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Can world-changing projects be crowdfunded? (Aka, why don't people donate?)

The internet offers the opportunity to connect a large number of people, for a common cause. If these people each contribute a small amount of money, you have crowdfunding. Crowdfunding has been used successfully to support independent bands, startup companies, and business/humanitarian projects in the developing world. But what about crowdfunding something really big? Renting the whole Amazon rainforest for instance (to protect it from logging)? Or saving tigers from extinction in the wild? Or supplying the entire developing world with efficient cooking facilities (to reduce harmful soot emissions)?

A big obstacle, to any such scheme, is that people often agree a cause is worthy, but do not give any of their own cash towards it. Why do we act that way?

- Is it because we’re conditioned to avoid giving? (E.g. “Don’t give to the homeless man, it will only make him dependent on charity”)
- Is it because, to give to one cause, would feel like an admission that we should be giving to all of them?
- Is it because we feel unsure of how well our donation would be used? (Or is this just an excuse?)
- Is it because we put our own affluence ahead of the causes we espouse?
- Is it because many worthy causes are seen as issues “owned” by particular groups at the left-most end of the political spectrum, alienating those genuinely caring people who happen to have different political views?

I don’t know. But I do know that if we could make large-scale crowd funding work, it could be our best tool to change the world – unencumbered by the hidebound caution of our elected leaders, driven only by the passion of ordinary people.

For a cause you believed in, would you donate to large-scale crowdsourcing? Why or why not?

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    Jan 19 2013: People do join with others every day and week in funding such projects! The Amazon Rainforest may not be offered up for rent, but, just as one example, the Nature Conservancy uses what you might call crowdsourced funding to buy coral reefs and other lands to protect them from exploitation. I don't want to point to particular organizations, but in terms of tigers have you looked at organizations like the World Wildlife Fund that "crowdfund" in this way?

    There are so many as well as services that will tell you how much of the finding collected actually goes to the purpose and how much is retained for administration and publicity of opportunities to crowdfund.
    • Jan 19 2013: Good point. I should clarify that my question is not about the existence of such organisations, but about whether their support can be grown to a massive scale. For instance, 2010 annual revenue of WWF was about $700 million and about $500 million for the Nature Conservancy. Global total spending on conservation has been estimated at $10 billion annually (including government aid), but the REQUIRED annual spending, to halt human-induced extinctions, is estimated at around 10 times that figure!

      Tellingly, the necessary 100 billion could be raised if every citizen of the OECD countries gave only $10 per month.

      In other words, while excellent organisations exist, like those you mention, the average man or woman in the street is NOT donating to them. Perhaps I should rephrase my question as, how can we make donating to significant causes the norm, rather than the exception, amongst citizens of the developed world?
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        Jan 19 2013: One piece of data to look for is the correlation between charitable giving and either economic indicators or confidence. Data shows that in the US giving, both nominally and as a proportion of income, increases with income.
        I don't know how the data look for other countries.
        Another important dimension is accountability by organizations that collect money so people are confident that what they contribute is used for what they expect rather than for administration. I assume organizations that rate well on the sites that provide this information for large numbers of charities do better than those that don't.

        I think you are right that most people realize they cannot contribute to every worthwhile cause. One family may prioritize conservation spending while another focuses on education for girls.

        While some people have an ideological stand against charity, my guess is that this position is held by only a minority of people- that most believe in giving to some causes that are most important to them, either through volunteering, sharing, or giving. There is probably research on this point, but I have not searched for it.
        • Jan 20 2013: I suspect "accountability" is one of those things that many people (myself included for many years) use to justify their decision to give nothing. But it's a red herring: why refrain from giving $10 because you're not sure whether $6, $7, $8 or $9 of it will reach the final destination. No matter what the answer, it will still be more more than if you give NOTHING!

          As for research, Americans (always the easiest group to find stats on) give just slightly under $1000 per person per year, on average. The largest share of that giving, at about 33%, goes to religious organisations (typically the giver's own place of worship). The smallest share goes to Animals and the Environment, at only 3%. So, while I take your point that some people (perhaps Americans in particular) do indeed willingly give away money, I would question their choices about which charities to give to. The world's biggest problems seem to lie in the area to which the least is given: animals and the environment.

          Am I really saying that people should give more to the environment, possibly at the expense of churches? I would point out that all the world's religions have been around for thousands of years - not one of them is about to die out. But tigers, pandas and blue whales are! Surely we should invest a greater proportion of our giving to those efforts that will prevent irreversible loss. And surely, if you believe those creatures were created by a creator, that's all the more reason to make sure that we don't destroy what he has created. Isn't it obvious what His priorities are, if the Creator put into the natural world thousands of amazing species but, strangely, not a single cathedral?
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        Jan 20 2013: I don't think accountability is a red herring. It affects the organizations to which people will donate and causes many to prefer to give in kind (like giving food to a food bank) rather than giving cash.

        You know what your priority is for charitable giving. Others may choose differently.
        • Jan 20 2013: Do you think questions around accountability, instead of affecting _which_ organisation a person gives to, may lead that person to decide not to give at all?
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        Jan 20 2013: As I have not researched this specifically, my response can only be speculation. My speculation is that monetary donations could be reduced in favor of in-kind donations and that the volume of monetary donations could be less because of worries about accountability than they would otherwise. I doubt that the fact that some organizations are not good stewards would prevent people who are inclined to give to refrain from giving to anyone.

        Researching the question would probably be enlightening.

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