Charities, Outliers, and Incentives


I have a hard time donating. I occasionally do but rarely in large sums or on a subscription basis. When it comes to my own finances, I’m a long term thinker who forgoes smaller indulgences to enjoy a long term benefit. I want the charity I donate to reflect that principal. My work recently had United Way come in and ask for money for backpacks and crayons. In the fight against poverty, that sounds like showing up to a forest fire with a bucket of water. I want to donate to to a charity that’s chosen a group of underprivileged kids, with the world stacked against them, and said “we are getting these kids to college.” If that means building a boarding school where you can get the kid out of an abusive home and have 24/7 control over their environment, then do exactly that.

The truth is, I would love to shut down charities that aren’t focusing on large scale change. Fuck donating for crayons and new backpacks. Poverty isn’t going to get solved by charities giving marginal assistance here and there. In trying to provide a marginally better quality of life in the short term, charities squander funds that could provide real change in the long term.

I think we need to force the government to be the sole provider of food for the poor. Let Goodwill and thrift shops provide clothing. Let the government run and fund low income housing and shelters. Then do whatever has to be done to make it legal to have those support mechanisms be contingent upon passing a drug test. Then our charities will be able to focus on the more difficult task that is probably too complex for government to handle. The private sector needs to eliminate poverty by focusing on the two root problems, education and addiction. The poor need to be more skilled and less addicted.

The key to both is having kids spend more time in school, off the streets, and out of bad environments like abusive homes. I’m a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule that says success in any field is directly correlated to time spent practicing that skill set. I love this rule because I don’t believe intelligence is hereditary or that the highly successful are genetically superior to anyone else. Gladwell’s book on this theory, Outliers, is a must read. He cites studies showing schools that have longer days and more homework have higher success rates. I want more after school programs to be five days a week. One day a week isn’t enough to keep kids off the streets and away from bad environments with bad influences. We need after school robotics, drama, and music programs to be five days a week.

Fighting addictions, whether they are alcohol or drugs, takes enormous resources, so we have to focus largely on prevention and helping young addicts. Longer school hours, more after school programs, and more public boarding schools. The long term cost of such programs is $0. Less drug users means less crime. That saves money on police and ATF drug war costs. Less addicts and more skilled young people means a better economy with more people paying taxes and less people drawing off the government.

If you donate, stop and ask if your money is being spent on long term efforts that are game-changers. Poverty doesn’t have to be around forever. It’s possible for every kid to have a fair shot at a good life. Tell Charities squandering money on crayons to take a hike. More of us need to donate to smart Charities run by smart people with big ideas and kick ass game plans.

Links to related:

My post on helping people who are already addicts dives into the enormous battle of fighting addiction.

About Gladwell’s book:

An example of a school taking struggling kids and putting them in a place where they have a chance:

An interesting talk about Charities not attracting talented individuals because they demand people forfeit a better life for themselves:


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