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Giving to charity is one of the most selfless things you can do. You're giving away your hard-earned money and expecting nothing in return, save the personal satisfaction of making the world just a little bit better (and the unquantifiable moral superiority you get to feel for a while). It's easy, too -- literally all you need is whatever cash you can spare and a tiny bit of awareness as to who you're going to give it to.

So by all means, do it. Just please, please avoid messing it all up with one of these mistakes.

Most Awareness Campaigns Are a Waste of Time

What You Think You Do

By wearing a Livestrong bracelet or a pink ribbon, or perhaps growing a mustache for Movember, you're doing important work by drawing the public's attention to an issue that needs support. It's the ultimate in everyday do-goodery -- easy, cheap, fun, and works like a charm.

Why You Shouldn't Do It

Sure, awareness campaigns are great ... if they're for an obscure yet noteworthy issue that needs publicity. However, that is rarely the case -- most of them focus on well-known problems that are most likely to gain media space and public attention.

Take breast cancer: Despite the many, many, many awareness campaigns thrown at us by everyone from our co-workers to goddamn KFC, breast cancer death rates have stayed steady over the last decade.

Via Independent
You can't get breast cancer if you die of a heart attack. Charity!

The reason behind this is three-pronged:

One, it's breast cancer. An awareness campaign for breast cancer was vital in, say, the '60s and '70s, when words like "breast cancer" were never even uttered in public (let alone plugged during an NFL game). Today, however, everyone is aware of its existence, and there are maybe three women in America who don't know that they should be checking their breasts every once in a while. This means that all those campaigns are telling you things you already know full well, to the point that your brain is just starting to tune them out.

Two: Not only are most awareness campaigns useless, they often actually harm their cause by misrepresenting the very problem they're trying to fight. Many breast cancer campaigns focus on how sexy boobs are, with clever slogans like "I grab a feel so cancer can't steal." Ignoring how weird it is that a bunch of men clearly sat around a board room and brainstormed ways to make their anti-cancer campaign sexy ("I want our audience to be like 'Finally, a cancer I can fuck'"), it's also not helping. The young, perky women wearing a "save second base" shirt who are often closely associated with these campaigns are in fact among the least likely to get cancer. The more probable victims are in fact their grandmas, who tend to be pretty much ignored in these campaigns for the very simple reason of, well, granny boobs. The real tragedy is glossed over, which you may recognize as being the exact opposite of awareness.

Via Zazzle.ca
Though to be fair, "Stop a tragedy, feel up the elderly" just isn't as catchy.

So now when Breast Cancer Awareness month rolls around, we're thinking about pink shoes in the NFL, or pink buckets of KFC chicken, or hot college chicks with boob-related T-shirts, but never are we thinking about actual cancer victims.

The third, and by far the worst, issue is that participation in awareness campaigns makes people less likely to give actual money. Studies have found that people who do a good deed will use that as an excuse to cut back on other good behavior, so if you go out and get wasted on breast cancer vodka, you won't feel obligated to donate cold, hard cash. Why should you? You've already done your part!

"We're saving the world through body shots!"

Donating Clothing


What You Think You Do

If times are tough and you don't have money to spare, you can at least give your used clothing to charity. Every little bit helps!

Why You Shouldn't Do It

Our donations put local suppliers out of business.

It's kind of hard to even have a liquidation sale at that point, unless you're paying the customers to take the product.

Being able to change the world just by cleaning out our closets is a nice thought, but also a massive misunderstanding of what developing countries actually need or, for that matter, want.

It's actually not hard to get clothes in the developing world. Africans don't have to dodge landmines and fight lions every time they go to the market for some new pants. They just stroll up to a vendor and buy them, the exact same way it works everywhere else on the planet.

Many of us tend to ignore the fact that textiles used to be a major industry in many developing countries. Used to, that is, until it collapsed under the weight of tons of ratty sweatshirts and pieces of NFL merchandise featuring teams that lost the Super Bowl. One study concluded that charitable donations caused the clothing industry across Africa to suffer a 40 percent decline in production and a 50 percent jump in unemployment from 1981 to 2000.

