Most charitable donations are made by middle-class individuals, not by billionaires or charitable foundations. And as we all know, the middle class is stretched, with families living from paycheck to paycheck. If you ask people to make a donation today, you’re asking them to pull money from the same account they use to make rent, or pay the mortgage. It’s easy to see why they might be reluctant to do that.

That’s one of the reasons why I like the idea of food pantries, or even turning art into social justice: they’re ways of changing the mental bucket that donations come out of. Spending money on food is something you’re going to do anyway, and once you’ve bought that food, it’s up to you how you’re going to use it. Art is a sunk cost, and it’s not something you’d normally consider using to make rent.

People are amazing, they even give up their precious bodily fluids, in their millions. (AP)

As blood banks have known for decades, there’s a lot of natural generosity in people. Give them the right opportunity, in the right context, and most people are more than happy to give. It’s just that day-to-day budget money is generally the last thing they feel comfortable giving up.

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So if you want to be able to get money from people, try to raise that money in a context where people are primed to spend, or where they have access to a new pool or stream of money, one which hasn’t already found its way into day-to-day life. Restaurants are one area people are used to spending money, especially expensive restaurants: people who would never dream of spending $50 on a bottle of wine in a wine store will happily do so in a restaurant, which implies that at some level the value of a dollar is degraded in that context.

Casinos are another obvious place to strike: the way that they convert cash into chips is just one of many ways they seek to make money seem unreal, divorced from quotidian reality. Luxury-goods stores love to site themselves inside casinos because people spend more freely there; there must be some way that charities can similarly benefit from Vegas tourists’ famously free-spending ways, both inside the casinos and in neighboring strip clubs and other attractions.

Then there are what financial types like to call “liquidity events”: selling your house at a profit, inheriting a bunch of cash, selling your stake in a company, moving to a much better-paid job, all those kind of things. Such events are an incredibly brief window of opportunity for charities, because they take place just before the hedonic treadmill starts speeding up. It won’t take long for that raise to get spent, or for that lump of cash to become part of some kind of long-term savings plan. But for a few days, it’s a windfall, a time when people might think that they don’t need to keep all of it for themselves, and might want to share some of it with the less fortunate.

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Those days are a great time to lock in some kind of commitment device. Take some of that lump sum and give it to charity, or at least move it over to a donor-advised fund. Take some of that raise, and allocate it straight to people who need it (or, again, set up a recurring transfer into that DAF). Once you start giving a certain amount of each paycheck to charity, then at that point it becomes the default: you need to make an active decision to stop giving. And if you never had that money to spend, then the hedonic treadmill simply never had the opportunity to speed up that fast.

I just mocked this up, but you get the idea

If I had an entrepreneurial streak, I’d try to come up with some way of adding an extra line, below the tip line, on restaurant receipts, where patrons could donate a sum of their choice to a charity of the restaurant’s choice. Those diners are probably already spending quite a lot of money, there’s a good chance that they’re drunk and happy and feeling generous, and given the opportunity to give then and there, many of them will seize it. Or perhaps the big payments processors could implement this kind of functionality themselves. Either way, it seems like it could raise a lot of money at very low cost. Anybody wanna try?