Are micro-donations building a culture of donors?

With so many easy ways to donate – with a text message or a mouse click – will giving become a habit?

Business Wire / File
Muhammad Ali and Christina Aguilera joined forces to help the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) Haiti relief efforts by asking viewers to give $5 by texting FRIENDS to 90999 or donating online at Will these and similar easy-to-answer appeals create a culture of giving?

So I finally gave in and coughed up a donation for Wikipedia. It was no trouble at all, and felt good. Now I have a sense that I’m a partial owner – a stakeholder of sorts – in this apparatus that I use every day.

And the other day, I did the same for a small choir that sings great stuff. And there’s a museum in town that’s cool so I gave a bit there.

There was a side project that I really believe in (sung English propers for liturgy, if you must know) and I headed a campaign for that and raised $5,000 in one week. It was wonderful.

The Mises Institute’s efforts this year have been more successful than any previous year.

I’ve been asking around about what others are doing and it turns out that many people are in on the act, whatever their financial means. It gets me wondering: are we beginning to see the emergence of a new culture of giving, made possible by technology that makes it ever easier to give small amounts or micro-donations? We know in a few years when the data come in but I suspect that this is what is happening.

Giving like this can be habit forming. The world is filled with miraculous and wonderful things, mostly online and mostly for free. We use this stuff every day. It makes the world a better place. Why not show support in a tangible way? Why should philanthropy be monopolized by billionaires? Pooling the cooperative generosity of thousands and millions is actually more effective and certainly more inspiring.

It’s true that giving this way doesn’t make rational sense according to a neoclassical idea of what constitutes economic rationality. Wikipedia is free and it will be there whether I give or not. The same might be said of the Mises Institute. If all we cared about were commercial exchange, I have every incentive to use the free good and never pay. There is no harm done in free riding, right?

Mises himself had a broader view of rationality. He said that all actions are rational from the point of view of the actor. I’m glad to embrace that idea. Giving in this way is not strictly a capitalist act if you define capitalism as only commercial exchange based on contract. But if we see capitalism as the voluntary sector of society characterized by private property relationships, this kind of micro-giving is part of that.

So I’m beginning to wonder now. In the future, will it be possible for artists, poets, musicians, painters, bloggers, and others to make a buck through encouraging micro-donations? A few years ago, I might not have thought so. But if giving in this way becomes habitual – and it really does feel great – maybe this could happen.

Maybe, just maybe, technology will help foster a new culture of donations that could become an important part of economic life for everyone.

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