How Much Give Can You Get?

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Triple Pundit reviewed a study that shows altruism amongst green product purchasers declines rapidly. In the write up, author BC Upham says, “The study suggests people who have spent money on things they perceive to benefit society as a whole may feel they have “done their good deed for the day” and thus are more likely to choose less altruistically when presented with other ethical quandaries.”

The University of Toronto study goes on to say in the new global ethic that the larger world seems to be espousing, people reactively give out of guilt. “This implies that virtuous acts can license subsequent asocial and unethical behaviors.” Then the study says, “Because purchasing green products affirms individuals’ values of social responsibility and ethical consciousness, we predict that purchasing green products will establish moral credentials, ironically licensing selfish and morally questionable behavior.”

Ironically, I think the study, while on target with its findings, has missed a critical component of the social change idea market: Cause fatigue. God knows all of us concerned with social change — green or not — certainly feel tons of pressure from many directions to help society. From local homelessness and domestic issues to global poverty and the environmental crisis, there’s an endless amount of nonprofits and social enterprises begging for our attention.

But how much give can the marketplace get? This study assumes that people will become “selfish” after acting green.

I wonder if that’s the case, or if people only have so much give in them, and when they give to any cause, they’ve taken a step towards meeting their quota. So then this study is wrong in that it implies that people need to do justify badness with goodness. Instead, they have fulfilled their capacity to give and have cause fatigue.

There’s definitely a corollary. Consider how much Haiti got, and then in comparison how little aid Chile received, in spite of a much larger earthquake. Yes, there’s a difference in economic wealth between the two countries, but it doesn’t account for this kind of disparity.

Sooner or later, people need to replenish their charitable spirit by taking care of themselves. Families matter, too, and so does personal welfare. You can’t get water from an empty bucket. Nor should people get a brow beating for doing that. Replenishment is a faith agnostic spiritual axiom.

The end message to successful change organizations is congratulations on your effectiveness. Do what you must to keep these people interested in your cause because loyalty and continued attention will be harder and harder to maintain. Effectiveness will continue to evolve, but in my mind, it includes understanding that there’s only so much give you can get.

Geoff Livingston is a regular contributor to the Live Earth blog.


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    […] Livingston wrote an excellent post called How Much Give Can You Get? about how some studies suggest that people buying green products may actually be less altruistic […]

  • Good post Geoff. I’ve been interested in this topic myself, check it here – IMHO I think one of the things that drives more continuous engagement is personalization or localization. Regardless, I think your point on replenishment is dead on. We can’t be Mother Teresa all the time…at least most of us. The question is how can we capture the most “Cause” engagement or mindshare. Thanks. Ed

  • I think it depends on the individual. Some people aspire to live a life of values & high standards because they themselves chose that path. These people will have a higher capacity to give in areas aligned with their values.

    On the other hand, there are tons of people who feel social pressure to act in certain ways. They don’t really believe in sustainability. The don’t really believe races are equal. They don’t believe in the organic & whole foods movement. They don’t really believe in many things parts of society are currently promoting. But they feel outnumbered, or don’t want to look bad, or they simply don’t want the hassle of arguing with someone over whether the burger they just ate will give them a heart attack and that they just slaughtered some cow. Or that their 20 page document they printed is destroying the rain forest.

    These people often take an action they can use to justify to others that they are a good person. But the hidden message is “shut up.” Examples I have seen in other people include: “I buy green products, so shut up about the fact I don’t practice sustainability.” “My insurance agent is black, so shut up about the fact that I call black people from the ghetto racist names.” “I’ve done my good deed for the day, so leave me alone.” They say the first part, but the real message is the part after “so.” They can use their good deed to justify to themselves and others that they are indeed a “good person” while still keeping their original beliefs. It’s not really surprising that once the good deed is done, they are done. They never did the deed because they thought it was good. They did it to justify themselves.

    There are also tons of people emotionally exhausted from giving all they could give, and at some point, they simply stop giving. Their cup is empty. They are already maxed out, giving to their family, friends, company, society, etc. So they buy some green products, smile knowing that they have saved the planet, and move on. Now they can focus on putting food on the table, or helping a sick friend or relative, or dealing with the drama that is their friends & family and/or co-workers. They already help people before they help themselves. They need to somehow recharge, which will help them regain their capacity to give, before they get burned out.

    Then you have people living paycheck to paycheck, barely surviving. Perhaps battling with big issues both internally & externally. They are in survival mode, and instincts demand survival first, altruism second. Getting these people out of survival mode is what will expand their capacity to give.

    Given the different people out there and the different “worlds” they live in, I am not surprised that people have a limited capacity to give. In reality there is no limit, but in their “world” there is. Handling peoples needs, whether that be changing their mindset, or helping them get beyond survival, or helping replenish a giver by being supportive so they don’t burn out or get overwhelmed, will be what increases people’s capacity to give.

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