The Case Foundation is using its money as a lure to see whether and how people can be persuaded to give money over the Internet. It’s a natural line of inquiry for the foundation whose own resources come from the founder of AOL, obviously a person with both experience in and curiosity about the ways technology can alter human behavior. (Though it’s hard not to be cynical when a rich person says, "Philanthropy shouldn’t be defined as a bunch of rich people writing checks." No, because then I might have to give more!)
But the Nonprofiteer wonders whether the technique–offering people the opportunity to win money for their favorite charity–will skew the outcome. How much do we really learn about people’s potential to be generous–in any medium–from their willingness to try to win a big pot of someone else’s money? Even when they’re trying to win that big pot for the benefit of a third party?
In other words, what’s generous about playing the lottery? And how will we learn about generosity by enticing people to play the lottery on behalf of their favorite charity?
Spending someone else’s money is not charity. People who choose products because their manufacturers promise to pass on pennies to charity, or click on icons whose sponsors pledge to ship grains of rice, are playing at philanthropy rather than engaging in it. It’s harmless play, for the most part; but let’s not confuse it with some fundamental alteration in the social fabric whereby everything everyone does is suffused with concern for her fellow-man.
That’s the Nonprofiteer’s take, anyway. The good news is that the Case Foundation experiment will provide some data on which to base any future takes.