"It looks like my only options are UNICEF commercials or helping unload clothing donations."

Essentially, offering these people free clothing winds up as a pretty nasty, backhanded insult: "Hey, guy who used to make shirts for a living until our free clothes drove you out of business -- care for a Patriots hoodie?"

Even putting accidental annihilation of industries aside, the used clothes way of helping is also a horribly inefficient waste of money. The rules of hauling shit from country to country apply to these useless garments the exact same way they do to everything else: Every piece of clothing has to be stored, shipped, taxed and distributed. This eats up a huge amount of time and funds that could and probably should be going toward, say, medicinal aid. But, again, the people who dump a box of shirts on Africa aren't going to donate any money because, like the people who purchase a pink breast cancer sticker, they've already fulfilled their charitable obligation on their end, and they've already earned their "moral credits."

But hey, at least the polio patients will look good in their almost new Right Said Fred shirts.

Via Huffington Post
"I'm really sorry about putting your parents out of work, but you have to understand that this is a great photo op."

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Choosing Your Charity Based on Its Overhead


What You Think You Do

People like to know that their donations are going to help people, and not going toward paying for lunch for the employees of the charity. By only donating to charities with low administrative costs -- basically anything that isn't actual aid -- you're guaranteeing that your money goes to proper charity work, instead of salaries and whatnot. This is a very common piece of advice given to people looking for a good charity, and a seemingly good one at that -- why pay for office supplies when there are people in need?

"Each of those pens could have fed a Guatemalan villager for six years."

Why You Shouldn't Do It

Because they need those supplies to operate efficiently.

Picture your own workplace. Which would help you do a better job: modern equipment, contemporary training and competent employees -- or a bunch of random hippies your boss pulled off the street, all of you sharing a single Amstrad 286 with a Cyrillic keyboard?

And that's just a regular job, crunching numbers at the office. Now imagine the same scenario, only you're tasked with handling the aftermath of Cthulhu attacking New York.

"Wait, I was supposed to give you a malaria vaccine? Oh man, I'm really sorry."

Overhead numbers are almost meaningless. Each charity calculates them differently, and many do it incorrectly. Most importantly, they fail to factor in what the charity actually does.

Take Invisible Children, the charity behind the Kony 2012 video. They received a lot of criticism for having an abnormally high overhead. However, few people noticed that Invisible Children actually has better financial ratings than major players like UNICEF and the Red Cross. So the problem was never that they were being inefficient with money -- it was that they spent all of their well-managed funds on a half-hour guilt trip and a bunch of tacky posters.

Via Cmcforum.com
"When he sees all the posters we put up thousands of miles away from him, he'll have to surrender!"

Kony madness notwithstanding, charities with higher overhead are generally better than their penny-pinching counterparts because of that simplest of business facts: You have to spend money to make money. The same principle applies to building schools, feeding and housing disaster victims, neutering kittens or whatever else a charity might deem charitable.

And when we unwisely favor charities with low overhead, we're actually encouraging them to cut corners. They'll hire unqualified people, run cheaper but unhelpful programs or just flat-out lie about their finances. All of this results in less useful aid -- exactly what analyzing administrative expenses is supposed to avoid.

"Oh, this? It was ... it was a gift. A gift from the children we've helped with our fine, honest charity."

Earmarking Your Donations


What You Think You Do

Similar to choosing charities with low overheads, earmarking your donation ensures that your money goes to something important, as it specifies that it has to be spent on a particular project.

Why You Shouldn't Do It

Charity funding tends to be a lot like high school -- the cool kids get all the attention, while the nerdy ones are left to their own devices.

"Displaced Tornado Victims? Oh, he's over there, but trust us, you don't want to talk to him."

In the charity world, this means that some projects are considered sexier than others. It makes sense, really: Telling people that you funded a hospital makes you look like a better person than saying you contributed to a sewage system for a goat farm.

When you combine this bias with the ability to earmark your donations, what you get is a massive imbalance in funding that leads to some serious bureaucratic absurdities. In the wake of the 2004 tsunami, aid agencies received so many donations earmarked for housing people who'd lost their homes that they ended up building mini-mansions for many of them, just to get rid of all that excess cash they literally couldn't spend on anything else.

