Philanthropy is Broken
and Kickstarter is hobbled, but basic income can fix them both
Dear wary reader: This essay will discuss fundraising, but it is only in order to make a larger point about universal basic income and the warped world of fundraising that we currently live in. Put your mind and wallet at ease; this is not leading up to an ask for donations.
I gave $50 to an Indiegogo crowdfund for a friend’s documentary project the other day. I really shouldn’t have contributed, because I really can’t afford it. Then again, it’s an important project, and my friend needs the help right now, at this moment, to make his impact on the world.
“Screw it,” I decided as I began to enter my credit card info, and then again when I bumped the number in the donation field from $10 to $50. “I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to shuffle a few things around and still pay rent.”
I give to maybe one or two things a year in this sort of fit of fiscally unwise compulsion.
It’s not like plenty of other stellar or needy causes don’t regularly cross my path. Kickass charities, upstart and inspiring politicians, startup businesses doing important medical research, street performers, homeless mothers. The vast majority of the time, though, I decline to chip in.
My general attitude has historically been that before I can help others, I need to make sure that I won’t have to move into my parents’ basement. I’ve always intended to become a generous giver to worthy recipients, just as soon as that magical day comes when I’ve secured my own financial stability, when my family won’t have to worry about me.
I never give a dollar to a homeless panhandler or stop to talk to any clipboard-toting charity advocates on the sidewalks. I am a skilled practitioner in the art of quickly forgetting about deeply upsetting images of the appalling conditions under which people live in the poorest areas of the world.
Every now and then, however, all the polite nos, prudent evasions, and repressed images of suffering build up in my conscience, and there comes along a certain request that I cannot refuse.
My internal reservoir overflows, and the protective dam can no longer hold back the urge to somehow, some way, make a difference to someone other than my own damn self. I must purge some guilt.
After all, I realize and rationalize, I’m one of the lucky ones in this country who at least has access to decent credit. I’ll figure out a way pay it off later. If I don’t give, then who? Bill Gates? Ha.
Then I go back to my usual way of doing things, wondering how I’m going to scrape bills together, praying that I don’t get injured, focusing on protecting myself first and foremost so that I don’t become a liability to others. I wonder half-resentfully if the $50 I certainly had use for really made a difference to my friend in the grand scheme of his $25K target.
The Struggle is Real
I feel his pain, this filmmaker friend. Crowdfunding sucks a lot. My fiancée/film partner and I have been cobbling and scraping together our own noble-minded and ambitious film/charity/socioeconomic-study for a year and a half now. We begged normal people for money during a two-month intense crowdfund, reaching as far and wide as we could to go viral.
We doggedly raised enough to seed the project, got it going, and now we’re chasing foundations and wealthy philanthropists to do the heavy lifting and investing, because our circles and their connections can only do so much without hurting themselves, and we would never want to ask it of them.
Nobody wants to ask those whom we love and respect for money when there’s that ubiquitous knowledge looming over all of our heads that nobody can really afford to help, that nobody is truly secure.
My parents gave generously, because that’s what parents do (if they can), and it touched me deeply. On paper they are doing just fine, fiscally speaking, probably in the top 20% after recently retiring from decades of steady, solid careers. Nevertheless, they feel insecure.
What if catastrophe hits? As an upper middle class couple in the suburbs with a healthy savings — the picture of the American Dream — my parents still worry that their kids will need to be subsidized at some point, that the stock market might crash, or that they might simply outlive their retirement savings and end up destitute at their most vulnerable, forced to rely on their children to take time off from their own overwhelmed lives to care for them as they did for their parents before.
If this is what it’s like for the far more privileged in society, how the hell do the poor ever feel safe at all?
Donors and Investors
Almost a year after our crowdfund, a couple of the wealthy types have graciously chipped larger contributions in to the project, but still only small percentages of the budget, and after months of courtship. The vast majority we reached out to never responded, or did so only cursorily to decline.
This makes perfect sense, of course. They’re just people, and they must be getting inundated with requests, many of them very worthy. I couldn’t handle that workload if I were in their shoes.
So I do get it, but man, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve run the numbers in my head on how easily Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg could just sneeze and accidentally fund us with the pocket change that jingled free in the commotion.
But how do you approach someone who’s been approached so many times before that they hired a whole extra organization of employees to separate themselves from these requests and say “Hey, can we please just have 0.001% of your net worth with which to go and change the world in a major way? Doesn’t even have to be a donation.
You could invest and potentially get a decent return. Honestly, taking this long to even think about it is probably pointless. You could have just written the check and made your money back in interest elsewhere in this amount of time. Also, FYI, we’re trying to help solve the exact problems your corporations are exacerbating. Thanks!”
