Humble Charlie

I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch.
He said to me, "You must not ask for so much."
And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door.
She cried to me, "Hey, why not ask for more?"

-Leonard Cohen, Bird on the Wire

In my series on GiveWell, I mentioned that my mother's friend Charlie, who runs a soup kitchen, gives away surplus donations to other charities, mostly ones he knows well. I used this as an example of the kind of behavior you might hope to see in a cooperative situation where people have convergent goals.

I recently had a chance to speak with Charlie, and he mentioned something else I found surprising: his soup kitchen made a decision not to accept donations online. They only took paper checks. This is because, since they get enough money that way, they don't want to accumulate more money that they don't know how to use.

When I asked why, Charlie told me that it would be bad for the donors to support a charity if they haven't shown up in person to have a sense of what it does.

At first I was confused. This didn't seem like very consequentialist thinking. I briefly considered the possibility that Charlie was being naïve, or irrationally traditionalist, or thinking about what resembles his idea of a good charity. But after thinking about it for a moment, I realized that Charlie was getting something deeply right that almost everyone gets wrong, at least where money was involved. He was trying to maximize benefits rather than costs, in a case where the costs are much easier to measure.

Donations are a cost. Charlie had enough basic humility not to try to impose costs for no specific reason, even though he could easily do so.

Donors who know what the charity they're supporting does, who have personally inspected it, are following a heuristic that actually does something. Donors who give based on branding and buzz are putting their money somewhere that's well-optimized for branding and buzz. What do you do if you want to cooperate with the first heuristic, and not accidentally promote the second? What do you do if you don't want your own attention drawn towards things that will please the second crowd, at the expense of the first? Charlie's strategy seems like a reasonable answer.

Attention is a cost. Charlie's strategy avoids imposing this cost, except where it is most needed.

When I was writing my series on GiveWell, I asked Charlie for permission to tell the story about him. He asked me not to mention the name of his soup kitchen, because if other charities knew he had surplus money to give away, he'd be deluged with solicitations. This would waste their time asking him for money, and his own time responding.

Right now, if someone mentions a giving opportunity to Charlie, it's a high-quality signal. Charlie felt the need to hide his good works, because developing a reputation as someone with money to give away would destroy his ability to find high-quality giving opportunities.

Of course, there are benefits to honest openness as well, if you are willing to open yourself up to judgment, both positive and negative. But not everyone can pull that off in every context. Some people just don't like being criticized, for instance. And if you hide the things about yourself or your institution that are most likely to draw criticism, while publicizing the parts that attract positive attention and resources, then you're not really capturing those benefits. You're just engaged in brand image management, part of our society's cost-maximization machinery.

If you're not willing to open yourself up to the full scrutiny of the public, Charlie's outlook seems like a promising alternative way to implement convergent strategies in a divergent world: Stay humble. Minimize the costs you impose on others. Hide from the machinery of cost-maximization. Send out signals optimized for audience quality rather than quantity, to help like-minded people find you.

5 thoughts on “Humble Charlie

  1. Aceso Under Glass

    I think you've misidentified the cost. The money is equally useful or useless to Charlie regardless of how well informed the donor is. What Charlie is doing is pretending he lives in the optimum world where everyone evaluates all charitable claims and donates to the best one, and taking the pro-social action of only getting the attention of people for whom it will be cheap to asses him. This seems quite analogous to OPP and Gates Foundation: they discourage outside donations because making it cheap to do so would be expensive for them.

    1. Benquo Post author

      I agree that the direct cost isn't higher to the low-info than the high-info donors. I think your description points at part of what I meant by "cooperate with the first [high-info] heuristic, and not accidentally promote the second [low-info]", and the thing about this affecting Charlie's own future attention allocation.

  2. devi

    I feel like I get a similar sense from Taichii Ohno when reading what he wrote on the Toyota Production System

  3. Pingback: Against responsibility | Compass Rose

  4. Pingback: Effective Altruism is self-recommending | Compass Rose

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.