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The economics of benevolence: mean memes

Posted by on September 16, 2014.

Users of Facebook and similar social networks will be very familiar with Internet memes, even if they aren’t familiar with the term ‘meme’ as such. If you’ll excuse me quoting myself:

The adjective memetic derives from the coining by Richard Dawkins of the noun meme, which he described in “The Selfish Gene” as “a unit of cultural transmission” in much the same way that a gene might be described as a unit of biological inheritance: it describes the dissemination of an idea or fragment of thought passed on by replication in a way that is not unlike the mechanism by which a computer virus passes on a “possibly evolved copy of itself.

Richard Dawkins, look what you did! You were indirectly responsible for a cataract (ahem!) of crabby cats, counselling canines, and hip-hopping hamsters. Some of it is trivial if amusing, some a little more disturbing, and some with a frankly political or commercial agenda. But it won’t come as a surprise to Dawkins (or most of you reading this) that users of Facebook et al are all too prone to accepting factoids uncritically that accord with their personal mindset or simply because if one of their friends posted it, it must be OK.  I’m astounded by the fact that so many people pass stuff on without verifying it. Or I would be, if I didn’t have 25 years of experience of watching people doing the same thing with email.

Recently, there has been a hard-to-miss torrent (pun intended) of people ‘challenging’ their friends to pour ice over their heads in aid of charity. Apparently, the campaign has stimulated donations to the ALS (Amyothrophic Lateral Sclerosis) Foundation (and, less conspicuously, other charities). Rather a lot of donations. Enough, reportedly, for the ALS Association to attempt to trademark it, in a rather unpopular move.

The original idea seems to have been that people would either accept the challenge or donate to charity by way of a forfeit, but lots of people (including far too many celebrities) seem to (or claim to…) have accepted the challenge (presumably in order to publicize the cause and possibly themselves) while still donating large sums. Personally, I prefer to make my own choices about where, how and when I support charities, but it’s in a good cause…

Or is it? Recently, there’s been something of a backlash: partly because of the trademark issue, but also because of an article that talks about the ‘ice bucket fraud’, based on the assumption that 73% of donations are not used for research:

Over 73% of all donations raised are going to fundraising, overhead, executive salaries, and external donations. Less than 27% is actually used for the purpose we donated for.

Many who’ve reposted the link have made a point of saying that they haven’t confirmed the article’s figures and conclusions, including, surprisingly, a number of members of the security community. Surprising, in that security researchers constitute a group not usually noted for its gullibility and readiness to advance propositions it hasn’t tested. I’m pretty sure that a lot of people are going to believe, despite that disclaimer, that hard-headed researchers aren’t going to spread a story irresponsibly. But in this case, they’ve come near to it.

I’m not here to defend or criticize ALSA, but in this case the figures quoted are misleading. While the ALS Association acknowledges – ‘admits’ is a very loaded word – that “Last year, The ALS Association national office spent 28% of its operating budget on research—or $7.2 million…” the Political Ears article omits to mention that ALSA’s programme is not only to fund research. It also exists to fund ‘Patient and Community Services’ and ‘Public and Professional Education’. When those elements are taken into account, it turns out that the amount spent on its programme is actually not far off the 80% advocated by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability for its members.  As far as I can see, ALS is not an ECFA member, and I’m not in a position to say how useful that target level actually is in any case. Charity Navigator gives ALSA an overall score of 90.77/100 and four stars, taking into account both financial performance and ‘Accountability and Transparency’.

The Political Ears article shows a breakdown of ALSA financials as follows, apparently based on figures declared by ALSA in January:

  • 7% Administration
  • 14% Fundraising
  • 19% Patient and community services
  • 27% Research
  • 32% Public and Professional Education

Which by my reckoning adds up to 79% (1% seems to have been rounded down somewhere in that analysis) spent on the organization’s programme (the last three items). Presumably, given the awe-inspiring ‘episodic giving’ or donation spike seen in the last month or two, the figures for next year might, in theory, show a dramatically larger proportion of total revenue allocated to those items. Of course, it would also be quite possible (and legitimate) for the organization to reinvest some of that money in administration and fundraising, in the hope and expectation of achieving better long-term financial performance.

The article goes on to list the ‘out-of-this-WORLD!’ salaries of a number of high-ranking officials of the organization, from the CEO downward, giving the impression that a disproportionate amount of the money donated is going into the pockets of the people at the top. I can’t say whether those people earn their money, but most of those salaries would actually be seen as quite low in the private sector, and seem well within normal limits for a charity.

As a matter of fact, it’s normal for a high proportion of donations to charities to go towards staff salaries, administration, fund-raising campaigns and so on, even where the organization is highly reliant on volunteers for many of its activities. Possibly more so in a large organization, where a correspondingly large infrastructure is required to support the efforts of professionals (such as medical researchers) and volunteers alike. Those things have to be funded somehow, and fundraising is in itself an expensive exercise because of the competition. It’s not as though the ALS gave the impression that all ice bucket donations would go directly on research, though apparently it does allow a donor to specify that all his or her donations should go on research. I don’t see why it should be accused of fraud for disposing of its revenues the same way that other charities do, and are indeed, are mostly obliged to do by economic realities.

Let me declare an interest of sorts here. While I have no connection with ALSA, I spent 11 years of my life working for a medical research charity, and have spent around the same length of time in various roles in healthcare (the UK’s National Health Service), from nursing to administration and support to management, at salaries appreciably less than I could have earned in the private sector, and working with some remarkably talented people. I don’t say that there is never mismanagement in the public and non-profit sectors: I’m not naïve enough to think you would believe me if I did. As a matter of fact I’ve seen waste on an epic scale in the public, charitable and private sectors, too much of it to subscribe to the idea that private sector management is somehow immune to bureaucracy. Or, come to that, to the fallacy that no-one would work in the public or charitable sectors if they could get a better-paid job in the commercial sector.

But it seems bizarre that people who care enough to donate to a good cause such as medical research somehow think that research can be carried out in some sort of vacuum where logistics and infrastructure are a waste of money, or supported by unpaid administrators. (In the same way that people apparently believe that a large healthcare agency consists – or should consist – entirely of doctors and nurses (presumably responsible for their own IT support, salary management, transport, catering, site maintenance, human resources, service and supply procurement…).

As a matter of fact, large charities are usually to a greater or lesser extent dependent on the efforts of volunteers – sometimes to a degree that in another sphere of activity might be considered exploitation – but the popular enthusiasm that generates volunteer efforts (charity shops, sponsored fundraising and so on) doesn’t come out of nowhere, and behind those efforts and the research they support, there is a group of people keeping the engine going, and most of them need (and deserve) to make a living.

Of course, there’s a whole area of political and social discussion – which I don’t intend to get into – about how we compare the private and charity (and public) sectors, and what is expected of people who work outside the commercial industries, and I imagine the range of opinions on those topics is as wide in the security industry as it is elsewhere. What does disappoint me is to see members of the security community, an industry which is so sensitive (with some justification) to statistical legerdemain and to being misrepresented in the media (social or otherwise), being so insensitive as to spread unverified, misleading commentary when it relates to contexts outside their own fields of expertise.

David Harley

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