So, yeah, we’re still courting large donors, foundations, investors, philanthropists, and all of those with deity and demideity-level bank accounts. It’s a hell of an experience, trying to find a combination of words that will catch and hold their attention just right, getting through the many levels of security and barriers to contact.
These are organizations that are themselves so overwhelmed with requests that many do not take applications. They’ll find you and reach out if they’re interested, they say.
Yeah, good luck with that if you don’t have any connections to them or their friends personally, or haven’t yet reached a level of success warranting New York Times level coverage, which is no small task without funding. It’s all about who you know, in the end, which means you have to find ways to get to know people who intentionally hide themselves away from being known.
And then comes the kicker. If and when you finally land an investor or major donor, then begins that awkward dance of not offending them while trying desperately to maintain the integrity of the project if they have a different vision than you do.
This is tough, because the elite in society often seem to believe that they know best how the highly sensitive project you’ve spent months or years researching and designing should be handled ten minutes after being introduced to the concept.
Of course the rich know what’s best, right? That’s how they got rich!
The Delusion of Wealth
This is a delusion, unfortunately, that many among both the poor and the wealthy commonly ascribe to. It’s none of their faults, either. Logic points easily to the conclusion that the wealthy must have figured out something that the rest of us haven’t. This logic has been reinforced in us since birth by the prevailing attitude of society.
But this line of thinking is predicated on an assumption that the system in which the wealthy became rich is perfectly fair. This is sometimes called the “Just World Fallacy,” and it presupposes that we live in a meritocratic system that equitably rewards talent and effort.
In reality, talent and intelligence obviously factor in, but the major driver in success is luck. It’s good to remember that a child born into a wealthy family, even before considering any inheritance or access to loans, starts life’s journey with a solid education and high-powered friends and opportunities waiting for them should they ever need advice, a referral, or an introduction.
Even people who came into wealth later in life through their own efforts can easily forget, or fail to see, just how much luck and societal subsidy was involved in their transcendence. We are always the heroes and victims in our own stories, and when everything you’re doing is working, it’s easy to begin to believe that you’re simply an extra-competent individual.
It’s easy to overlook the fact that systemic advantages of wealth and privilege tend to compound, as do disadvantage and misfortune, further widening the success gap between otherwise equally talented and hardworking individuals. Access to capital begets risk tolerance begets greater income growth begets free time begets networking begets further opportunities begets more money and on and on.
And while success can bring along its own beneficial experience and perspective to those lucky enough to encounter it, it also tends to limit empathy, detaching people from society as a whole and inflating feelings of self worth to unjustified levels.
So, then, let’s say you and I are suddenly wealthy, as in 0.1% level wealthy. Marching forward into the world with our inevitably inflated self-esteems, perhaps we seek, even above all other things, to do good.
We wish to give back. And we don’t just want to give back in a ho-hum pedestrian way. We have so much power now. We are clearly exceptional, or at least our circumstances are, and so we must give exceptionally to whet our huge sense of societal obligation.
We become philanthropists. We are deluged with requests. We set up foundations to filter the flood. We tackle ambitious problems in the world, making them our personal missions. We contribute avidly to politicians whose characters and policies we admire.
Eventually we start noticing more and more people raking us through the mud in the news, on our Facebook feeds, and in casual conversation with friends. Still being the emotional and sensitive human beings we are, we wince at accusations from the public and the press of impropriety or sinister intentions. When we are pricked, we bleed, and perhaps we become somewhat more jaded and thick-skinned.
We still want to help, but we don’t want to be hurt. We listen less and less to the people to whom we seek to give back, exhausted by the exercise of weeding the serious requests and the kind comments from the unworthy ideas and the cruel insults. We no longer accept applications.
We soldier on, creating the world in our images, trying our damnedest to make it the place we think it ought to be. We feel ourselves losing touch with the needs of the society that we continue to drift upward and away from.
We rationalize that we’re doing what we can, better than many others would manage in our same situations. We are not of that rare and sociopathic sort of millionaires and billionaires who truly care nothing for the rest of society.
We are the good guys. Yet that feeling builds that we are still amassing more wealth than we can even give away, that on the whole we are still extracting from society. It’s not our fault! It’s the way of the system to reward us more the more we’ve been rewarded.
We begin to tune out from our foundation. It’s their job; best to let them handle it. From time to time, we offer words of encouragement to progressive movements and promise to support the change they are trying to bring. We occasionally write them checks, but we don’t get too engaged.
Sometimes members within the movements express disdain at receiving money from the likes of us. We don’t commit to anything too much so as to avoid public scrutiny. We’ve learned that that can be painful. We mostly busy ourselves with those in our circles of peers who understand our very special form of struggle.
