Last week I met a group of young professionals in a downtown Raleigh coffee shop to discuss an exciting new foundation. It was Wednesday evening, the end of hump day, a time when most people’s energy has ebbed and they’re just figuring out ways to grind through the rest of the work week. Not these people. They were engaged and enthusiastic, volunteering their time for something that offered no financial reward and doing so with bright smiles. Indeed, each of us could have been doing something that better suited our selfish needs. The others might have stayed later at work to earn a few extra bucks or grabbed a social drink with friends. For me, I was leaving my wife alone to manage our daughters through the nighttime routine of dinner, bath and bed. I can only draw from that account so many times before the bills come due.
But we weren’t doing those things. We were foregoing our immediate self-interests to sit around a table talking about the best ways to get more people involved in making Raleigh a better community. One might call that a simple act of altruism. One might also call it irrational.
For a time our conversation centered around a recent essay by Anthea Watson Strong called The Three Levers of Civic Engagement. Once a civic activist and politico, Anthea now works on Google’s social impact team. In the piece she reflects on her own experience trying to get people engaged in their communities. Folks are busy, she argues, and you must convince them it’s worth their time to give up what they would be doing for what you’d like them to do.
…it was very hard work [her activism]. The people in my community cared about their neighborhood and the decisions being made by local representatives, but they also had two jobs. They had mothers with health problems. They had roofs with leaks. They needed to pick the kids up from soccer. They had very busy lives. Much of my time was spent convincing people that the work they could do on behalf of their community was worth the time they would sacrifice from other very important life tasks.
Anthea goes on to suggest the formula below as a way to predict the likelihood of someone getting involved with your cause. It’s based on the theory that people are, deep down, rational creatures who make decisions after weighing the pros and cons of how it might affect their self-interests. We run some algorithm like this through our heads (perhaps even unconsciously), and if its results show more benefit than cost, then we make the rational choice to participate.
Some call this the homo economicus view of humans, and it’s been popular in college econ departments for the past two generations. While I think it’s largely correct – people are generally rational and driven by self-interest – something about it feels incomplete.
Those people sitting around the coffee table with me last week seem to contradict Anthea’s theory. Are they really weighing all these probabilities and acting based on what’s best for them? I don’t think so. In fact, this evening of civic participation appears to be the exact opposite: they’ve thought of all the self-interested activities they could have been doing yet decided to do something that benefits others instead. They’re doing good deeds on the cheap. That’s altruism, an act that benefits others more than them.
Indeed, Anthea’s description of her own experience seems to stand against the formula. When she was doing the grueling work to organize her community, did the formula say she was acting in her rational best self-interest? She was a lawyer. She chose to work for a pittance as an activist rather than bill for big bucks with private clients.
These examples suggest a category of people that don’t need to justify their participation based on self-interest. Quite the opposite: if they run this algorithm, they are more likely to see that their involvement does NOT benefit their self-interest. Yet they do it anyway.
I’m not exactly sure. Back at the coffee shop, we’re not digging in quite that deep. Rather, this foundation is operating off the principle that there are plenty of people willing to forego their self-interest and engage. Perhaps they just need someone to invite them to get involved. Or perhaps they need better access to training to learn how to make an impact. Or maybe they need some money to get their idea off the ground.
This little foundation believes altruism is alive and well, and that if it’s supported the right way it can also be highly contagious. It’s built on the memory of someone who demonstrated this through her life. It’s confident that with the right amount of creativity, energy, and resources it can expand well beyond the walls of that coffee shop and bring profound changes to our community.
In many ways it appears irrational, but I suspect it’s on to something.