An argument for radically rethinking your charitable donations


What should you do with your money? (Dimas Ardian/Bloomberg)

How do you give back? It’s an eternal question. There so many worthy causes for our limited sums of money. With each dollar we’re voting for what is most important.

While it’s tough to universally agree on what matters most, Google CEO Larry Page and others make a convincing argument that the usual suspects aren’t the place to invest. In a recent talk at TED, Page defended corporations, citing their ability to change the world on an unmatched scale.

“I’m really dismayed,” he told Charlie Rose. “Most people think corporations are basically evil. They get a bad rap.”

Page went on to explain the potential merits of giving his money to Elon Musk, the visionary behind SpaceX, Tesla and SolarCity.

“He wants to go to Mars. That’s a worthy goal. We have a lot of employees at Google who’ve become pretty wealthy. You’re working because you want to change the world and make it better; if the company you work for is worthy of your time, why not your money as well?” Page said.

In other words, why give a man a fish when you can teach him to fish on Mars? Human civilization won’t be able to live on Earth forever.

It’s radical to consider donating to a man running a for-profit company. But while there’s immediate gratification and value in donations to things such as food kitchens for the hungry, Page’s argument plays the long game and thinks of future generations. In a way, he’s getting more bang for his buck. More than anything, technology has driven the largest improvements in the human experience. Bill Gates expressed it well in a recent interview:

Before 1700, everybody was poor as hell. Life was short and brutish. It wasn’t because we didn’t have good politicians; we had some really good politicians. But then we started inventing – electricity, steam engines, microprocessors, understanding genetics and medicine and things like that. Yes, stability and education are important – I’m not taking anything away from that – but innovation is the real driver of progress.

Harvard professor Steven Pinker once argued that Norman Borlaug, father of the “Green Revolution” is more admirable than Mother Teresa. It seems outlandish until you consider that Borlaug has been credited with saving a billion lives — more than anyone in history — thanks to his mastery of agricultural science.

If you’re interested in investing your donations in the largest positive impact on humankind, than consider giving to the elite innovators. They may not be traditional saints, but their missions are incredibly respectable.

“I’m trying to allocate my efforts to that which I think would most affect the future of humanity in a positive way,” Musk once said.

Investing in the best minds will pay off for humans as a whole. Tesla and SpaceX famously flirted with bankruptcy during the 2008 financial crisis. We’d be worse off if he didn’t receive the resources to keep his companies and work afloat.

I’m curious, do you agree with Page?

Matt McFarland is the editor of Innovations. He's always looking for the next big thing. You can find him on Twitter and Facebook.
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