If you told me that the spectacle in San Francisco last month where five-year-old Miles Scott, a leukemia survivor, got to pretend to be Batman for a day and “fight crime,” wasn’t good philanthropy, I probably wouldn’t disagree with you. But the event, created by the Make-a-Wish Foundation, seems to have been treated by the residents of America’s most peculiar city as a quirky parade. Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves, and a lot of actors got gigs. What’s wrong with that?
Peter Singer, the Princeton professor of meanness, has weighed in in an opinion piece in the Washington Post, and guess what? He’s opposed. “According to Make-a-Wish, the average cost of realizing the wish of a child with a life-threatening illness is $7.500.” The professor calculates that the same money could be used by the Against Malaria Foundation to buy bednets to save two or three children from malaria, or if given to the Seva Foundation, could be used to fund surgery that could keep 100 poor children in the Third World from going blind.
Singer makes two points in defense of his thesis. He cites a 2005 study led by psychologists Deborah A. Small of the University of Pennsylvania and George Lowenstein of Carnegie-Mellon which found that “the plight of a single identifiable individual (is) much more salient to us than that of a large number of people we cannot identify.” He mentioned an experiment by Small and Lowenstein, who showed potential donors two cards. One said, “Food shortages in Malawi are affecting three million children.” The second showed a photo of a girl named Rokia and was told “her life will be changed for the better as a result of your financial gift.” Significantly more money was given when the donors were told their gifts would help an individual.
That seems like good research to me. But Singer’s second point is more dubious. He thinks it better to help 100 people far away who you do not know and will never meet than a single struggling person in her community. He talks about how he was a guest on an NPR show where a caller named Edna declared that she volunteered a day a week at her local hospital and gave to local charities but not international ones because “If I truly believed that the residents who needed that money received it, but no one’s ever convinced me of that, so I give where I can see the results.” Singer’s response is that the greatest good for the greatest number can best be served though international aid, and that many independent watchdogs can ensure that these donations go to “organizations that do not hand over their money to corrupt governments but see to it that it gets to those who need it.”
It would be easy to dismiss Singer as a grim old crank, except he has been advising Bill Gates. In his November Financial Times interview, Gates said that Peter Singer convinced him that donors who gave to museums instead of to organizations that fought blindness were performing the “moral equivalent” of “we’re going to take one percent of the people who visit this [museum] and blind them.”
First off, Bill Gates has every right to spend his money on the causes that he wants. If he doesn’t want to spend money on museums, that’s his privilege. It is also good that there are monitors to ensure that easily diverted aid to the Third World doesn’t fatten the bulging Swiss bank accounts of African strongmen.
But in the same Washington Post with Peter Singer’s bromide came a better example of how to give, in John Kelly’s column about a vaudeville performance at Keith’s Theatre in Washington on Christmas Day, 1917. The 1,936 seats were all filled with soldiers, training at nearby bases and preparing to deploy to the Western front. The soldiers weren’t there because they all simultaneously decided to play hooky. They were guests of a donor named Anna Peter, who paid Keith’s Theatre $1,428 for the seats.
The doughboys got a lot of entertainment at Keith’s, including three brief plays, a ventriloquist, Japanese acrobats, a troupe of 24 mandolin players, carol singing, and a Pathe newsreel. “Inside the theatre the noise of the acclamation (from the troops) was simply and absolutely deafening,” according to a Keith’s Theatre newsletter. “Indeed, the fact that the event was altogether unanticipated by the boys in khaki seemed to add a thousand-fold to their lung power.”
I’m sure the scientific philanthropists of 1917 would have advised Anna Peter not to give. After all, there were hospitals on the Congo River suffering a critical quinine shortage. But I also am sure that many of those in the audience were badly wounded storming German machine-gun nests. The pleasant memories of the silly night at Keith’s have helped those soldiers heal. Peter’s gift undoubtedly did a great deal of good.
Donors should draw three lessons from Singer’s op-ed. First, there is no “one best way” to give. There are lots of ways, each of which have their strengths and weaknesses. Second, the Ednas of the world have more good sense and are often better givers than are billionaires or thin-lipped Princeton professors.
Finally, the Washington Post titled Singer’s piece “Why We Should Donate With Our Heads, Not Just Our Hearts.” The wise donor gives with both his head and his heart. Neglecting either organ leads to bad philanthropy.