Sam Simon, the intellectual and emotional force behind The Simpsons is dying. Five months ago, he was diagnosed with metastasized colon cancer and given three to six months to live.
He’s chosen to donate much of his considerable fortune – he makes "tens of millions" from The Simpsons each year, despite not having worked on it since 1993 – to causes that promote animal rights and veganism, partially through the Sam Simon Foundation, which also trains service dogs for the hearing-impaired.
This is a mistake.
He is, of course, entitled to contribute to causes that he cares about and to organizations that he believes will use the money to make a difference. And it's wonderful that he is choosing to give.
But it’s why he’s chosen these particular causes that is problematic; here’s his reasoning: “One of the things about animal rights, which is not the only thing that I care about in this world, is that your money can bring success. I see results. There is stuff happening, really good stuff, every week.”
This would seem to imply that he believes other philanthropic efforts can’t bring success or results; that we can help Fido but not Farhad. Let’s be clear: this view is pernicious, destructive, and, above all, wrong.
It’s unfortunate that he believes this, but he’s not alone. Many Americans, for instance, believe that foreign aid and assistance programs for the poor (“welfare,” if that’s your term of choice for food stamps, Medicaid, and other programs) are wasteful and don’t work.
Presumably, part of the reasoning for why Simon plans to donate to dog shelters is the “identifiable victim effect;” it’s likely easier for Simon to see the suffering of individual dogs near his home than the suffering of children in India. And certainly, there is really good stuff happening, every week, at the dog shelter he’s spending millions of dollars to fund.
It’s well understood that emotions play a significant role in charitable giving, too. From Peter Singer’s book, The Life You Can Save, regarding emotional priming in a charitable giving study: “Those who had answered the emotionally arousing questions and received the information about Rokia gave almost twice as much as those who got the same information but had responded to the emotionally neutral questions."
But there’s also good stuff happening, every week, that benefits human beings around the world. Livelyhoods, an organization I recently spent the day with for a profile, is empowering children in slums near Nairobi by providing sales training, a sales job, and loaned goods to sell.
Spark Microgrants, an organization my roommate works for, provides small grants to communities virtually unconditionally, and allows them to use the grant for whatever purpose they think could best improve the lives of those in the community.
No Means No Worldwide, another organization I’m profiling in Nairobi’s slums, teaches self-defense training to teenage girls who are at perilously high risk of being raped. After the training – which costs $1.25 per person – girls are 63% less likely to report being raped.
And those are just three organizations I’ve talked to in the past week. If Simon wants hard evidence – randomized controlled trials showing direct causality – he can check out GiveDirectly, and donate to one of their researched, proven causes.
In Simon’s words, “There is stuff happening, really good stuff, every week.” And it’s happening at a fraction of the cost of training a dog to be a service dog, which is estimated to cost between $20,000 and $40,000 per dog.
There’s no question that rehabilitating stray dogs and training them to help the deaf is powerful work for those that help the dogs and those that receive them. If, after looking at all of the areas where he could leave a dent in the world, he chooses to donate his money to dog training at $20,000 a pop, then fine.
But the choice should be informed more by facts than feelings, and in this case, Simon’s feelings about the efficacy of donations to humans in need are wrong, destructive, and harmful.
What do you think? Should Simon give his money to training service dogs, or to other organizations that benefit human beings?