I'm Just Not That Into You: The Truth About Altruism

OMG -- I’m up for a part in “Star Wars: Episode VII"!

Before you get too excited: I’m not quite ready to draft the awards acceptance speech. For one thing, they haven’t given me the role yet. For another, it’s pretty unlikely they will give it to me -- especially considering you, your friends, your family, and pretty much everyone on the planet with 10 bucks to spare is also eligible for it.

This opportunity -- the chance to shoot a scene with J.J. Abrams for the new “Star Wars” movie -- is one of several offered by Omaze, a startup with one of the most brilliant business models I’ve seen in years.

The company works with groups like Disney, LucasFilm, Netflix, and the like to arrange once-in-a-lifetime experiences: cook with Mario Batali, hang with the cast on the set of “Orange is the New Black,” go out in Hollywood with Ben & Matt, etc. People buy entries for a chance to win these experiences, and the money goes to charity. In the case of “Star Wars,” $40 bought me four entries, and my participation helped raise funds for UNICEF Innovation Labs. Omaze itself is a for-profit company; it doesn’t charge nonprofit partners an upfront fee, but does retain a share of the net proceeds.

And so it should. Omaze has created an amazeballs way to raise lots of money. Its website describes the Omaze creation myth as follows: “A little while back, we went to a benefit that Magic Johnson hosted for the Boys & Girls Club of America, where he auctioned off the chance to sit with him courtside at a Lakers game and join him for dinner after… As a couple of broke grad students, we could only watch helplessly as the bids escalated until the experience ultimately cleared for $15,000… Why should life’s most amazing experiences only be available to a select few? And worse, how could a prize which, in our minds, was priceless only raise $15,000 for the Boys & Girls Club?”

Many of us have already had experience with this kind of fundraising. In 2008, I regularly bought raffle tickets to hang out with Obama  donated to the Obama campaign. And it should be obvious why this strategy works: because, at heart, we are selfish creatures.

Calm down. I’m not saying that to be judgmental. People can be and often are incredibly generous. But as a behavioral characteristic, we put more effort into things that affect us personally than into things that affect others. Even our generosity is frequently driven by the way it makes us feel. We get a rush from doing something for others -- a sentiment nailed perfectly by U.K. retailer John Lewis in one of the best Christmas ads ever.

Busting out my credit card in response to an email plea for donations doesn’t provoke the same rush of emotion. When Avaaz or Greenpeace or MoveOn or somebody sends me an email detailing all the good work UNICEF Innovation Labs do and asking for my support, I may or may not give them something. If -- as often happens -- I get several similar requests in a week, I’m likely to ignore most of them.

So don’t keep trying to activate the same old, “Give us some money because we’re worthy and you’re a good person,” button. Give me a chance to do something awesome. Let me shoot a scene in a “Star Wars” movie, and let me feel altruistic and selfless while doing so, and I’m totally in.

Sorry. But I’m only human.

4 comments about "I'm Just Not That Into You: The Truth About Altruism".
  1. Rick Monihan from None , May 23, 2014 at 12:09 p.m.
    I'd rather just donate the money. No loss in the transfer. Might work for some people, I don't find it compelling.
  2. Pete Austin from Triggered Messaging , May 27, 2014 at 11:17 a.m.
    Why would you enter a contest for a chance to appear in Star Wars? The expected return on your time applying and checking the result will be less than minimum wage, so it's a poor idea. If you want to be in Star Wars, write the next Star Wars.
  3. Pete Austin from Triggered Messaging , May 27, 2014 at 11:23 a.m.
    Also: It's Star Wars™: Episode VII.
  4. Kaila Colbin from Missing Link , May 27, 2014 at 1:37 p.m.
    Not sure I agree with your math, Pete! The likelihood of me winning the contest and the likelihood of me writing the next Star Wars is about the same -- but one takes a few minutes of effort and the other takes years :)