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Sponsoring student adventures, with added charity.

Last weekend’s work was greatly enlivened for me by keeping track of the updates for Trinity Jailbreak. The challenge: 37 student teams had 36 hours to get as far from Trinity College Dublin as possible, without spending any money. They were, however, allowed to blag, persuade, and get corporate sponsorship to aid their “getaways”. Pre-contest, Donegal, Kerry, or perhaps Calais at a stretch seemed like likely winning destinations. However, this was grossly underestimating the resourcefulness of these students – with 1 hour to go, two teams were separated by less than 10km, frantically running in opposite directions – one in Indonesia, the other in Argentina, both >11,000 km from home.

From Trinity College Dublin’s website: “Medical students, Claire and Matthew were named winners of the competition on Monday when they reached the sunny Atlantic coastal city of Mirimar, south of Buenos Aires. They managed to fly to Buenos Aires and take a taxi down the Argentine coast without spending any of their own money and without speaking Spanish. Musician Chris de Burgh stepped in to pay for their ticket home… Many of the students persuaded travel agencies to sponsor them and made it to Paris, the Vatican City and Warsaw during the event… Lydia Rahill of the Trinity Law Society expressed gratitude to all who supported the event through sponsorship and offers of food, accommodation and help with travel expenses.”

The Challenge was organised on behalf of charity St. Vincent de Paul, which aims to fight poverty in Ireland, as well as Amnesty International, and had an original goal of raising €4,000 (~£3450). However, it caught the public imagination, and €10,000 had been raised by Monday, with €15,000 expected as a final tally. It’s apparently even made it into Time Magazine.

“Very impressed with @TCDJailbreak. Brilliant way to raise money for charity and amazing to see how far you can get by just blagging” tweets one Irish celebrity.

A great success!

Or was it?

I’m taking anyone’s best guess at how much all of these flights, accommodation, food and so on for the 37 teams would have added up to. It would take an age to find out, but it seems that it cost at least one team well over €4,000 (from Twitter: “@RoyalBruneiAir and Dermot Mannion are unbelievably generous, sponsored a @TCDJailbreak team w/ return flights to the tune of over €2000 each”). Now, only a few teams got as far as Indonesia, Brunei, Sydney (neither Brunei nor Sydney won due to missing the deadline) and Argentina – most stalled in Europe and some didn’t make it past Ireland. But it’s a near certainty that the overall cost of sponsoring this event is more than the expected €15,000 raised – I suspect a lot, lot more.

Which means the bottom line is: €15,000 to be raised for charity, >>€15,000 raised to sponsor “adventures for students”.

There are a lot of positives about this challenge – it encouraged a great deal of resourcefulness in those taking part, and showed quite how far you can get from a starting position of very little. But as a charity event? Can we say ‘the bottom line is €15,000 is going to good causes that wouldn’t have otherwise’? Or is this an example of a hugely wasteful resource-gobbling ‘charity challenge’ with only a small fraction of the funds making it to the intended charities?

– Perhaps this just counts as ‘good advertising’ for the airlines and travel agencies that sponsored it, and that this money would have gone into more television advertisement otherwise.
– Perhaps the personal individuals who covered flights, food and accommodation just like sending students on holiday, and wouldn’t have dreamed of sending this money directly to a charitable organisation if this event hadn’t taken place.

However, the public landscape is littered with good causes which need our support. And when we, or celebrities, or corporations support one cause, it means resources that can’t be allocated to another. When it comes to individuals, some literature suggests as well that biases such as “purchase of moral satisfaction” (Kahneman and Knetsch 1992) mean that people will spend just enough on a ’good cause’ to have that warm, fuzzy feeling – it may not matter how much actual good that donation does in the world; it would seem to follow that if a better target comes along they will not be inclined to support it. So a wasteful charity stunt may hurt other charitable ventures by diverting resources in inefficient directions*.

