Felix Salmon on Slate Money: I told listeners I’d match their charity donations and ended up spending nearly $20,000.

How a Promise to Slate Listeners Cost Felix Salmon Nearly $20,000

How a Promise to Slate Listeners Cost Felix Salmon Nearly $20,000

Moneybox
Commentary about business and finance.
Dec. 5 2014 4:26 PM

A Promise to Slate Listeners Cost Me Nearly $20,000

And I couldn’t be happier about it.

Holiday donations
Giving is better than receiving.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Christos Georghiou/Thinkstock and Top Photo Group/Thinkstock.

The Nov. 15 edition of the Slate Money podcast was never going to be an easy one. Of the three regular panelists, Cathy O’Neil was going to be in Haiti, Jordan Weissmann was going to be in Orlando, Florida, and I found myself at the last minute having to be in Miami. So I decided to change tack and do something a bit different: a whole podcast devoted to philanthropy, featuring two special guests. One was Jesse Eisinger, who had just published a sadly unsurprising exposé about the American Red Cross (there’s now a follow-up, too); the other was Rob Reich, the Stanford University political scientist who’s my favorite observer of the philanthropic world.

All three of us are pretty cynical people, especially about philanthropy, and yet there was a tinge of hope to the podcast, especially toward the end, when Reich started talking about Giving Tuesday. And so, in a moment of inspiration, or madness, or some combination of the two, I announced to all our listeners that if they donated money to Doctors Without Borders by Giving Tuesday, Dec. 2, I would match their donation, within reason.

What was I thinking? Well, Doctors Without Borders has long been my favorite charity, and my wife and I have been giving money to them, annually, for many years. But right now, to say extra special thanks for their heroic efforts to fight Ebola in West Africa, I felt it was time to do something extra special on my end, too. I had no real idea what to expect, but for some reason, in the back of my head, I had the number $5,000. If we got 50 people donating an average of $100, or 100 people donating an average of $50, then that would come to $5,000, which I could then double to get to a nice round grand total of $10,000.

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Obviously, there was nothing particularly strategic or organized about my pledge. I didn’t ask for any particular proof or documentation; a simple email saying “I just donated” would suffice. And it was certainly interesting to see what people were willing to reveal about themselves in order to get the matching donation. Some were happy to forward on the full receipts from Doctors Without Borders; others redacted their addresses; a few of them didn’t even give their names. (One email just came from a nameless email address called “Padrhig” in South Korea, attaching a blurry photograph of an envelope with Korean writing on it. That got added to the tally too.) The only emails I decided not to match were the ones clearly outside the promise: donations that had already been made by the time the podcast came out, or donations to other charities entirely, or pledges to donate at some vague time in the future. Other than that, I decided I was not going to get into the business of second-guessing who seemed genuine and who didn’t.

A week later, when I recorded what we decided to call the “Matching Gift” edition of Slate Money, I was incredibly happy to be able to announce that we’d reached a total of slightly more than $4,000 pledged. My gut, it seemed, had been right. I knew there was still quite a long way to go until Dec. 2 but reckoned that we were going to have diminishing returns from that point onward.

Boy was I wrong. In fact, even as I was recording that podcast, a new email was coming in, from a gentleman who had donated 72 shares of Microsoft, worth $3,442.32.

That email, I think, was the tipping point. I could have just drawn the line at $5,000 and said that my limit had been reached—but that felt unfair to everybody who had yet to donate anything. And so I started thinking: What if I didn’t draw the line? What if I matched even a donation of $3,442.32?

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That thought never really went away, even as the donations kept on coming in. Most were between $50 and $500, but there were quite a few on either side of that range, including a number of pledges to contribute monthly. (I had no idea what to do with those.) And it wasn’t just dollars and Microsoft stock, either: We got pledges in pounds, and euros, and Australian dollars, and Canadian dollars, and even Swedish kronor. All of them went into my spreadsheet, where the grand total kept on ticking steadily upward.

If someone had come to me immediately after I made the pledge and asked if I would match some five-figure sum, I would have said no—that was not my idea of “within reason.” But the grand total rose slowly, and at every point on its rise it anchored itself. Once I was mentally committed to donating $5,000, then that money was mentally spent, and then the next $100 donation only required me matching $100, a mere 2 percent of what I’d already spent. Who was I to say no to increasing my match by 2 percent? And so the total I was mentally matching continued to rise, day after day, sometimes hour after hour.

The emails were also just wonderful to read, especially the ones from other people involved in the show (thanks, Stan Alcorn and Jesse Eisinger!) and from people who said that they would normally have given to the Red Cross but had switched over to Doctors Without Borders after listening. I also managed to goad the Economist’s Matthew Bishop, over Twitter, into matching my match: He said that he’d donate 50 cents for every dollar of my own, up to $5,000. The total, at this point, was getting really big!

And then, a day before the deadline, the slow-and-steady rise in donations came to an end. With a fast-and-enormous donation from one Jesse Abelson, who sent us a long and incredibly thoughtful email, which included the news that he was donating $40,000 to Doctors Without Borders from his family foundation.

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That put the grand total over the top and forced me to cry uncle. So, how much should I donate, in total, given that, with Abelson’s $40,000, I can’t match everything? Well, looking at the list, there are 114 donations in total. The average donation is $520, thanks to Abelson; the median, however, is $100. So I decided that I would match all donations up to five times the median, or $500. Which means that I’m writing a check to Doctors Without Borders for $19,724.66.

And when you add in all the pledges, including Abelson’s $40,000 and Bishop’s $5,000, the grand total we’ve managed to raise for Doctors Without Borders is an amazing $90,946.90.

Can I afford to give almost $20,000 to Doctors Without Borders? The short answer is yes—even though it’s four times as much as I initially thought I’d end up giving. One way I’m thinking about it is that I don’t have kids, and this is less than the amount of money I’d spend to send even one kid to university for one year. Another way I’m thinking about it is that even after making this donation, my net worth is going to be higher at the end of 2014 than it was at the beginning. The markets have gone up, raising the value of my retirement savings, my apartment has risen in value, and I’m in my prime earning years. So yes, I can do this.

But it’s not just that I can do this; I really want to do this, too. I feel really happy about doing it, and I’d feel bad if I didn’t. Helping to raise some $91,000 for Doctors Without Borders is surely the best thing I’ve done this year. And although this is emphatically a one-off, not-to-be-repeated thing, I have to say that in my heart of hearts, I kinda want to do it again.