Why Inconvenient Altruism Might Be the Best Altruism

"Dad, you need to lose convenience as a category of analysis," my son told me several years ago after I explained to him why I was doing something, or not doing something, because doing it, or not doing it, would be "inconvenient." Noah's comment to me reflected his concern about the environment and how our desire for convenience is contributing to global warming. As an organic farmer, Noah generally practices what he preaches and often refuses the most convenient way of doing things on his farm and in his life, because the most convenient way for him may not be best for others, the soil, or the planet.

I very often think about my son's comment and try to apply the spirit of it my own life. Do I drive, take public transportation, or walk? Do I go out of my way to help someone, even when it is somewhat inconvenient for me?

As executive director of The Life You Can Save, a non-profit that promotes effective solutions to global poverty, do I spend extra money to do the most convenient thing? Or do I save the money and "suffer" the inconvenience knowing that the money could be used to help support our organization, or other great charities that are helping people who are suffering, or dying needlessly from extreme poverty?

This issue came up very recently in the context of charitable giving. A colleague was pointing out that people prefer making charitable contributions using convenient methods like credit cards rather than sending a check directly to the charity, which costs only the stamp. The convenience of using a credit card generally costs the charity about 3 percent of the donation, which is the cut kept by the credit card company. So on a $100 donation to Against Malaria Foundation, the convenient method of paying with credit card totals the price of one insecticide-treated bed net, which can protect two people against malaria-carrying mosquitos for up to four years.

Or consider this inconvenient fact: Only about a third of Americans did any research at all about where they choose to give to charity. Even worse, only 16 percent said that they impact of their donation was an important consideration in deciding where to give. On average, Americans spend more time watching TV in a day than they do researching charity effectiveness in a year. It might be slightly inconvenient to do an hour of research on which charities will give you the most bang for your buck. Fortunately, there are excellent organizations like The Life You Can Save that publish lists of highly effective nonprofits. That means that most of the inconvenient work of charity research has already been done for you.

This holiday giving season, let's make the effort to donate the inconvenient way. That could mean writing a check instead of typing in your credit card number, or spending an hour learning about what a potential charity recipient will do with your donation.

As we move into next year, I hope we can all move closer to losing convenience as a consistent category of analysis and strive instead to do what is most effective.