How relevant is this to you today?

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg is oft-quoted for saying “A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.” It’s a troubling thought, but absolutely correct. This week illustrates his point exactly: a famine in Somalia is killing hundreds each day, yet there is little media coverage. Case in point: the New York Times‘ feature today is about luxury goods. The Wall Street Journal? No mention on the home page. How about Huffington Post? Slightly better, if you scroll down far enough.

But this treatment isn’t all that surprising. Unfortunately, people don’t have the capacity to constantly hear about emergencies. When they do, it results in “donor fatigue“, and people end less likely to give than they were before the call to action.

The problem with this cycle it’s that it’s reactive. An emergency prompts pressing public campaigns for support, and people react by giving. They give once or twice, and then move on, even if the problem persists. So why do they stop? A reactive cycle relies on triggering guilt, and people give to relieve themselves of this burden. This can be very effective in the short-term, but after too much, people tune out.

But a much better cycle is a proactive one in which giving happens before an emergency. Proactive giving is when one chooses to regularly donate, regardless of the state of emergency. It means that giving is part of everyday life – built into your monthly budget or done using easy tools like SwipeGood or GoodSearch. It’s giving because you’ve decided it’s important, not because someone else has told you it is. When proactive giving occurs, some good things result:

  1. It helps aid workers prepare for emergencies ahead of time. This is ultimately more effective – why not prevent someone from falling ill instead of only treating them once they do? Helping alleviate poverty in the first place is one of the best ways to avert future crises.
  2. It creates a level of giving that is sustainable for your own situation. I’d argue that it’s easier for many people to give $20/month for a year (for a $240/year) than to part with $100 annually in one fell swoop. You’ll actually give more, but it will feel like less.
  3. It creates a better sense of awareness about the world and the challenges it faces. By supporting causes more regularly, you’ll find yourself more interested in the world at large, and less reliant on sensational crises to keep you informed.
What do you think? What are some of the good things that can come out of giving proactively instead of reactively?

By the way, if you DO want to support the crises in Somalia, I’d recommended heading over to Save the Children’s site or visiting their campaign on Causes.com.

2 thoughts on “The Somalian or the Squirrel?

  1. I could not agree more! The lack of proactive giving is a major issue for those of us in public health. As David Hemenway points out in this great article (http://healthpolicyandreform.nejm.org/?p=3400&query=home), public health (and a lot of other similar fields) remain underfunded for a number of reasons including that because public health is preventive, benefits lie in the future, and people prefer immediate gratification and because public health addresses populations, beneficiaries are unknown – public health deals with statistical lives, not identifiable people and “saving statistical lives doesn’t make for good human-interest stories or photo ops”.

    The Somalian vs. squirrel issue also reminds me of Eli Pariser and his concept of the “Filter Bubble”. He argues that the increasing personalization of the sources through which we get information online (Google and Facebook, in particular) is a serious problem. This is automatic, algorithmic channeling of information that we cannot opt out of and are sometimes unaware of. Pariser points out this personalization of information is good for us as consumers, but terrible for us as citizens. We might all click on links to silly youtube videos more so than we do links to news articles about serious and saddening world events, but if our searches and news feeds are favoring youtube videos instead of serious world events as a result, it poses huge problems for us as citizens, and society as a whole by extension.

    I’ve written about both these topics on my blog at pursuitofpublichealth.com in case you’re interested. Glad I found your blog via Good Intentions!

    1. Thanks for adding additional insight to this post. It would be great to see what the ROI for “preventative” giving is versus “reactive”, so hopefully someone will do a study on this at some point. Yes, Eli Pariser’s TED talk about the filter bubble was spot on. While it’s important we have filters to help us make use of the firehose of information on the Internet, we do need to expose ourselves to new content outside of our comfort zones! It seems like that’s something that requires an innate desire to learn, not something that an app could easily service. Personally I’ve found that building a diverse network of people to follow on Twitter has been a good way to do this, but certainly requires some work up front. I look forward to following your own blog as well. Cheers!

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