Archive for January, 2010

Activism and the worst-case scenario

Let’s say that an activist believes that a law (or collection of laws) needs changing.  Because the law exists, bad things happen that would not otherwise occur.  How should an activist raise awareness about the need to reform the law?  One popular strategy is to focus on the worse possible consequences of the law.  Say we’re arguing for universal health insurance.  Our goal is to make the case that things need changing.  Instead of highlighting the person who doesn’t go to the dentist for a few years, we bring up someone who goes bankrupt from medical bills or dies.  Two questions about this strategy come to mind.   First, is the worse possible outcome representative of the existing institution?  That is, is focusing on it reasonable?  Second, given the emotional make-up of the intended audience, is focusing on this worst outcome a good motivator for social change? I don’t have clear answers to these questions; mostly I just want to raise them and then discuss the blog post that inspired me to ask the questions in the first place.

The answer to the first question depends on how best to render moral judgment.  For instance, the political philosopher John Rawls suggests that we should assess economic policies by considering the people who gain the least from them.  The worst case is the case that determines the character of the policy as a whole.  A utilitarian, on the other hand, would look at the average outcome of the policy.  A strict egalitarian would care only that outcomes were equal along the dimension that she considered relevant.  Many other standards of judgment exist, though some of them would probably seem perverse to most people. 

The second question—the emotional question—is the one I found myself asking earlier this month when I read a post on a blog (  that addresses the interests of the transgendered community.  In the post, the author describes a transgendered woman who got into a car accident four years after she began her sex change.  While she was in a coma, the doctors and her parents decided to reverse her decision by giving her male hormones.  They justified their decision by arguing that restoring her to her original hormonal profile would maximize her chances for emerging from the coma.  However, her friends strongly believed that she would not have consented to this course of action had she been able to do so.  As friends, not family members, they had no power over her treatment.

I noticed various things about this post.  First of all, the outcome is, I believe, unjust, and a worst-case scenario from the point of view of transgendered people who want their autonomous decisions respected by the medical establishment.  In my opinion, the fact that it happened at all is an institutional failure.  Second, the story seemed to overwhelm some transgendered readers of the blog.  A lot of the comments expressed feelings of helplessness and exhaustion and suggested that reading about this worst-case scenario was not in any sense empowering or energizing.  In fact, the blog moderator wrote a second post warning that it, and other posts, could be disturbing to readers (  On the other hand, as I scrolled through the comments, later readers began to discuss legal changes/stopgaps that could prevent the situation from happening to other people.  Thanks to these readers of the post, there is now a website at that is gathering legal information useful to the transgendered community.

(Since I started this entry, the post in question became password protected for a whole other set of reasons.  You can read about it here:

I guess I will end with some questions.  In the situation that I just described, some community members seemed paralyzed and others energized by the worst-case scenario that was presented.  Can we say whether worst-case scenarios are motivating or paralyzing for activists in general?  If it depends, what does it depend on?

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cause marketing

It’s popular these days to market products by promising that a donation will be made for every purchase to some charitable goal. This is called cause marketing, and it sounds like a great thing, and it is, when we buy the same product we might otherwise buy, and a few extra dollars or pennies make in into the coffers of a good organization, well, what’s not to like?

There are a number of potential gotchas. Tim recently pointed me at a great resource warning of abuse of pink ribbon marketing campaigns called Think Before You Pink. While the entire site is worth a look, I’d like to start by talking about their list of critical questions you should ask before buying a product marketed with a pink ribbon.

Take a look, and then I’ll make a few comments on each of their points. Most of these points are relevant to any sort of product marketed with a cause.

First, how much of each purchase goes towards breast cancer? This is a great question. They give an example of a DVD that sells for $15 and ask if a fifty cent donation for each purchase is “enough”, and say it’s up to you to decide. I think that’s smart, but it’s not always easy to make sense of what’s reasonable.

Let’s take an example: If a manufacturer sells a can of soup that sells in the stores for fifty cents and donates three, that doesn’t look great. It might look better, though, if you realize the manufacturer was only getting twenty-five cents for the soup, and that the can of soup cost twenty cents to make. I have no idea if those numbers of realistic, my point is not that some particular campaign was bad or good, just that sometimes hard to make sense of what a reasonable donation is.

We’d agree with Think as well that you should look at things like “is there a maximum donation and what is it?”, “Where does the money go?” and “will the donation happen automatically if I buy the product, or do I have to do more work?” Great questions.

Think’s last point, about pinkwashing, is the most sobering. If you buy a product in part because of the donation that will go along with it, it’s very much worth asking if the product itself is doing more harm than the donation will do good.

I think they missed a question that’s just as important, though.

Would you buy this product anyway? Certainly if you are already buying a product, you like it, you know you’re going to buy more, and so on, and they offer a donation with every purchase, well, sure, this might be a good time to stock up. If you always buy one brand of cola or another and it’s pretty much a toss-up which you’d buy on any given day, and one of them offers a sensible donation, sure, go for it. But if, instead, you wouldn’t have never bought this product otherwise, you’re almost certainly better off sending the charity a donation.

