I just got £5 and a confusing letter through the post. Why?


First of all I’d like to say that I like you. I can tell we’d get on, you’re someone that has some curiosity and sense of adventure about you. You received a strange letter with £5 attached to it and now you want to know more about what exactly is going on here. I would too!

You probably have some questions, lets see if I can preempt any of them with a FAQ.

Question 1: This looks like a scam, is this a scam? Would you even tell me if this was a scam? Somethings not quite right here, I’m not going to play your silly game.   

Part of me wishes that it was a scam, at least that way I’d feel less heartbroken when it (I think for reasons that will become blatantly obvious) doesn’t work out. Yes, to answer you question its a real and genuine thing I’m doing here. Hopeful this post will put you at ease and help you understand what it is I’m trying to achieve.

If that doesn’t work, we could talk if you’d like. I’m always happy to go for coffee or talk over skype. Best way to reach me is likely through the Facebook page associated with this blog, you should find a link to this on the side bar to the left of this page.

Question 2:- If you care so damn much about buying mosquito nets why in the hell didn’t you just spend the money you sent me on mosquito nets in the first place? Are you stupid or something!?  

Good question, and you may have a very very good point there.

I’m interested in an idea called Effective Altruism. Effective Altruism in its basic sense is the using of evidence and reason to guide our charitable donations. This Ted talk explains the philosophy behind this in more detail.

Over the last couple of years I’ve become immensely interested in this idea, to the extent that I have change my behaviour dramatically because of it. Here’s a post I wrote recently about how every month for the last year and a half I’ve been giving 10% of my income away to charities that have been independently rated as being highly effective. This month however I wanted to try something a little different.

I’m an academic. The likelihood is that I’m going to be spending my working life talking to undergraduates about psychology and how we can apply psychological theory and evidence to help people live healthier and happier lives. As such I am never going to make a huge sum of money over my lifetime. While this is fine for me and my life I still want to see if I can make a significant impact in the world while I do this. So right now I’m looking for ways to make my monthly donations go as far as they can. One way to do this is to see if I can encourage other people to give more money than I ever could.

To do this I thought I’d treat charitable giving as similar to that of any health behaviour. This model (see below) is useful when thinking about long term health behaviour such as quitting smoking or sticking to an exercises routine, I want to see if I can do something similar with charitable giving.

stages of change model
Transtheoretical model of behaviour change

Any behaviour starts with a step from precontemplation (i.e. never thinking about, considering or knowing a behaviour even exists) to contemplation (thinking about a behaviour). I hope that if I have achieve one thing here it is that you now know the term Effective Altruism, and by following the links i gave, can now entertain this as a possible thing that you could do if you wanted.

In psychology we have a saying “Past behaviour predicts future behaviour”. If someone has done something before they are more likely to do that behaviour again than someone that has never done that behaviour at all.

Right now I am hoping that you have donated to The Against Malaria Foundation, if not here is the link again www.againstmalaria.com. (Don’t forget add the code 528 in the message box when donating so that I can see the donation came from you having read this and the letter)

Donating is a behaviour, admittedly a very simple one but a behaviour none the less. It required you going to the website, finding the donate button and filling out your card details. There is a good chance that you have now ‘performed’ the intended behaviour (although if you have not that’s fine too). How did it feel? Try thinking through the reasons why you did or did not donate? What would need to happen for you to go back and donate at a later date? These are the kind of questions that will help you move round the model and hopeful get you to a life long behaviour. That would be my hope at least.

