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CEO Blog – Is there a right way to give?

RHD CEO Bob Fishman

RHD CEO Bob Fishman


Dean Karlan on the Freakonomics blog put forward an interesting argument regarding a “guide” to charitable giving. He attacks it from an economist’s viewpoint and tries to reach some quantifiable conclusions and make decisions that way.

I’m going to quibble with a couple points in Dean’s piece, even though quibbling with the Freakonomics folks is usually a losing battle:

It’s dangerous to focus on the “best” work, since so many entirely deserving human services charities tend to work in the margins to provide services that are difficult to quantify.  One of the things we do at RHD is turn vocational day programs for people with intellectual disabilities into full-on art studios where clients are engaged and thriving, creating artwork, music, sculptures, etc. They sell their work in the community, become empowered as artists, their quality of life increases exponentially … they’re awesome. But, “quality of life” is a largely unquantifiable and intangible piece. We lack the kind of outcomes people enjoy (similar to the “give a goat” habit mentioned in Dean’s piece), but while many of our folks are going to be in our day programs for the rest of their lives. But their lives are far, far better for having been in an RHD program, and that has value, too.

Freakonomics book

Should charitable giving be broken down into an economic argument? Freakonomics Blog writer Dean Karlan thinks so.

For example, here in Philadelphia, if your issue is homelessness, you likely have a number of organizations to choose from that do almost equally terrific work. RHD publishes One Step Away, Philadelphia’s street newspaper that works as a supported employment program for people experiencing homelessness. It’s fantastic; people working with us earn enough money to get out of the shelters and pay their own rent, providing for themselves instead of relying on taxpayer-funded services in city shelters. RHD also supports a number of programs that focus on housing, as well as One Step Away, which focuses on the dignity of meaningful work. It’s a little unconventional in that approach to homelessness. So: Which program is doing the “best” work? Or are perhaps all of them just doing really good work that also has value and deserves support? I’d make the point that Dean’s “Bad habit #3″ is actually OK, as Norm Geras suggests here.

Giving money to a housing-based program and also to One Step Away is perfectly acceptable. Making a choice between the two based on your perception of the “best” work doesn’t just make sure every dollar goes to your first choice, it also takes dollars from your second choice – even if they do really good work, too … it’s OK, sometimes, if you want to give a goat, you know?

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