A contrasting charitable challenge taking place shortly is Live Below The Line. People challenge themselves to live for £1 or less a day for five days, raising money while highlighting how severe the poverty line is. And it doesn’t cost a huge amount to put on. If anything, those undertaking the challenge save money.

It’s hard for me to say with certainty without a lot more background work whether the ultimate charitable contribution of “Jailbreak” has a plus or minus sign attached – a growing number of organisations such as Giving What We Can focusing on these types of considerations could give a much more thorough and careful analysis. However, these types of event are unlikely to represent the best way to do the most amount of good.

If you want to climb Kilimanjaro, climb Kilimanjaro. If you want to raise money for charity, find a challenge that doesn’t cost large amounts of money and get sponsored for that. Then give the charity your Kilimanjaro travel money.

Responsible charities need to move away from association with costly, resource-gobbling stunts.

(Although in fairness, Argentina? That’s some pretty good blagging.)

*It has also been pointed out that this event had a dinosaur-sized carbon footprint that is perhaps worth factoring in, but further discussion on issues such as these is outside the scope of this blog post.

D. Kahneman and J. L. Knetsch, Valuing public goods: The purchase of moral satisfaction, J. Environ. Econom. Manage., 22, 57-70 (1992).

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4 Comment on this post

  1. “Which means the bottom line is: €15,000 to be raised for charity, >>€15,000 raised to sponsor “adventures for students”.”

    Does it? It’s not anywhere approaching clear-cut whether the nominal retail price of a hypothetical ticket reveals the relevant utility cost here. Just because a flight costs £2000 does reveal anything ethically decisive. To look at utility alone: (a) it seems very likely that giving up one or two unfilled seats (which, to my understanding, is what usually occurs with during such events) would bear any significant utility costs on behalf of the airliner. Your implicit counter-factual assumes that such passengers paid full price (a price perhaps inflated given they viewed such with intention to fly the same or next day?), i.e. the airliner would have recieved the full retail price for their flights. Why is that any more reasonable to assume than that those flights – or those empy car seats – would have gone unseated?; (b) you’re assuming a single unit of currency (pound or euro here) translates the same utility gain for different people. A pound to the CEO of Brunei Air is probably going to manifest morally relevant different effects than if contributed towards someone without basic medical supplies or means of subsistence.

  2. Sean O hEigeartaigh

    Thank you for your comment neaS, and sorry for my late reply. Your first point is correct and well-taken – perhaps seats were being filled that would’ve been empty otherwise. It does seem that this would only be the case in some unknown fraction of cases, however, and that in many instances (e.g. celebrities buying return flights for participants) my counterfactual may hold. I agree that it’s not clear cut however. My gut feeling is that even taking this into account the value of money/goods/services put into this may outweigh what was raised, but I couldn’t prove it without a lot of background work.

    Re: b) I don’t think I’m assuming that at all, but perhaps I haven’t written clearly enough.

  3. Isn’t the main issue one of honesty? A few years ago a colleague of my wife’s was going to row across the Atlantic “for charity.” Admirably, she showed a breakdown of costs, which revealed that of the estimated budget (money raised = costs of adventure + bit she was giving to charity) around 90% was going on the trip with about 10% actually going to the charity. It’s great that she was open and transparent about this. It also strikes me as ok if you work in an environment with shared norms that mean everyone expects 90% of what they give to go on operations, and 10% to go on recipients. But (1) if people think that most of the money they give is going towards the nominal recipients of the charity, they that’s poor form since it’s false advertising; (2) people often feel shamed into giving to charitable causes, in a way they wouldn’t if someone said “could you give me a tenner so I can row across the Atlantic?” I think those are the real problems with this sort event – false pretenses and emotional manipulation.

    PS – don’t worry about the carbon footprint. Red herring.

  4. What i do not understood is in reality how you’re now not actually much more smartly-appreciated than you may be right now. You are so intelligent.

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