in honor of her victory. NB: To my knowledge, donations made through all the links in this paragraph are tax-deductible; to my knowledge, donations made to Jessica’s scholarship fund are not, just FYI.
As I said above, I think that what Jess is doing is deserving of the highest praise, and of our support, but remember, support can take many forms. While it is certainly important to have nationally-renowned spokepeople for atheism like Jessica Ahlquist, it’s also very important to have well-funded local and regional leaders putting on events on their campuses, too. My only hope is that our financial support can go to where it’s not only most needed, but best used, whether you ultimately decide that is Jess’s scholarship fund itself, or another related, deserving fund.
Thank you for reading.
P.S. For an excellent series of articles on “smart giving,” I highly recommend this page: GiveWell’s “Giving 101.”
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Dave Muscato is Vice President of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A junior at Mizzou majoring in economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com.
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