"Sorry, we're all out of the money earmarked for food and medical care. Would an extra three bathrooms help?"

Even the most innocent-seeming and vague earmarks -- like saying your money should go to orphanages or tsunami victims -- can cause problems due to their restrictive nature. In Indonesia, charities could only help areas that had literally been hit by the tsunami. People further inland were poorer, and the chaos left them in desperate need of aid, but since they didn't get wet, the charities couldn't do anything for them.

Hell, specifying a country is too much. Take the earthquake that struck Japan in 2011. While it was truly an awful tragedy, Japan is a wealthy country that is extremely well-versed in recovering from whatever geography throws at it. However, due to the dramatic nature of the disaster, the outpouring of aid from around the world was so amazing that Japan got way more than it needed. And thanks to earmarking, instead of using the surplus donations to help other countries in need or prepare for the next disaster, charities were stuck spending it in the Land of the Rising Sun ... despite the fact that Japan stated multiple times that they didn't need or even want our help.

"We really do appreciate the thought. Now, please fuck off."

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Volunteering After Disasters


What You Think You Do

Correctly done, donating money after a disaster is a great way to help. But you know what would be even greater? Volunteering your time, that's what! The aftermath of a disaster tends to leave the area in severe need of much heavy lifting -- helping the affected people, rebuilding the destroyed area, that sort of thing. For that, they need fearless manpower. They need you, goddamnit!

So you travel to the affected country and valiantly offer your services, completely disregarding all personal danger and discomfort. What on earth could be a better way to help?

"That homeless lady I saw is going to appreciate this so hard."

Why You Shouldn't Do It

Honestly? Pretty much anything.

Because you suck.

Seriously, you do -- at least when it comes to volunteer work.

"You guys should crash up here, it's way comfier than those huts you used to have."

Most unsolicited volunteers don't have any training, and while good intentions are nice, if you can't tell your ass from a screwdriver, you won't be building hospitals anytime soon.

Even if you somehow know what you're doing, chances are you probably won't speak the language or know the local customs. The first time you ask for directions to the bathroom, you might accidentally insult somebody's ancestors and start a blood feud. That's why even doctors are told not to head overseas except in strictly controlled conditions -- charity workers who are familiar with the area tend to get stuck babysitting them when they should be doing their jobs. If the guys with Ph.D.s are getting in the way, how much use do you think your art history degree will be?

Via Medair.org
"Alright, who needs me to sort their Picassos by period?"

We tend to think of disaster victims as huddled masses, waiting for the developed world to swoop in to the rescue like we're the Batman to their Gotham City. Part of it is the media -- as we all know, tragedy makes for better ratings. However, people actually donate more money when victims are portrayed as helpless, so at least that particular cloud has a silver lining.

The real culprit is our illusion of superiority. Be honest, now -- isn't it a little arrogant to assume that people in the developing world are so incompetent that you and your vague memories of high school shop class are going to make a difference in their lives?

Via Nhlink.net
"That's called a 'saw.' We use it to cut wood. Are you with me so far?"

There are going to be plenty of survivors who know how to get shit done, and they're damn well not going to sit on their thumbs while their community suffers. Not only are they more than willing to work, they'll be way more motivated than some guy who popped down for spring break.

The real problem after a disaster is never the shortage of manpower; it's the shortage of resources. Food, water, materials, copies of Diablo III ... these are what a community needs to rebuild, and it's hard to fight that shortage when you have a small army of volunteers consuming what little is available.

"We're here! When do we eat?"

If you volunteer overseas, you might help build a few houses, but you'll also be tearing through a lot of food and water. Food and water, you know, that could have gone to someone who doesn't have the option of staying home and chugging Mountain Dew.

So why not do just that and donate the price of those plane tickets to charity? Literally everyone wins.

You can read more from Mark at Zug and McSweeney's Internet Tendency.

For more ways we're screwing everything up, check out 5 Government Programs That Backfired Horrifically and 5 Government Programs That Backfired Horrifically.

And guess what? We've made donating to charity super easy, also. Just click here, donate and we'll handle the rest.

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