An experiment in giving

Last week I popped over to Paris to take part in a short UNESCO Working Group meeting. After arriving mid-evening on the Eurostar, I decided to walk the one hour or so to my hotel. There’s no better way of seeing a city. Among the usual sites I gradually became more and more aware of the number of young families – refugees – begging on the streets. Children no older than my own sitting out in the cold and dark with nothing as their childhoods drifted away. As a father myself I find dealing with this extremely difficult, something I spoke about at TEDxMunich last year.

I doubled back and gave one family the €5 note I had in my bag. A pathetic gesture given their position. But the hopelessness of the situation did get me thinking again about random acts of kindness, and the act of ‘giving out of kindness and nothing more’. I wrote about some of this a little while ago here.

With this fresh in my mind, the day after I got back I decided to try out a little experiment. I posted a Twitter poll to see if I could get the answer to a question that had been on my mind for a while. I had no idea what to expect and, although the sample size wasn’t fantastic, I was encouraged enough by the results to work a little more on the idea.

So, over the weekend I posted up a call on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn for contributors to do just that – donate an unconditional amount to a stranger each month. I upped the monthly payment a little, asking for monthly contributions of $15/£10, and capped the commitment at 12 months. By the time the weekend was out, over 30 people had pledged to help. Pledges have continued to come in.

Through a trusted, long-time contact in Nigeria we have already identified ten women and their families as recipients of the monthly donations. Assuming everyone goes through with their pledge, every family will receive approximately $50 each month which, based on our initial conversations with them will give an average of a 50% increase in disposable income.

There are two sets of wider questions I’ve been wanting to answer by doing this.

On the contributor side

  • Would people be happy to give money without knowing how it was going to be spent?
  • Would people be happy to give money without knowing anything about the recipient?
  • Would people be happy to give money without any guarantee of impact or results?
  • Are people happy giving ‘just’ to help make someones life easier, and to give them hope?
  • At what level of giving do these things not matter?
  • At what level of giving do these things matter?
  • Do people need ‘trusted intermediaries’ (i.e. charities) in order to feel comfortable giving?
  • How important is the feeling of a direct connection with the recipient?
  • How important is full transparency and honesty/openness in a project like this?
  • Is there a future for this kind of giving?

On the receiver side

  • What difference does it make in the lives of the recipients knowing that people are willing to help them?
  • Does giving them hope and the potential to improve their lives make any difference to them and their families?
  • What do they choose to spend the money on?
  • What impact does it have that the money is unconditional?
  • Is there any long term impact of receiving this help over a 12 month period?
  • Is there a future for this kind of receiving?

Long-time friend Marieme Jamme has already raised concerns about the notion of ‘experimenting’ with a group of women, drawing parallels with the many other development efforts and pilots that treat target African populations as guinea pigs for Western ideas. I have worked hard throughout my career to work closely with grassroots organisations, and to empower local actors. Although I appreciate her concerns, I believe making the gift unconditional, and over an extended period, genuinely gives these women and their families a chance to better their lives, and everyone involved in the project is doing it for the right reasons, and out of a desire to be part of something that might make a difference.

Image via

The project also potentially answers some very interesting – and potentially disruptive – questions around the nature of personal, direct, unconditional giving. Charities spend huge amounts of time and money making the case for their projects, and collecting evidence to prove impact (which sometimes, if we’re honest, isn’t as accurate as we’d like it to be).

If enough people are willing to give a modest amount without worrying too much about the guarantees most charities think they need and want, how much more good can be done? How many more people might give? What might this mean for the future of personal, charitable giving?

The parameters of the project are still being decided with the contributors, but it is our intention to be as open and transparent as possible about what we’re doing, and how we’re doing it – so expect some kind of project website soon.

In the meantime, if you’re interested in what we’re doing feel free to comment or get in touch.

Further reading on some of the thinking behind the project can be found here. There’s also a December update on how the project is going here

4 thoughts on “An experiment in giving

  1. danielle lanyard says:

    i love this concept, and it’s immediate action. and, i agree that experimenting with any population of people is a cautionary tale. the thing is, when we look at what development models & initiatives really worksbest, even with these ‘best practices’ there are shortfalls and underserved constituencies – the world over. how do we respond to the shortfall between existing ‘best practices’ models that are acceptable by the bill easterly’s of the world, and all those that remain in such dire need. note, this is not a rallying cry for anything being better than nothing, but an acknowledgement that so much is broken in the world and there are so many great programs out there working to heal it all – and it isn’t enough. new methods like this, address this gap, and do so with both the knowledge of ‘best practices’ and the awareness that they will draw critique. kudos for doing it anyway, and i look forward to see how it progresses! i trust it will do some good.

  2. kiwanja says:

    @Danielle – Thanks for your thoughts, which resonate. I’m hopeful we can answer some of those questions and, perhaps, shift the needle for some people on how (or whether) they support others less fortunate than themselves. This project is deliberately unscientific in a sector which often over-obsesses on data and evidence – which often turns on to be debatable anyway.

  3. Christina Comber says:

    Hey Ken, how you going?

    I love this project and am definitely interested in both the results and how any conclusions may be acted upon by charity sector (given that my career is fundraising, I bloomin well should be interested!).

    One question that I didn’t notice on your list, is the difference between a ‘charity’ asking vs. an individual you trust. I imagine that the social media followers who have backed this project know you in some way – maybe personally or maybe through reading your work or seeing you present.

    There is of course plenty of research about trusted third party recommendations, hence why fundraisers often use a well-loved celebrity or other high profile endorsement. I wonder if this research could build upon that, but creating a model for increasing support without the extra costs (and often just window dressing) of impact measurement. Is there something new to learn/understand about how charities use third parties – how we choose them, what messaging we ask them to deliver etc.

    Apologies for adding potential new questions rather than helpful answers. Whatever the results and however they are used will be useful – and more importantly it will surely make an important difference to the ten families involved. As a major donor fundraiser I’m a big believer in personal relationships, trust and people genuinely just wanting to improve others’ lives.

  4. kiwanja says:

    @Christina – Thanks for the comment, and the question! I’m glad you like the project. I think you’re right to bring up the issue of trust, and trust networks – it definitely plays a part here. I think many of the 34 other people who joined in with this knew me or knew my work, so that certainly helped. I also had to trust my Nigerian contact to do the work efficiently, honestly and well. I’m hoping to source some funding for a little research into all of this next year, so we’ll keep everyone posted for sure. Happy Christmas!

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