Challenges and Charity

Last week I took the Live Below the Line challenge. The idea is that you challenge yourself to spend no more than £5 on all food and drink for 5 days, to raise money for global poverty charities. I chose to raise money for the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI), who treat neglected tropical diseases in the developing world, as they've been been judged one of the most cost-effective giving opportunities out there by GiveWell.

 My food for the week

My food for the week

I took the challenge because it's a very easy way for me to raise money for an important cause that wouldn't otherwise happen. Limiting my diet for a week is a small step outside of my comfort zone that can do really quite a lot of good. I've raised over £300 in donations, which is enough to give 600 children a year of healthy life. Compared to that, my small sacrifice is completely negligible.

Despite the fact I think it's definitely a positive thing to do overall, there's something about this of challenge that still feels a bit weird to me. I wrote about this after I did the challenge last year. To quote myself: "I think it's important to realise that what we're not doing by taking this challenge is "simulating poverty" or getting any insight into what it's like to live below the poverty line in reality." The fact is that the "challenges" we undertake to raise money don't even get close to the challenges some people face every day. Reflecting on this makes me feel pretty uncomfortable.

This got me thinking more generally about this idea of "doing sponsored challenges for charity." Where exactly did this come from, and why does it work? It's kind of weird, when you think about it. Why is it that me restricting my diet for a week, or running a ridiculously long way, means that you should donate to a charity?

Perhaps it's because by undertaking a challenge, I'm demonstrating a level of commitment to the cause. I'm saying, "Look, I'm doing this really hard thing to demonstrate that I care about this cause. The least you can do is donate a few pounds." 

It can also help make the cause you're raising money for more salient and emotionally compelling in peoples' minds. Me posting pictures of my split peas and rice on facebook might make people feel more appreciative of the fact they can eat whatever they want, and so more motivated to help. Equally, if someone shaves their head to raise money for cancer research, the image of a chemotherapy patient is much more easily brought to mind.

All this makes sense given what we know about moral motivation - it's hard to be motivated to help people on the other side of the world even if we know we're suffering, when it's not right in front of us. It's just hard to connect to the cause on an emotional or gut level. Seeing someone we care about making a sacrifice, helps to evoke that emotional response, and so motivates more donations.

Part of me thinks it's great that this sponsored-challenges model works so well. Given that it can be hard to be motivated by the abstract idea of something like poverty, finding ways to motivate people to donate to important causes anyway is undeniably a good thing. What matters, at the end of the day, is that we're doing something.

At the same time, it feels like a shame if we need to run marathons and give things up to donate to charity. And sometimes it can detract from the real issue - all the focus ends up on the challenge or the person doing it, rather than the person really in need. It also seems unlikely that sponsored challenges are the most effective way to do good. If we were really focused on helping, rather than challenging ourselves, then we could probably do a lot more. 

Above all, it just strikes me as pretty ridiculous that I have such a privileged, easy life that I even have the option of "challenging myself." It's pretty amazing that I can even spend time thinking of ways to push myself outside of my comfort zone and to self-improve, whilst others are facing lives with serious challenges they can't opt out of.

I think Ben Clifford, who took the same challenge this week, puts it pretty nicely:

"What do I do with the realisation that I undervalue the experiences I have and that most of life involves a cost which is a luxury on a global scale? I'm not sure there is any completely appropriate way to respond. The most important thing for me is not to let this realisation result in inaction."