When a Compelling Story Makes for a Bad Donation

Rodney Warner
Rodney Warner

I have raised money for various cancer related organizations over the years.  One of the keys to success is to communicate an effective, personal, emotional story that portrays the good the organization does. Ideally, this will encourage the potential donor to put themselves in the shoes of the person getting help so they will say to themselves, if I was in that kind of a jam, I could sure use that help, donating is a good idea.  But when it comes to the big picture, is it best for the country as a whole when those with the most compelling stories get the most money?

I practiced law for sixteen years.  A saying in the profession is, hard facts make bad law.  These are instances where judges, deciding cases with plaintiffs who have undergone one kind of horrific situation or another, let their emotions get the best of them (yes, judges are people too) and maybe bend the law a bit and decide the case for the plaintiff.  This may work well in the short term for that person, but in the long run, there may be unintended consequences when the decision is applied in the future that may create a horrific situation for someone else.

One example is the focus of a recent Washington Post opinion piece, that of Batkid.  He’s five year old Scott Miles, in remission from leukemia, who, thanks to the Make a Wish Foundation and the City of San Francisco, for a day was able to live his fantasy of being Batkid.  The cost to the city to be part of this production was about $105,000.  The foundation estimates the average wish to be fulfilled costs $7,500.

The opinion piece author, Peter Singer, estimates $7,500 could also provide bed nets to prevent any number of children from getting malaria or if donated to the Seva Foundation, could help prevent about a hundred children from going blind by treating trachoma and other diseases.

What’s better, paying for the vacation or experience of a lifetime for a terminally ill child, or a hundred kids keeping their eyesight?

Everyone loves a good story and I’m sure just about everyone was happy to see Batkid enjoy a day he will never forget, but when donating, we need to think about how money is spent, how many will benefit and how they will benefit.  How many five year olds living in the Bay Area’s worst neighborhoods could have their wishes for a better place to live or drug rehabilitation treatment for a parent fulfilled for $105,000?