Friday, February 16, 2007

Sometimes People Don't Suck

It's easy to get stuck in a negative mindset that people are generally mean and evil. But despite my darker days, I don't think that's necessarily true. I think that when basic needs are taken care of, people who feel like they're part of a community can be extraordinarily kind and generous. It's easy to look at the history of our evolution as a species and see only the "Nature red in tooth and claw" aspect, but it's just as true that philanthropy and empathy are also part of our long genetic history.

I ran across a great example of this today while reading Slate. The article is by Jonathan Alter, titled "Want To Buy My Students a $392 Camcorder?A nonprofit uses the Web to work marketplace magic" and I'll quote the part that really jumped out at me after the fold.

Early on, some well-meaning but clueless Harvard Business School graduates instructed us that DonorsChoose had to automatically take 15 percent off the top of every gift for overhead. Otherwise, the HBS team warned, our organization would never sustain itself. In fact, these gents withdrew a large gift because they thought our business plan didn't work without the automatic deduction. We said we wanted to offer DonorsChoose donors the option of whether to give us additional money for overhead at checkout. If the donor wants, 100 percent of his or her donation can go directly into the classroom, but he or she is also invited to contribute to covering the organization's expenses. The HBS experts said we would be lucky if 10 percent of our donors voluntarily ponied up extra. But they were living in a pre-Web world in which people weren't used to being asked what specific uses their money could be put to. How many of the thousands of DonorsChoose donors give us 15 percent extra to fund ongoing operations? Try 93 percent.

I wanted to post the story first because I think it's a neat idea, really showing how the web can expand that sense of community and bring people together. But I also found it interesting how the first reaction of the Harvard guys was "People will never give voluntarily." Imagine if the board had taken that advice, they never would have known how generous their supporters really are.

I think it's very easy to get caught up in our preconceived notions of how people are going to behave, and all too often we deny them the opportunity to surprise us. Yes, humans are capable of unutterable evil, but also of transcendent kindness and generosity as well. Next time, when I find myself reflexively thinking the worst of someone, I hope I remember this and give them a chance to surprise me, as well.


Denise said...

It is in the unexpected kindnesses where we find the greatest joy.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if the 7% exception were HarvardBusiness School alumni :)

Anonymous said...

I always try to remember as I try to keep up with the "news" that it is the unusual that by itself defines what "news" is. In other words, acts of kindness and acts of love are indeed the norm. Everywhere you look people are doing nice things, murder and rape are not at all the norm. In a city of X-size 99.9% of the people did the best they could do. The .1%, or if we are pessimistic the 2% of the people in the city were jerks/evil. THAT"S NEWS!! My concern with the true evil in the world is when acts of death and violence become so commomplace we become apathetic, vis-a-vis the death rate of black-on-blacks in the USA (we argue about being called racists while the fact is that it is the biggest killer of young black men- meanwhile humans are dying),as well as the killing in Dafur, Iraq, etc. But hold the press--- Anna Nicole's autopsy is the headline tonight!