For this first test I sent copies of the letter you received with £5 in to 40 households with the hope that:

  1. £5 buys attention at the very least:
    • I don’t know about you but I often switch off when someone is arguing for a worthy charity. However, I’d be slightly more inclined to listen to someone if their message came with £5. Especially if it means that now someone isn’t going to knock on my door when I’ve just sat down to have my tea of an evening (as is the case with my usual interactions with charity people).
    • Also it works as a foot in the door. This sort of thing doesn’t happen everyday (at least not to me it doesn’t), people are likely going to want to know why they now have £5 in their hand.
  2. If people get as far as donating they will donate more than the £5 given to them:
    • This is where the idea becomes a bit of a gamble, and I’m very curious to see how this gamble turns out. If everyone that donates gives at least the extra 28p to bring it up to three nets per person then I’d need around 38 out of the 40 people to donate in order to get more out of this than I put in. However if just one person donates substantially more than is asked for then they cover even more people who don’t donate. I want to see where the equilibrium lies. Recently I tried this letter out on online with my friends for the #justonenet campaign. Many didn’t donate those that did donated between £10 and £40 even though I asked for £1.75. Granted it’ll be harder with strangers but I still think its worth trying at least once.
  3. Some people will want to know more:
    • Curiosity and a need for understanding is a beautiful thing. Some people have this need in greater amounts than others, for instance most people will not come to this page and the majority of those that do will likely have given up reading by now having got the gist of what I’m doing here. Not you though, your still here. I was the same when I saw the ted talk mentioned at the top of the post, eventually over a few months I ended up here: givingwhatwecan.org/pledge. If £5 and this letter somehow starts someone off on the path to giving away 10% of their income over their life time I would consider it a highly worth while use of £5, wouldn’t you?

On the donations page of The Against Malaria Foundation website a list of recent donors is displayed for transparency purposes. Adding the number 528 to your message section will allow me to identify you from other donors but will still keep you anonymous in terms of who you are. Failing this if I see anyone that donates £5.28 in the London I’ll likely class them as being linked to this as well. This will allow me to judge if handing out money is better or worse that donating directly to the charity. For those of you playing along at home the magic number I’m looking to reach is £207, keep an eye on this page over then next couple of days to see if anyone else donates.

other donations

Question 3: Does The Against Malaria Foundation pay you? 

Nope. Also they don’t know that I’ve done this. I’m just a big fan. Seriously, read more about this charity. They are something special. They do one thing and they do it really really well.

Question 4: I feel emotionally manipulated by this approach?

Not a question but yes I think I would too. What I was aiming for here was empowerment rather than guilt. I’m not a fan of the blatant heart string pulling approaches to charity, I wanted this to be a calculated decision from  you. Hopefully this approach was more pleasant for you than having a chugger (charity mugger, cruel term I know but also sadly quite appropriate) stop you on the street , although I’d be the first to say that it’s a manipulation. Its not a cheap manipulation if that’s any consolation.

Question 5: I just stumbled across this page at random, you did what!?! Whats this letter? How come you’re not giving me free money?

Yes well hopefully you’ve been able to piece together something from what I’ve written above. I’ve not shared the letter here but it was adapted from a post I wrote about malaria and mosquito nets a while ago called A Targeted Act of Kindness.

Also sure I’ll give you free money! Meet with me we’ll talk for a hour or so about you and how you feel about donating a chunk of your income to a recommended effective charity and I’ll happily give you £5 for your time.

Question 6: Ah-ha! By doing this have you given less to charity this month violating your Giving What You Can pledge to give 10% of you income to effective charities? 

Bollocks, I really hoped you weren’t going to ask me this question. Hopefully not but fine there you go, happy now:

Me donation

Question 7: This sounds a lot like an experiment, did you receive ethics approval for this?

Ah, I see you’ve got the hang of asking the annoyingly relevant question now. Um … no I did not apply for ethics approval from a university or research body. Sometimes you just want to play with an idea, and I didn’t see any harm in this one…

Hmm, I’m going to be saying that sentence in court one day aren’t I?

Question 8: Shouldn’t you have had a control group if you really wanted to work out if this was an effective means of raising money?

Yes again you are completely and totally right there, if I really wanted to do this properly I would have run this as an randomised control trial (actually probably a cluster randomised control trial if you want to be pedantic, which I’m guessing you do considering the questions you’ve asked so far). I did not do this,  maybe next time.

Question 9: I’ve read this FAQ and still don’t really understand why you’re doing this?

You and me both.


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