From time to time, we take a long hard look in the mirror, and then we write op-eds to reaffirm for ourselves and advertise to the world what our core humanistic and humanitarian beliefs are. We have no problem finding an eager publisher. We never read the public comments.
We have become the gatekeepers of enormous piles of wealth. Despite our good hearts and efforts, we are a drain on society, and it is not our fault.
Empathy Can Also Go Upward
Of course, this little fantasy exercise does not represent the attitudes of all the wealthy. I intended it to show just how easy it is for someone in the position of wealth to become relatively ineffective, even despite noble aims.
There also exist, of course, the cynical money-amassers, the sociopaths, the hoarders, and the Machiavellian power addicts, but these sinister types are more the exception than the rule. The Koch brothers, for example? Fuck ’em. There, I said it, and it felt good.
For the most part, though, it would do us good to remember that human beings are human beings, regardless of their circumstances, and to do our best in all directions to understand each other and welcome each other into the larger society.
It is empathy, both upward and downward, that has a chance to bring some cross-class cooperation and unity to the difficult task of fixing our systemic societal problems. And the wealthy, like it or not, are an extremely powerful set of potential allies.
In any case, philanthropy does not work. It’s too little, too late, too controlled, and too limited in vision. It is a facade, whether intentionally so (as a tool for manipulating public perception and dodging taxes) or accidentally (as a symptom of good intentions backed by far too much power in the hands of individuals with limited perspective and bandwidth).
Furthermore, we need everyone to understand the following with crystalline clarity as soon as possible. A multi-billionaire who extracts $100 million a year from society (mostly from interest, not labor, mind you) and gives back $5 million in charitable gifts is still a $95 million dollar drain on the rest of us.
And the $5 million he or she gave back would have been better spent freely as cash by the individuals receiving it than under the guidelines of whatever foundation has been erected to determine how it must be spent. What’s more, much of it is wasted on the salaries of the foundation’s employees and trustees to begin with.
Everything Smells Like Money
Then there is the matter of democracy. If 0.1% of society are responsible for determining the large majority of charitable spending, then most charity will have the driving ethos of the values and worldviews of the elite.
Foundation money is administered largely ignorant of many of the recipients’ needs, with personal moral agendas steering it that may not be appropriate to or shared by the recipients.
This general principle extends beyond charity to art, small business, politics, and pretty much anything in society that requires significant capital investment. Much art today is stained with the tastes and preferences of the wealthy.
Similarly, in the for-profit world, the primary motivation behind any significant business venture must singularly be to maximize profit as quickly as possible. Visionary businesses and inventions don’t get funded because they lack cash-proven precedent. Everything is commercialized and monetized. Pop stars crank out albums with one or two hits and a bunch of filler songs. Studios greenlight a dozen Fast and the Furious movies and pass on countless beautiful stories.
We end up with high-priced maintenance medicine rather than curative or preventative medicine that represents less profit to investors. Politicians answer to corporations and large donors before the other 99% of their constituents.
Everything in society is bending over backwards seeking the permission of the moneyed class, for they are the ones with all the supposed answers. In truth, they are mostly just the only ones with any power.
The accumulation of power into the hands of the few is the source of many of our woes. It is what keeps us from living in a healthy economy, a humane society, and a true democracy.
To a large percentage of people reading, these may not be very new ideas. You’re perhaps well aware of the power dynamic issue in this country. The question is, how do we fix it?
It’s Power to the People, Stupid
The answer is simple, and we all know it in our hearts. We must redistribute a chunk of power to all of the people as a human right, as an inheritance of citizenship. We must get every citizen invested in the decisions determining how this society evolves. But we can’t enforce participation; we must nurture and encourage it.
We must ensure that every citizen has enough basic security to be able to stay democratically involved without worrying that their personal lives will fall into ruin when they do so. In other words, we must make it safer for everyone to participate and easier for everyone to have an actual voice.
There are many strategies by which we could and should approach this: universal healthcare, employee stock option programs, automatic voter registration and online voting, etc. A lot of good people are doing the hard work of reimagining what our system could be. I personally find the folks at The Next System Project highly worth paying attention to.
But the clear standout to me among all of these powerful ideas is universal basic income (sometimes called unconditional basic income, basic income, or UBI).
Basic Income = Power to the People Distilled
If it’s a new concept to you, you can start by thinking of basic income as a guaranteed floor of income for every single citizen, no strings attached, enough to survive for even those who can’t find a job or choose not to for whatever purpose.
The varied links at the end of this article should satisfy further inquiry on many of the finer details of the concept, like how to pay for it, which is what many of you are probably wondering and is a long discussion that I’m not about to go into here.
