Choosing a cause to support: passion vs pragmatism

Beyond my work at SVA, I’m passionate about charities and the charity sector. As part of that, last month I spoke at the Sydney Opera House Antidote Festival on “practical donations”. It’s an interesting problem, and delving into it led me to re-examine a lot of my assumptions about giving.

Fundamentally, why do we donate to anything? I believe we donate to charities because we believe two things:

  • The world is flawed
  • The world can be made better

If we reduce it down to these two beliefs, we can reframe our donation decisions around them. “Where should I donate” becomes “How do I believe the world is most flawed”.

We are rarely encouraged to think about how the world is flawed. It is a depressing, emotionally draining exercise to list off for ourselves every way in which the world doesn’t correspond to our ideals. From large-scale issues such as the war in Yemen or climate change to local homelessness or animal neglect, there are more causes than we could care deeply about. It would be simply too much to bear.

So how do we choose? There are two schools of thought – the passionate, and the pragmatic.

The passionate say that you should donate to the causes that speak to you most personally. The disease your loved one died from, the local community you live in, the people and animals who have affected your life. This has a multiplicative effect – you are more likely to give, and give regularly, to causes you are passionate about. Not only that, you are more likely to tell others, to think deeply about the best ways to influence that cause, and to fundraise from your friends.

Those that are more focused on logic and pragmatism would contend that our passions are a flawed way of deciding where to donate. Instead, we should focus on where we can make the most impact, where we can improve the world the most. This is difficult, as to do this we need to somehow rank causes. But what’s more important – humans, animals, or the environment? Is it better to reduce suffering now, or save lives later? Do we save lives close to us, or further away? Fortunately, we’re not the first to grapple with these problems, and organisations like 80,000 hours have created frameworks to help us make these decisions (though they are still contentious, as they speak to very fundamental issues of moral philosophy).

For my part, I now believe that the answer is somewhere in the middle – the cause you choose should be one that you’re passionate about, but also one where you are confident that you can create real impact on the world. It will always be an intensely personal decision.

But now that you’ve chosen a cause, how do you influence it? How do you make the world better? This, in many ways, is dependent on both you and the cause. You could volunteer, or donate, or advocate, or create. My first recommendation would be to find others who are passionate about the same issue. Find or form a community, and mobilise to change the world.

Watch Sam discuss in this short video how he thinks you can best make a positive difference in the world.