Why do some smart people lose their faculties when talking about charities?

Sometimes, it seems that the topic of charity makes even intelligent people say stupid things.

The other day I had dinner with a friend of mine who I admire very much. He’s a very smart bloke, he’s made a lot of money, and he’s generous to good causes.

We talked a bit about my work, and after a little while he said: “I don’t like it when charities spend any money on administration costs.”

This didn’t make much sense, so I pressed him on it. Could they hire a receptionist? I asked. Pay someone to fix the lift? Buy stationery?

He was adamant. Charities should spend nothing on admin. Not a penny.

“Intellectually I know what you say makes sense,” he said. “I just don’t like it, that’s all. That’s all there is to it.”

It’s all too common that smart people lose their faculties when talking about charities. Giving money appears for much of the public to be an instinctive, emotional response. A lot of people seem to get genuinely quite uncomfortable at the idea of putting a bit of rational thought into their giving.

And this lack of intellectual engagement often results in a lack of knowledge. Many people are like my friend in that they have a great affection for charity, but don’t really know what most charities do. And they get annoyed when they  discover that charities don’t do what they thought.

The outraged public response to last week’s story in which the British Heart Foundation criticised commercial bag collections is an example of this. The BBC website carried a general outpouring of anger at the fact that someone was profiting from bag collections – but also at charity CEOs’ salaries and administration costs.

A number of these comments obviously came from the green ink brigade, but it’s still a bit worrying, because charities have to get money out of the general public, and this often means pandering to their prejudices. The emotional  response from donors warps what the sector can do and how it thinks.

A while ago, for example, Save the Rhino was heavily criticised because they were found to support rhino hunting. After a few minutes’ investigation, it became pretty clear that they’d thought about their position quite deeply and their logic made sense. They obviously knew a hundred times as much about rhinos as any of their donors and ought to be allowed to get on with it.

But most people didn’t get that far, and reacted instinctively. I can’t help thinking, in this case, that it might have been better for the charity’s bank balance to do something that looked right, rather than what was right.

Many charities seem to have responded to this problem by appearing to do things that appeal to donors, while actually doing something quite different, and making sure no one outside their organisation knows.

This doesn’t sound like a very good recipe for long term success, but it’s hard to see how to avoid it. The public don’t have the time or inclination to understand how charities actually operate, but their money is badly needed.

So I suspect the sector will continue to keep the truth to itself.