August 17, 2014
Why hasn't the once-booming tech ed sector solved education's problems? Writing in The Atlantic, Robinson Meyer, an associate editor for the publication, shares some thoughts on that question from Paul Franz, a former doctoral candidate at Stanford who now teaches language arts in California. Those thoughts, writes Meyer, "mirror my own sentiment that education is a uniquely difficult challenge, both technically and socially, and that its difficulty confounds attempts to 'disrupt' it...."
The "ice bucket challenge," a grassroots campaign aimed at raising funds for the ALS Association, a a charity dedicated to finding a cure for amyotropic lateral sclerosis (aka Lou Gehrig's disease), went viral this week. Around the country, celebrities and members of the public were filmed being doused with a bucket of ice water and then posted the footage to their Facebook pages or Twitter feeds. "Multiply this activity 70,000 times," writes William MacAskill, a research fellow in moral philosophy at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, "and the result is that the ALS Association has received $3 million in additional donations....[A] win-win, right?" Not according to MacAskill, whose own nonprofit, Giving What We Can, champions the principles of the effective altruism movement. The problem, writes MacAskill,
is funding cannibalism. That $3 million in donations doesn't appear out of a vacuum. Because people on average are limited in how much they're willing to donate to good causes, if someone donates $100 to the ALS Association, he or she will likely donate less to other charities....
This isn't to object to the ALS Association in particular. Almost every charity does the same thing — engaging in a race to the bottom where the benefits to the donor have to be as large as possible, and the costs as small as possible. (Things are even worse in the UK, where the reward of publicizing yourself all over social media comes at a suggested price of just £3 donated to MacMillan Cancer Support.) We should be very worried about this, because competitive fundraising ultimately destroys value for the social sector as a whole. We should not reward people for minor acts of altruism, when they could have done so much more, because doing so creates a culture where the correct response to the existence of preventable death and suffering is to give some pocket change....
Before you get too upset, read the entire piece. (MacAskill is a thoughtful young critic who, like many other people in the sector, has grown impatient with the status quo.) Then come back here and tell us why he's wrong — or right.
For an entirely different take on this question, take a look at this recent post by Philanthropy Daily contributor Scott Walter, executive vice president of the Capital Research Center in Washington, D.C., which is unsparing in its criticism of effective altruism (and Peter Singer, who inspired the movement).
In a short post on the BoardSource site, Convergent Nonprofit Solutions' Tom Ralser looks at the important distinction between a donor and an investor.