Pink isn’t the only color of questionable marketing tactics, either. Some AIDS activists have expressed concern about the opaque finances of the “(RED)” campaign (which brands products with that label with a promise to donate an unspecified portion of each sale towards the Global Fund, which fights AIDS in Africa.) Opacity aside, it’s relatively clear that (RED) campaigns do generate some real money towards AIDS relief, lack of complete transparency aside, the real question is, is it a drop in the bucket compared to the money being shelled out.

One hard-to-measure (and therefore frustrating to those of us at Effectivism) effect of these campaigns is awareness, the idea that campaigns like this make people more aware of these diseases and, as a result, lead to increased funding for research and treatment of those ideas. It seems fairly clear to me that AIDS and breast cancer have been two of the most “active” pushes for awareness, and cause marketing has certainly been one element of that. AIDS and breast cancer both are near the top of various measures of research dollars per death. Now, research dollars per death is a terribly crude and often misleading measure of research dollar fairness, but it seems plausible (not proven) to guess that awareness has had some effect on research funding. Even if that’s true, though, it’s hard to be sure how much of that awareness can be attributed specifically to cause marketing (as opposed to other awareness activities), and to what extent that excess research funding represents additional research money rather than simply taking research money from other, perhaps more urgent causes. I in no way mean to minimize AIDS or breast cancer, here I’m only trying to analyze how good or bad a thing cause marketing is.

I do think that cause marketing can be a positive, valuable thing, I don’t mean to come off as negatively as this post might seem. I like the idea of businesses finding ways to participate in the greater community, and making a difference. I’ve used cause marketing in the past in my own business, offering a donation with every print purchase over a season, and I like to think that it was a positive for my customer, for the charity and for me, all at the same time. But you should, as a consumer, ask informed questions to make sure you’re not getting ripped off, and probably limit your charity-driven purchasing (for the most part) to goods you would have bought anyway.

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donation by text message

In the wake of the Haiti tragedy, a number of organizations have set up earthquake relief funds that have encouraged donations of $5 or $10 by text message.  The American Red Cross campaign has been the most publicized of these, having surpassed $20 million in SMS donations from the U.S. in the first five days (here are the current totals, broken down by state).  Other organizations accepting donations include Yele Haiti, the Clinton Foundation, the International Rescue Fund, and the International Medical Corps (details on how to donate to each here).

If you plan to donate $30 or less to the Haiti efforts, is SMS a good way to do so (mobile donors are allowed to donate more than once, up to $30 per campaign depending on your mobile carrier)?  The answer seems to be a qualified yes — it’s not a bad way to donate, at least if you’re donating to the Red Cross, and if you’re intent on donating to Haiti specifically.  Other organizations are more questionable as to their effectiveness (especially Yele Haiti), and earmarking funds (for Haiti or any disaster zone) is also possibly not the best idea.

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getting the most from your charitable donations: double word score!

The timely use of “double word score” and “triple word score” squares is an important part of Scabble® strategy. Sometimes the same can be said of charitable donations, there are a number of ways in which you may, sometimes, be able to get a “bonus multiplier” on the effect of your money. This particular entry is US-centric in several ways (in particular, discussions of tax effects), but perhaps some of the other ideas here will apply more globally, feedback welcome!

Employer matching programs. Many private employers, particularly larger ones, have programs by which the employer will match employee contributions to charities. In my limited experience, many people often don’t know if their employers do have a matching gifts program, so it’s important to actually ask your employer if they do. » Continue reading “getting the most from your charitable donations: double word score!”

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duct tape to the rescue!

This news item brings together two of my favorite topics: effectivism and duct tape!  A guy modded his car by adding a boat tail made of duct tape (and cardboard) and increased his MPG by 15%.  That’s impressive!  (Hat tip to Dan Garcia for bringing this to my attention.)

I have been known to make backpacks out of duct tape, and to repair cars with it as well.  But this is the first I’ve heard of actually improving a car’s fuel efficiency!  Truly, this is a great material.

I don’t see myself (or most of your readers) probably going out and constructing this kind of boat tail car-mod any time soon.  But if you are interested in reading about all sorts of different mods you can make to your car, and the resulting improvements in fuel efficiency, you should check out Ecomodder.  They not only profile impressive projects like the duct tape boat tail, but they have a handy list of recommended ecomods,  rated by impact, cost, and mechanical know-how required to implement.  Some of them involve removing existing parts (e.g., roof racks) or installing off-the-shelf gauges, rather than constructing complex (if awesome) new car parts.  :)  Happy modding!

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using your skills: volunteering and time banking

One of the most effective ways of making a difference to your community is to volunteer your skills.  Lots of non-profit organizations are in need of writers  and editors, graphic designers, sysadmins, web developers, grant writers, researchers, statisticians, legal professionals, accountants, teachers, carpenters, cooks, and many other specialists.  If you want to help use your specific skills for good, where should you look for opportunities?

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