Last week I spoke to Kimberley Scharf, Professor of Economics at the University of Warwick’s Centre for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy (CAGE). Professor Scharf has an interesting hypothesis. She suspects that people with more Facebook friends will be less likely to share charitable information
– and even to make donations to good causes – than those who operate within smaller, closer-knit online communities.
Targeting smaller, closely-connected online friendship groups with shared interests seems to be the way forward. This way, relevant information is more likely to be passed around and the coffers might start to fill. Stray dogs will thrive, wayward cats will find homes and doctors will no longer be hampered by those pesky borders.
Professor Scharf believes that members of larger, loosely-connected friendship groups will be more inclined to ‘free ride’ on the charitable natures of others. If a person believes that somebody else is likely to distribute a particular morsel of information amongst their friends, they will be less inclined to make the effort themselves. Essentially, those with more friends will be tempted to hitch a free ride. It’s the classic maxim: somebody else will do it.
In all fairness, they usually do. I would argue that free riding represents a pretty effective life strategy.* After all, there are just too many things for one person to do. Moreover, there are so many other nice people to do them. The danger, of course, comes when everybody adopts the same philosophy. No doubt, you’ll have had this lesson drummed into your head at school. If everybody
assumes that somebody else
will perform a task, the task will be performed by nobody
. And so concludes our morning assembly. Take that little message with you and ponder it during the course of the day.
Perhaps more interesting are the implications that this hypothesis – if correct – could have for charities. Assuming that my pontificating proves ineffective,** and widely-befriended folks continue to free ride, how should charities react?
In Professor Scharf’s opinion, the days of mail drops are coming to an end. She has learned from conversations with those working within the charitable sector, that blanket marketing has not been as effective as they had hoped. The time has come for a more tailored approach to fundraising. Targeting smaller, closely-connected online friendship groups with shared interests seems to be the way forward. This way, relevant information is more likely to be passed around and the coffers might start to fill. Stray dogs will thrive, wayward cats will find homes and doctors will no longer be hampered by those pesky borders.
This approach might also help with a connected challenge faced by charities. According to Professor Scharf, when people decide upon how much to donate to a particular cause, they consider how much money the charity in question receives from others. This implies that although high-profile charities receive donations from larger numbers of people, those people are more likely to donate smaller amounts of money. It seems that when it comes to giving, brand saturation can be detrimental. By targeting small, close-knit online communities, charities might be able to simultaneously increase the effectiveness of their fundraising efforts whilst reducing their profile. In this scenario, the ‘right people’ will have been reached and the remainder might not be so quick to assume that others are picking up the slack.
Again, this is all hypothetical. I’m sure that Professor Scharf would be happy to discover that, contrary to her predictions, the interweb is full of popular, money-giving types. In time, we’ll know for sure. Until then, however, the concept of free riding might be something for us all to keep in mind when our cursors are hovering over the ‘share’ and ‘donate’ icons. Somebody else might well do it, but when it comes to charity, this is not necessarily an assumption that we can legitimately make.
* Lacking in altruism but effective nonetheless
** People tend not to observe the ramblings of a hypocrite