How to Think about Charities, in the Future

There has never been a better time for bold thinking. And of all the immensely bold thinking done out there, some of the most radical happens in the blockchain space. Exponential stuff, really.

People here speak of decentralized futures unencumbered by gatekeepers and rentseekers. They (we?) imagine egalitarian communities where wealth gets distributed fairly and corruption of any sorts is eliminated. Markets work for the people and the people have a voice.

It’s like the internet was supposed to be, but, like, thousand times better.

But what of the world of charities? Could this decentralized future hold anything exciting for the time-honored tradition of giving for a cause and feeling good about it? How is the bold thinking doing in this space, notoriously hamstrung my middlemen, inefficiencies and lack of transparency?

Well, let’s hear it from Vitalik:

I am a big fan of this guy. I mean talk about bold thinking. His brainchild — Ethereum — is hands-down the most sophisticated, ambitious and far-fetching project in the blockchain space right now. Everything this guy has done and said has been visionary, well-articulated and underpinned by an obvious, altruistic passion for a better future and an otherworldly humbleness. He’s a kid. But he’s also Master Yoda.

It is disheartening that his vision for the future of charities is defined by nothing more ambitious than the selling of digital stickers online as an alternative of flogging stickers in front of the local supermarket.

Imagine: you get to attach a virtual sticker to your facebook profile. Your friends will not only envy your awesome life and spotless children. Now they get to be awed by your generous, caring nature.

This reminds me of visionaries of yesteryear who imagined futures in which men conquer gravity and break the time-space continuum, while their wives raise children and labor in the kitchen back home, with the support of wondrous gadgets powered by, wait for it, artificial intelligence.

Could it be that Vitalik — the wunderkind and hero of mine — lacks the imagination to see beyond stickers-for-cash in the charity space?

I don’t think so. I actually believe that Vitalik’s lack of imagination in this space is not his fault at all.

People like me carry most of the blame — insiders in the do-good industry who owe it to him, and other outsiders, to point out the complexities, the traps and opportunities in this space, dispute the prevalent myths and trigger their limitless imagination to give this space more than a passing thought (and a penny). Inspire them, as it were, with the possibilities.

So here I go with a few possibilities, in no particular order:

  1. The possibility that the beneficiaries of all this aid would be better off accessing resources directly, and be trusted to make better decisions on how to spend said resources, without being patronized by “experts” from far away;
  2. The possibility that maybe the state of affair in the charity sector — which you are ready to trust with your sticker purchase — is riddled by the same sort of trust mediators and a middle-men that you otherwise would want removed in any other decentralized future;
  3. The possibility that, perhaps, there is a way to go beyond the tired stereotype of private sector (profit only, no care for impact) vs. public sector (impact only, selfless volunteers) and that perhaps, the donor of today could be replaced by an investor with purpose, tomorrow?
  4. The possibility that there may be better financing models out there, that not only structure current available resources better, but also help us address some of the negative incentives, dependencies and lack of visibility in impact delivery?
  5. That maybe, we can go beyond the myth by which people are made to believe that their symbolic donation (buy a sticker, like this page) will change lives/ save polar bears? It doesn’t. Maybe it takes a lot more than that.
  6. That perhaps we should all start rejecting the status quo in which profits are privatized and costs are socialized? And that we can start evaluating externalities and have the costs covered out of those profits, somehow? Then maybe we won’t need so much charity to start with?

There’s more. But I am on a plane and my laptop battery is dying. Just, Vitalik, please give this stuff 1% of your bandwidth. You may just blow our minds.