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The Liffman Provocations: Creative or cop-out?

February 20th, 2019

In my last post, I explored - and acknowledged my own substantial agreement with - the case for effective altruism and suggested that it was not receiving the attention from the local philanthropic sector that it merits. But I also recognised that many would find the very detached and cerebral approach effective altruism requires somewhat challenging and would be more comfortable with an approach that allowed them greater scope to express, in their giving, their more direct experiences, attachments, and priorities.

By Michael Liffman

If giving is to be as widely undertaken as most believe it should be, it is important that it be as attractive to as many of us as possible, and that a menu of different perspectives be available, so that 'a thousand flowers might bloom'.

Indeed, in my own modest personal giving, I too find it necessary to balance these two approaches - the personal and the more analytic, or the head vs heart - and I struggle to make choices. (In the same way as plumbers are said to have leaky taps, I admit that my past role as a philanthocrat has not proven to be all that helpful to me in my decision-making.)

This took me to wondering if a letter (email) along the following lines below – sent to one's family, friends and colleagues - would be a creative strategy or just a cop-out? As will be evident, it is probably more relevant to smallish PAFs or personal givers, where there is no, or minimal, staffing infrastructure to assist with selection of recipients, but the logic might also apply, in a slightly differently worded formulation, to larger donors or even institutional philanthropy. In a modified form it might also be used by trustees or executors of wills, where the decision maker has little grant-making experience, and the intention of the deceased is not known. 



People often say it’s better to give than receive, and that's true, but they don't often go on to help decide to whom. With so many causes, such an active fundraising industry, and a growing emphasis on impacts, decisions about giving can be bewildering.  

I* have therefore decided to take a slightly different approach to deciding on my* giving this year.  

Firstly, I* would like to focus some of my* donations on small organizations that I* can be confident are doing work that is important and effective, that clearly need funds, and that are well managed, although that won't preclude consideration of some high-profile, well-supported NGOs as well.

Secondly, and this is where some of you come in, it would give me* significant extra and personal satisfaction - and reassurance - to donate to organizations whose work some of my* friends and colleagues value, to which they have real personal commitments, and with which they have some direct connection (whether as as volunteers, donors or clients), and can therefore vouch for. In so doing, we would be not only supporting agencies in which we can have some confidence, but also the commitment and effort of some of you: a two-fold benefit!

So, I* have decided to seek to achieve these outcomes by approaching some of my* relatives, friends and colleagues seeking recommendations along these lines.

To be clear, I* will only be able, and wish, to contribute to a few of any suggestions received, and my* own personal priorities and judgements will play a large part in my* choices, but I* would be keen to consider any recommendations you make, and to select from them. Nor will donations made be large, so don't agonise about this, feel pressured to respond, spend much time in answering, or be offended if I* don't end up supporting your suggestion. In fact, too many recommendations will not help decision-making, so please only respond if you feel strongly and confidently about your suggestion.  

I* am casting this net widely, so those of you who reply should choose whether to 'reply all' so that your ideas are shared more widely (which may be good as it might stimulate a wider conversation - and perhaps other contributions), or just 'reply sender' if you would prefer to keep your thoughts more private.

So, in summary, I* would value an opportunity for your personal observations about NFPs doing work that you value and have enough knowledge of to be confident about; and also, in a very small way, to cooperate with some of you in supporting those organizations. (Tax deductibility is/isnt required but is obviously desirable. What is essential is that the work be important, effective, and need funds!)

Thank you

*I/we/the xxxx Foundation/the executors of xxxx's will


Actually, after reading this message back, I do not believe such an approach should be seen as a cop-out.

Firstly, it opens one's choices to possibilities beyond those that are purely ones we happen to be aware of or already like.

Secondly, it shows care for the experiences and judgements of people one values and respects.

Thirdly, in asking that the recommendations made be informed by real, first-hand, knowledge of the organisations being recommended, it goes some way to obtaining the reassurance as to the organisations' worth and credibility, which is so important for effective altruism.

And lastly, the list of possibilities this approach yields can then be subject to further assessment along the lines advocated by effective altruism.

In fact, I attempted just this approach some weeks ago and was pleased with the response. I received a number of recommendations, some for NFPs I was already aware of, and at least one (declaration of interest from a pleased father - from my son) that I had never heard of but with which, on the basis of the case made for it I was very impressed. In the end I decided to make a small donation to all those suggested and a couple of slightly larger ones. 

Until next time.... 

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