The donkey in the room…do donors have a moral duty to give better?

The donkey in the room…do donors have a moral duty to give better?

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Can you judge different charitable acts in terms of their morality? Is some giving simply better than others? Can you assess and perhaps rank destinations for giving, and if so, should you?

These were some of the questions examined by Martin Brookes, chief executive of non-profit think tank and consultancy New Philanthropy Capital, in his RSA lecture The Morality of Charity, given on Wednesday evening.

Brookes suggested that there was a moral duty for donors to give better and smarter and in a more thoughtful way, in a  controversial presentation aimed at sparking debate around the effectiveness of charitable giving and how to distribute a shrinking pot in a more rational way.

Currently three times more money is given to donkey sanctuaries than to domestic violence in the UK and one in eight donors have stopped giving over the last decade.

Brookes argued therefore that there was ‘a moral duty’ to give where donations will elicit the greatest impact and to ‘priority’ causes.

"I think some charitable causes are more important than others, morally so. These should get greater attention, focus and funding," he said.

Brookes explored  the idea of establising a ‘taxonomy’ of causes, ranked by priority, perhaps using existing value frameworks, such as 'Maslow’s Hierarchy' which rates physiological need, such as shelter and hunger, over the need for personal development and ‘self actualisation’.

"We need to be more ambitious and think beyond the current public benefit rules. We need to ask whether it is possible to design frameworks that catalogue causes and, ultimately, charities, according to their field of work. One could then say that certain causes and organisations are inherently more worthwhile than others," he said.

He cited Peter Singer, author of ‘The Life You Can Save’, who suggests ‘child mortality’ should be a priority for donors and referred to the Copenhagen Consensus which gathers together eminent economists, many of them Nobel prize winners, and asks them to deliberate and rank causes for a notional $50bn of spending,as those who are applying value judgements to where donors should give.

Brookes identified ‘a pressing need’ to change donor behaviour, which he said research showed was ‘fickle, casual and lazy' when it came to effective giving.

“People give to things that mean something to them. We know they are not good or moral when it comes to where they give” he said, citing Dr Beth Breeze’s findings in her recent study How Donors Choose Charities that shows giving is to a large extent ‘irrational’.

He accepted that donors are entitled to freedom of choice but said the result is a poor distribution of funds and an ‘indifference’ to impact, leading to the ‘donkey sanctuary’ situation.

However, he argued that donors should not be held responsible for this emotional approach to giving – “it may that our brains are hardwired to respond emotionally rather than rationally when making donations”.

And he said research showed too much cognition could actually ‘blunt’ the desire to give.“Perhaps we should stop donors from thinking too much as it could dull their charitable  response.”

Brookes added that wealthy donors were often criticised for giving, but said this does not help  - rather they should be ‘nudged’ towards better giving, and a classification of causes to inform donor choices, backed by better tax incentives for those giving to higher priority causes might help.

While Brookes accepted the mechanisms of how this might be done was up for debate, he said progress towards such a system could and should  be made.

"I think we do need a system of classification of charities to inform donor choices and encourage 'better' decisions. But I also think we as a society are not ready for this yet. Donors don’t care enough and would not respond to these signals.

"Differential tax reliefs or some such methods might be used to encourage these better decisions over time. But I think the most pressing need is to start to build a greater understanding of this issue and consensus to support it, beginning with more public debate about charitable choices and donor behaviour. It would be premature to start developing and promoting a system of classification and assessment now. Let’s not reach too far; but I am clear about the direction of travel. If I can help that by encouraging more debate, that seems worthwhile."

In response, Anne-Marie Piper, a charity law specialist at Farrer & Co legal firm, said she would not be arguing for a ‘a worthiness league for charitable giving.”

She said the recent trend in social investment might lead to a more critical approach by donors.

Among concerns voiced from the floor was that prioritising charitable causes might provide even more fuel and ammunition not to give and that too much interrogation of a donor might also diminish their wish to give.

Do you have a view on the morality of charity? Email cheryl@philanthropyuk.org

The full text of Brookes' speech is available to download from the NPC website.