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Thursday
Jan132011

Donating for Them, Or for Yourself?

Accompanying the Twitter commentary of the Queensland floods (see #QLDfloods) I’ve noticed a number of people writing that they’ll donate $1 every time their message gets “retweeted” (RTed; forwarded, in Twitter, parlance). The first message I saw was from @lilithia. I can’t say for certain whether she started the trend, and once I started looking I found several others – e.g. @AUSteambieberr, @bree_101, @xander85 –, but they all seemed to share two initial characteristics:

  • These were ordinary people
  • The donations were uncapped

The second point, especially, struck me: late last year Daniel Keogh, a science presenter on the ABC, promised to donate $5 to beyondblue(1) for every time he was retweeted (until 10pm), but his offer took off and he ended up with a nominal figure of over $17,000 dollars. That was far above Keogh’s self-imposed limit, but he ended up donating $5000 and the story made it into the papers.

Evidently not the papers lilithia et al. read, though, as the same thing happened to them and they started imposing limits: first $250, then $500. The trouble with RTs, though, is that often very few people follow the original poster, and retractions/corrections/clarifications are rarely retweeted as much or as quickly as the original message. Thus, even though lilithia reached her limit last night, her tweet was still making the rounds this morning. And as the original tweet contained no limits, some people got a bit narky when they found out the original authors wouldn’t be donating any further.

My motivation for writing this post, however, is to wonder why people would take this route to donation. Stepwise:

  1. You have a desire to help victims of a natural disaster, so you give money to charity.
  2. If this were your only desire – i.e. you were motivated purely by altruism – you would just give the money to charity and be done with it.
  3. You may, however, also wish to raise public awareness of the issue to encourage other donations (encouraging altruism in others) and/or
  4. You may wish to garner positive reputational benefits (respect, admiration, whatever) by publicising your actions.

Now, Point 4 may not sit well with some people – if you were truly concerned about the plight of these flood victims, why would you sully that by playing your actions up for personal (reputational) gain? That’s a can of worms, though, which I will try to avoid by claiming that I don’t believe most of these people were coldly calculating enough to think “Well, I’m prepared to donate $X – how can I go about maximising my return on that.”; I simply just don’t believe their thought processes extended that far. More interesting, I think, is a fifth point:

  1. By opening your decision-making process up to public input, you are (involuntarily?) exposing yourself to peer pressure to donate more than you intended.

This requires some sort of assumption of bounded rationality, I think; a type of rationality that hasn’t gone explicitly through points 1–4, or wondered what they’d do if their limit wasn’t reached (would they then donate less to flood victims simply because too few people forwarded their message? That seems callous.)  By giving others the impression that they have an influence over your actions, you raise in them the expectation that you will respond to their exertion of that influence and, if only to avoid backlash (loss of reputational benefits), you might be prompted, in fact, to act beyond what you had previously decided: see lilithia donating $500 instead of $250, or Daniel Keogh donating $5000. (I don’t know what he was intending to donate originally, but I suspect it was less than that.)

Penultimately, as I said in my opening, this type of “I’ll donate money for every RT” message did spread; it is quite possible that it has spurred people to donate by giving them benefits above and beyond the altruistic ones. So, if being able to get a bit of recognition on a social network encourage more people to give than otherwise would have (or to give more than they would otherwise have given), I guess that’s not such a bad thing.(2)

Finally, go donate. Queensland floods if you like, but I would suggest Pakistan: they need US$20 billion for their reconstruction effort, and are worse off than is Australia.

(1) An organisation against depression.

(2) There is, in fact, fascinating literature on the motivation behind charitable giving and how to maximise it.

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