Monday, January 19, 2015


The dynamic is very different when you charge for something. The Yoga Centre I go to is a not for profit. The culture of running something purely on donations/alms did not translate well from India, so they started to charge. The full time staff live at the centres and beyond food and lodging, do not receive much more than pocket money. Their lives tend to revolve almost entirely around the organisation. The rest of the input comes from volunteers. I, for example, volunteer as a teacher once or twice a week. They rely on people to donate time to help cook, clean, market, tend the gardens and generally keep the centres running. It provides a very different atmosphere. There are times when it leaves the staff who are there rather thin on the ground. It is difficult to know when people will give of their time, and plan. There is no sense of contractual obligation.

Volunteer Teacher at the Sivananda Yoga Centre

How to finance and do charity work is a challenging question. There are those who want to commit their lives to doing work for others. You have to eat though. We also have to recognise that we are people, not saints or heroes, and we are going to want to do some things for ourselves. One of the most effective ways to make a difference may be to work at the job that pays the most. You then have money to donate to charities or good causes. This was the conclusion of one of Peter Singer's philosophy students. Singer gives practical examples of ways to respond in his book 'The Life You Can Save'.

Another approach may be to divide your career in parts. Once you have the firepower to 'be your own patron', you can independently pursue what you would like to do. Bill Gates is clearly his own patron and doing amazing things, but you don't have to be a bazillionaire if your tastes are simple. You may also not have Gate's talent at running an effective altruistic organisation. Warren Buffet decided his core skill lay in growing money and he would make the most difference by growing that money and then (much later) giving it to someone else (his buddy Bill) to spend effectively. Buffett isn't that much of a spender. Although we may think wealthy people hoard piles of money like Scrooge McDuck, money isn't actually a thing. When someone has their money in an offshore account, they don't actually have anything there other than a paper trail. Buffett doesn't actually even like or understand why you should own gold. He doesn't understand why you would dig something out of the ground just to put it into a safe. Instead he invests in productive assets. Businesses. These businesses make stuff and do things people want. Since Buffett is happy with a simple(ish) life and doesn't need the profit, he prefers to invest it back into businesses and increase the ability to provide more goods and services that people want. He isn't stopping people from getting things, he is helping them in a different way.

I don't know the figures, but I suspect Yale university could provide education for free. They have a huge endowment that carries on growing. Free has a different dynamic though. It would certainly mean the application process would change. MOOCs are close to free. I suspect the drop out rates are higher than at Yale. Paying a lot for something is one way to ensure you value it. If the Yoga Centre suddenly had a massive endowment and could provide the Yoga, the books, the courses, the food, the accommodation etc. for free - should they do it? Money gives us a way of understanding transactions and what the rules are. When it is removed, we move into more confusing, emotional territory. Nassim Taleb describes relational vs transactional: 'when you buy goat cheese from your grocer, you have a relationship, not just a transaction, with some kind of bilateral commitment, loyalty, friendship.' Relationships are messy. You can't pay friends and family to be there we you need them. You can't pay them to be thoughtful. There is no service level agreement, and expectations are not guaranteed.

There is something priceless about free. There is something intangibly wonderful about a volunteer organisation. The rules are taken away though and the only thing that makes them work is the investment of time

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