Student panel discusses charitable giving – and whether to give to HBS

About 20 students gathered in Aldrich on Tuesday afternoon, 11/17, to hear five HBS MBAs discuss ‘Why, What, When, Where and How’ to give to charity. The panel discussion covered a wide range of provocative topics, from whether students should give to HBS, whether it’s okay to donate because it helps your career, and how to – and indeed if we can – measure the impact of charitable giving.

The purpose of the panel discussion was to highlight the many differing approaches that HBS students gave to the thoughtful giving of their money, time and expertise.

In that vein, the MBA panellists all came with vastly different experiences with charity. Dana Rye (OI) is a cancer survivor, and serves on the board of Fight Colorectal Cancer. Needham Hurst (OA) is a student director  at Y2Y Harvard Square, an overnight shelter for homeless young adults. Ankit Agarwal (OI) co-founded One for the World Harvard, having previously worked at educational charity Pratham in India. Stuart Skeates (NI) ran the Uganda office of Give Directly, a charity that makes unconditional cash transfers to people in extreme poverty. Andrew Walker (NJ) gives substantially to his church, as well as to a range of other causes, and is the Founder and President of Provo City Alliance. The discussion was moderated by HBS’s Prof. Nien-hê Hsieh and Tomer Perry, from Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics.

In a wide ranging discussion, the five students talked about the underlying strategy for their giving. Andrew first talked about how his giving – which amounts to a substantial portion of his earning – is budgeted and tracked. He gives to his church, as well as a number of anti-poverty causes, and limits his giving to those causes.

As a counterpoint to this, Needham and Dana have both engaged in ‘venture philanthropy’ – by starting or contributing to new charities with promising but unproven theories of change. Needham analogizes this to venture investing: the giving is a bet on a strong team trying to solve a big problem. In the absence (at this stage) of direct evidence for a particular intervention, his focus is on ensuring accountability and transparency about the organization’s process and results. Dana added that often the link between inputs and impact isn’t always direct – as in the case of measuring lives saved due to early screening for colorectal cancer – and instead she focuses on ensuring strong activities and process.

As a counterpoint to this, Ankit and Stuart are both followers of the Effective Altruism movement, which typically emphasises giving to highly cost effective charities with a high degree of evidence to support their interventions. Within that framework, they emphasised different things. He sees himself as a ‘retail giver’, which is why he looks for causes with highly predictably and highly effective outcomes. Ankit is primarily concerned with additionality: whether his giving making a measurable marginal impact. Stuart is less concerned with additionality, but looks at the outcomes that are achieved by the charities he supports.

In response to the discussion of Effective Altruism, Tomer raised three points that somewhat complicate the outcomes-focused worldview of Effective Altruists. First, he observed that it matters how someone makes their money, not just where they give it. Secondly, he pointed out that outcome-oriented giving may undermine democracy and people’s autonomy as cost-benefit analysis prefers health results over giving people control of their lives. Finally he pointed out that effective altruism reasoning can lead to very strange outcomes – like the substantial community in Silicon Valley who donate to research that seeks to prevent and regulate artificial superintelligence, on the theory that if doing so saves humanity from destroying itself, it is the most effective possible cause.

Following this, an audience member asked how people who wanted to work in corporate fields could have an impact through their giving. Dana acknowledged Tomer’s warning to ensure first that how you make money isn’t damaging. She also observed that the leadership of her charity said she was more valuable to them working on Wall St than working for them – because of the network of money and expertise it gave her access to. However she warned though considering ‘earning to give’ that they need to make sure they actually ‘give’ – which is harder than it sounds once the money is in your bank account.

Next, an audience member asked the panel whether they give to their Alma Mater or plan to give to Harvard. In response Ankit said that, even as a recipient of a HBS fellowship, he would not: he didn’t think that there would be additionality from his gift, because if Harvard didn’t get money from him, they would likely fund the same amount of financial aid from their $36bn endowment.

Needham, in contrast, evoked the obligation to maintain the commons from which we all benefit. He characterised funds for financial aid as belonging to that commons.

This inspired a discussion of what it meant to give back. Ankit argued that one need not give back directly to the source of an opportunity you had received. He said he felt the opportunity afford to him by HBS obliged him to give back, but to give back as effectively and to as many people as possible, which informed his decision to give to highly effective charities, and not HBS.

To this, Tomer observed that there was a case for looking at changing entire systems and mindsets through giving – as opposed to seeking to make a marginal improvement, assuming the world stays as it is.

Finally, the panel discussed motivations for giving, and whether it was okay to give for self-centric reasons. Andrew said he gave to improve the world he lived in. But he cited a wealth of evidence that shows giving to have positive impacts on a person’s brain chemistry, likelihood of being selected to lead, and even earned income. Dana said part of her giving was inspired by survivor’s guilt – but felt that ultimately what people did mattered much more than their motivation for giving.

The panellists agreed that what mattered was building a community of giving – regardless of how people come to that community. Often, a person’s first gift may not be the result of careful consideration, but over time, a community could move people toward unlocking their own strategy for giving.