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The Science of Charitable Giving

Last semester, Dr. Arthur Ward’s LB 334 students completed a charitable giving project in which they researched the motivation and politics behind philanthropy. The students worked in groups to determine what makes an effective charity and then selected several highly effective charities based on those criteria. And they had extra motivation when making their selections—Dr. Ward promised to divide his personal charity giving between the organizations that his students chose. To wrap up the lesson, Dr. Ward also completed the Ice Bucket Challenge.

This semester, Dr. Ward’s students are again studying the science behind charitable giving and are deciding which highly effective charities they want to support. But this time, the students are raising the funds themselves.

Dr. Ward’s class recently had a Skype conversation with Jon Behar, who is the director of philanthropy education at an organization called “The Life You Can Save.” Behar issued the class a challenge: if each student group could raise money for a highly effective charity, his organization would match the first $100 raised per group (seven groups, for a total of $700) and donate to the chosen charities.

In addition, the MSU Model United Nations (MSU-MUN) organization has decided to contribute money to whichever charity has the most support from the students.

“Using real money to underpin a research project on the science of charitable giving is clearly bearing fruit in terms of student enthusiasm,” says Dr. Ward. “I’m lucky to have the collaboration of both the MSU-MUN and ‘The Life You Can Save’ to get the students motivated.”

Dr. Ward’s course looks at the interaction between science and public policy and focuses especially on how science can affect public policy. “In this case, we were particularly interested in how population statistics, psychological findings about altruistic tendencies, and political-science data on the effectiveness of international aid should be considered by those looking to make policy about charitable giving,” says Dr. Ward. “We also looked at philosophical arguments for and against a strong moral duty for the affluent (us) to give aid to the less affluent.”

The students have discussed the process by which we choose what charities to contribute to. For example, should we give to alleviate the biggest problems, the problems easiest to solve, or the problems closest to home? They then created a ranked list of how to choose a highly effective charity and sought charities that would meet the criteria.

Over the next week the students will be fund-raising with their friends and relatives for the charities they have selected: “Evidence Action” and “Prevent Child Abuse America.”