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Charity: Not Doing It Right

August 22nd, 2014

There are supposedly heart-warming stories going around about people at Starbucks starting “Pay It Forward” chains. One customer decides to pay for their drink, but then adds the payment for the next customer. That customer, hearing the story, figures, “Well, I was going to pay this much anyway,” and so “accepts” the gift and then pays for the next person in line. In the end, you get something like 378 people doing this, one after another, until someone eventually says “no” to the “free” drink and pays for their own and doesn’t pay anything forward.

I don’t find that inspiring at all.

Essentially, what you have here is 378 people who can afford to pay $5 for a cup of coffee playing tag with their bills. All but two of the people in the chain are just paying for their own drinks and then feeling cool about themselves because they theoretically engaged in an act of kindness.

Here’s the kicker: in the story linked to above, the first person in the chain paid double for their drink, and the last person, according to the report, did not accept the previous person’s drink, and instead paid for their own. There is nothing in the report about anybody accepting a drink for free without paying for the next drink. Which means that the story is really just about one person paying Starbucks double for their coffee, and nobody getting any actual favor from anyone else—save for the super-rich corporation.

Hard to get all weepy-eyed about that.

And even if Starbucks did eventually give one person a drink and they paid nothing, then the end result is one person paid for another person’s drink, and everyone else was just saying “me too!” without actually doing anything.

Another way of looking at it is that you have hundreds of consecutive people refusing to accept a gift from someone because their sense of self-sufficiency won’t allow them to. Sometimes it is just as good to accept a gift as it is to give one—but people too often have too great a sense of personal pride, seeing the gift as an insult rather than a kindness.

You know what would have been a lot more inspiring? If 378 consecutive people at a Starbucks paid for their drink and snack, and then paid for a homeless person to get the same order. That would be cool.

Because that’s what “Pay It Forward” is supposed to be about: you find a person who is in real need, and you just give them what they need. When they ask how they can repay you, you tell them that when they are back on their feet, the next time they encounter someone in need, you do the same for them.

And when you do so, you don’t brag about it on Facebook.

This is also a good time to bring up the whole ALS “Ice Bucket Challenge.” I guess it’s a good way to generate publicity for a cause, but the challenge is supposedly about making a donation… or pouring a bucket of ice water over your head. Which means that all those people pouring ice on themselves are essentially saying, “I’m so cheap that I’d rather do this than donate to a worthy cause.”

Now, probably many people who do this also donate. However, people started criticizing others for donating and not pouring ice-water over themselves, as if it meant they somehow were being wusses or something.

At that point, it’s just a kind of messed-up dare.

A much better idea would have been to have people promise to pour the ice water on themselves if “x” number of people promised to donate to the charity. Then you would generate a lot more donations—“Hey, if we can get six more people to donate $20 to ALS, Frank will douse himself!”

The ALS Association says they got an extra $40 million or so in donations, so OK—but I think it could have been more had it been done right.

Or, you know, people could just donate to worthy causes without having to be goaded or anything.

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  1. Troy
    August 22nd, 2014 at 11:25 | #1

    people could just donate to worthy causes without having to be goaded or anything

    people just kinda float along, ya know?

    I’m as guilty as anyone


    is a nice story

  2. Troy
    August 22nd, 2014 at 11:27 | #2

    (the principals in the above story are the relatively successful Mac/iOS software developers, founders of Panic )

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