Find the gate

There’s an easy way to tell a smart dog from a stupid dog.

There’s a fence in front of you, and behind it is a delicious juicy bone. You’re starting to salivate just thinking about how amazing it will feel between your teeth. Now you have a choice.

If you’re a stupid dog, you’ll run at the fence, stand in front of the bone and start to bark.

If you’re a smart dog, you’ll look along the fence, find the gate, run happily through it and devour your prize.

Humans also have a hard time finding the gate. It’s easy to get preoccupied with the bone. It can look so inviting that you don’t take the time to look around, take things in, and choose the best path. Often the best path to making a difference is indirect. It often means getting other people involved.

  • Spend an hour persuading other people to donate to an important cause as a fundraiser and you can easily more than you could have given directly (around £40 on average).

  • Have you got a great idea for a social enterprise? Chances are, you can find someone else to do it, and probably do it better than you.

  • Rather than work directly for your favourite charity or research lab, if you become a high-earner, you could pay for them to take several extra staff (or one person with much better qualifications than you).

  • Instead of hoping you’ll be the best, find the person who is the best within a cause and help them out. If you allow them to do more of their work, then you’ve turned your time into the time of the best person in the cause.

  • Don’t give directly to charity. Spend the money researching which charity needs the money most. That way you can allow many other people to spend their donations many times better.

These opportunities are easy to take. They let you improve your impact by getting other people involved. More people usually means more impact. This is why one of our rules of thumb for increasing your impact is to look for indirect paths.

But if these opportunities make a big difference and are easy to take, why do they get left lying around? Why are we so bad at finding the gate?

1) The best path isn’t obvious

The most visible solutions tend to be the direct ones. If you want to make a difference, it’s usually because you have a specific group of people you care about. So the first thing that comes to mind is how you personally could make their lives better. Funding other people to work at a nonprofit is harder to visualise. It’s off to the side. It’s almost never suggested by careers advisors.

This could be because direct solutions are simpler, involving a shorter chain of events. They put you at the center of the story. That means they’re easier to notice.

An interesting finding in human psychology is that we tend to think more highly of solutions that come to mind easily. Similarly, when the consequences of an action come to mind easily, we tend to think the consequences are bigger. So we’re going to favour obvious actions with obvious, direct consequences. This is called the availability bias.

2) You have to think ahead

Indirect solutions sometimes have steps that don’t look like they take you to your goal. This makes things confusing and perhaps difficult to work out in the first place.

One example is the common belief that it’s bad for charities to spend lots of money fundraising.1 This Guardian article even suggests that if you give £1 to a charity with a funding ratio of 20%, then “roughly 20p would go towards raising the pound in the first place.” That’s pretty dodgy. If you give the £1 because you believe in the charity, but not because you were swayed by their fundraising, then they didn’t spend any of that £1 on raising your pound in the first place. Rather, they go on to spend 20p of your money raising even more money, probably about 80p of it.2 So, by spending money on fundraising, they’ve almost doubled your donation. In general, if your charity is promoting a good cause, then you should hope they do as much (profitable) fundraising as they possibly can!

Here, the chain of events just is a bit tricky to penetrate. The first steps look counter-intuitive, but turn out to get you where you want to go.

3) You might not get the glory

We tend to give credit to the people who do things directly. We’ve seen a few examples of this changing, like the recent meme comparing Bill Gates to Batman. But the only reason this seemed novel is that we’d normally give more credit to the superhero who saves millions of people directly than someone who does it indirectly through philanthropy.

When someone makes a big achievement, like a scientist making a huge discovery, we rarely give the other people who made it possible nearly as much credit as they deserve. Some indirect actors are completely forgotten. The credit for overseeing the eradication of small pox usually goes to D. A. Henderson. He directly ran the elimination program. But he would have been replaced by the WHO if he hadn’t taken the job. Viktor Zhdanov, however, is usually forgotten. But he’s the person who lobbied the WHO to set the eradication process in action and caused Henderson’s position to be created. He didn’t even have a wikipedia page until 2010.

This makes a bit of sense. After all, the more indirect the causal chain is, the easier it is for someone who doesn’t really deserve the credit to pretend they do. But sometimes, when the causal chains are clear enough, we really ought to recognise indirect actions.

Most people want credit for their do-gooding, so they are less inclined to take indirect methods. If you care more about making the world a better place than getting credit, then there’s lots of extra great opportunities for you to take.

4) Indirect methods seem less moral

We often confuse what’s right with what’s praiseworthy, and what’s praiseworthy is strongly linked to what we give credit for. So since people get less credit for indirect actions, this can cause us to think those actions were less morally worthy.

There just seems to be something especially morally impressive about being a nurse or an aid worker. This isn’t matched by someone who, for instance, donates enough money to allow one extra person to be an aid worker, even if they have the same impact.

It’s easier to do something if it’s widely regarded as the moral thing to do. But if you’re primarily concerned with helping people, rather than with being seen as a moral person, then go for indirect methods.

5) You don’t get to do it yourself

In some sense, it doesn’t matter who does the charity, so long as the world is a better place afterwards. But people don’t actually act like that. Studies suggest that we get a greater feeling of accomplishment when our impact is more tangible and concrete.3

Studies of charitable giving also show that we’re much more motivated to give when our donations have a tangible, concrete impact on other people.3 It seems likely that this applies to other ways of doing good. If the outcome is less tangible, then fewer people will be motivated to give. This will mean that opportunities to do a lot of good indirectly will get left lying around.

In the rest of your life, directness is a virtue. But if you want to make a big difference,
you have to think indirectly. You have to find the gate.

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Notes and References

  1. For instance, see this Guardian article which shows you how to check your favourite charity’s fundraising ratio:
    Indeed, the assumption that donors dislike low funding ratios (i.e. a high proportion of the budget spent on fundraising) has been incorporated in economic models of charity fundraising, for instance:
    Rose-Ackerman, S. (1982). “Charitable giving and “excessive” fundraising”. Quarterly Journal of Economics
    97, 195–212. 
  2. If marginal fundraising raises typical average fundraising returns 
  3. The evidence is summarised in this book chapter:
    Cryder, Cynthia and George Loewenstein (2010), “The critical link between tangibility and generosity,” In The Science of Giving: Experimental Approaches to the Study of Charity, eds. Daniel M. Oppenheimer and Christopher Y. Olivola, New York: Taylor and Francis, 237-51.