For now, though, I want to leave you with a few things to imagine…
- Every citizen in your nation is receiving enough guaranteed income each month to support a very minimalist lifestyle. This income is not predicated upon any form of labor or sacrifice of time or obligation. They get it simply for living and breathing. They start with it, and anything they wish to earn above and beyond it is up to them. If you’re in America, let’s call it $1000/month. That’s essentially the federal poverty line, and so we would then be a country in which absolutely nobody can fall below that poverty line.
- You, too, are of course receiving this income. Not only that, but you know that you will be receiving it until the day you die. It’s like a social security that kicked in early. (How do you think you would plan your life differently moving forward? Would you work less? Would you try something bold? Would you pay off debts faster? Would you carry on as you are now with just a bit more cushion for comfort?)
- Furthermore, remember that literally everyone around you is receiving that very same income. Your children, friends, strangers on the street, people you argue with on Facebook, your child’s teacher, a scientist, a stay at home parent, a trucker in another state, a police officer, a recently released former inmate trying to get her life together, a farmer, a bartender, an accountant, the people you see in the news, everyone in your neighborhood, city, state, workplace, gym, book club, a homeless man, a great-grandparent...
- Hold all of those people, everyone in the nation, in your head, a big glob of humanity, and imagine the fear of extreme poverty melting and falling away from the whole lot of them into a big, harmless puddle below. The burden of bureaucratic paperwork, gone. The fear of losing government support, gone. Fear of going hungry, gone. Fear of being homeless, gone.
- If you’re in America like I am, that’s a whole lot of fear that just melted away. The group I’m holding in my head feels lighter, more nimble, more confident. That’s a lot of stress unshouldered. (Do you measure it in kilotons, megawatts, psi?)
- One day, a friend reaches out to you for help. They have a business proposal, or an art project, or a charitable cause. It drives them deep down to their core. You are inspired by their vision and its power to positively impact the world. Having a basic income, are you more or less likely to give than you are in the world without basic income? (In researching for our project, we asked hundreds of people around the country what they’d do with a basic income, and many said they’d give more to charities or crowdfunds. I believed them.)
- Later, someone you admire runs for office in your town. They speak to your truth, they are not the lesser of evils, and they want to fight for exactly what you care about. They don’t need to take money from corporations and lobbyists and wealthy donors to afford their campaign, because now you and everyone you know are small lobbyists for what you feel is good for the community. Everyone in your town can vote with their wallets.
- More time passes, and then a natural disaster occurs in a foreign country. Fortunately, that country also has a basic income framework in place, even if they’re a developing nation and not able to fund it very significantly on their own. You can give directly into that fund knowing that every penny you give will go into the pockets of the people in equal share. No more hearing about billions of dollars gone missing or wasted by shady or inefficient charities. No more opportunity for corrupt officials to siphon any off for themselves. (Are you an American tired of hearing how we gave $13 billion to Haiti after the big earthquake and somehow managed to waste most of it and help relatively few people?)
- Now imagine that one day you have an IDEA! You’re willing and eager to put in the time, and now you’ve got to raise the money realize your vision. Do you want to live in a world in which the public at large is empowered to decide if your idea is worth supporting, or one in which you need to somehow get permission from someone rich? Do you want to live in 1) a world in which you can afford to live cheaply for as long as it takes and invest all your time and love into your IDEA, or 2) one in which, if you don’t already have a lot of accessible wealth, you will need to keep a day job for 30–40 hours a week and try and cram your passion to change the world into the few exhausted hours before bed or tackle it full-time but eat into your savings and retirement to stay afloat while you do so?
Maybe running a Kickstarter campaign doesn’t seem so awful in that world. I think I’d actually be excited to regularly seek out and contribute to causes and projects that I believe should be made. I’d get a thrill out of investing in my values, knowing that I’m not potentially making the decision that will be the cause of my shortfall in rent next month should I lose a job.
It would be such a relief to stop thinking about how much I need to take for myself to bunker up and stay safe, but focus instead on what I am able to give back to the rest of the world.
Maybe the wealthy wouldn’t feel so at odds with or attacked by the society that they are no longer drifting upward and away from, approaching escape velocity.
Maybe being slightly less wealthy in a world where people can tackle their own issues within their communities and as an empowered public would be a nice change of pace, a world in which the burden of philanthropy could be largely replaced with true democratic giving, the responsibility shared by all.
Maybe it’s preferable to be a leading member of a vibrant and healthy economy rather than an emperor among paupers in crumbling cities. Maybe proactively pursuing a healthy and peaceful evolution is far more desirable than waiting for things to get bad enough for a violent and pitchforky revolution.
That’s the world we’d be giving ourselves a chance at with a basic income.
I want to live in that world.
UBI researcher/writer, Filmmaker, Manager of the Bootstraps Basic Income trial, Creator of UBIcalculator.com, Co-founder of Comingle.us