The psychology of charitable donations

One of the better Planet Money episodes in recent memory: Why Raising Money for Ebola is Hard. Doctors Without Borders in Africa is overwhelmed with the latest outbreak. Donations would help, but they are at a trickle.

As Atul Gawande and many others have noted, containing Ebola in its current form is actually quite straightforward.

This relatively weak transmissibility makes the standard public-health technique of contact-tracing effective in halting the disease. Track down the people who’ve been in contact with a sick patient; measure their temperatures and check on them daily for twenty-one days; if any turn up with a fever or looking sick, put them into isolation. Once you get anywhere upward of seventy per cent of the contacts under such surveillance, the disease stops spreading.

Thiss podcast dissecting why so few people donate to help fight Ebola helps to unpack the donor psychology behind fundraising for disasters:

  • The Planet Money episode notes that 90% of donations for disaster relief occur within 90 days of the disaster. But that's contingent on the disaster being sudden, massive, and prominent in a short period of time. Sudden and dramatic disasters, like 9/11 or the Haiti earthquake, are ideal for spurring a massive influx of donations. But a disease that starts with one person and spreads slowly like Ebola can't concentrate world attention the same way, no matter how many people it spreads to over time. The bitter irony is that when this round of Ebola first broke out, donations would have had the greatest leverage because the disease could've been isolated contained much more easily then.

  • People react to visible evidence of severity. Slow building disasters like Ebola lull people into complacency. People have a finite store of charity, and Ebola hasn't generated any iconic horrific imagery to push donors over their emotional tipping point.

  • People don't understand exponential math that well. This outbreak of Ebola may have an R0 or “R-nought” of 1 or even as high as 2. That means it could spread at an accelerating rate. “Should the outbreak continue with recent trends, the case burden could gain an additional 77,181 to 277,124 cases by the end of 2014.” That's still not as intuitive to most people as the tens of thousands of people who died in Haiti the first day of the earthquake.

  • People don't like to contribute to preventative measures, they want their money to make things better immediately. For example, as noted in the podcast, it's almost impossible to raise money to head off a famine that everyone can see coming. People won't donate until people are actually starving.

  • Africa is far away from America and many other first-world countries. Disasters close to home draw more donations. Out of sight, out of mind. I suspect most Americans don't personally know anyone who has been killed by Ebola.

  • Given the irrational lumpiness of charitable donations for disasters noted above, when massive galvanizing disasters do occur, we should capitalize on the spike in charity and allow the organizations on the receiving end of that aid the freedom to hold back some of the funds to allocate to future disasters. Charities would operate more like insurance, or an endowment. The Red Cross tried this after 9/11, but donors erupted in outrage and the head of the Red Cross had to resign.

Not to be glib, but it almost feels like Ebola could benefit from a staged dramatic event to serve as a catalyst to mobilize world sympathy. Or Ebola needs its version of the Ice Bucket challenge, a meme which spurred a vast outpouring of donations for ALS without any precipitating disaster. 

Wisdom of the crowds doesn't seem to apply when it comes to allocation of charitable donations.

GiveWell doesn't have any article about the most worth charities combatting Ebola, but Vox linked to a list from the U.S. Agency for International Development. Among the list is Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), and they've posted a page on their efforts to combat Ebola. That's my choice. GiveWell says of MSF: “We have a positive view of MSF and have recommended them for disaster-relief donations in the past.”