Posted by: PG | May 17, 2010

Donate the Difference

At a May 2009 speaking in New York which I attended, the Dalai Lama received questions about some of the biggest problems facing the planet. Environment in tatters. Economy in ruins. Genocide. Poverty. Drugs. Lack of health care. Human trafficking. And other such culprits prominent in the ugly side of the human story. These culprits bear responsibility, of course, for the painful gap between the world we live in and the one we feel is possible.

His counterpart on stage that day was Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and an extraordinary person in her own right. She appeared equally equipped to discuss these monumental issues. She bowed, however, to the intuition that the audience did not seek a political perspective. And with the gracefully ceded stage, His Holiness offered his unique brand of wisdom. He distilled each problem down to its essence. In each distinct case, he unveiled the same root cause operating in different contexts–the disastrous collective results from the behavior and motivations of individual actors.

The upshot accordingly, or discordantly, is that many of us feel victimized. We see toxic billowing smokestacks, filthy rivers, devastation from war, ravages of disease, endangered species, unfair labor conditions, unbridled greed, starving kids, sex slaves, and fear-ridden communities. And for each of these issues, there is a host of others.

So we are naturally drawn to what we’ve been told about how our own individual actions can counteract. How we can shed victimhood and create a new, better world. Be the Change, take responsibility, start with the Man in the Mirror. We see that solutions can operate in similar fashion, the wondrous collective results from the behavior and motivations of individual actors.

And so we try in earnest. And sometimes we realize success. But often we get frustrated. Our individual efforts sometimes seem pointless. In these instances, we feel disempowered; our sense of individual responsibility is compromised. I respectfully submit it is high time we fully reclaim our individual ability to create impact. We need heightened awareness of the significance of our daily decisions. Let’s empower ourselves to honestly decide what type of world we want to live in. We have a responsibility to consciously decide, if nothing else.

A good friend and I recently hosted 100 underprivileged people for lunch at a restaurant serving tasty, wholesome food in Rishikesh, India. Ramana’s Cafe is in my opinion the best, healthiest restaurant in town and, even better, all proceeds benefit an affiliated orphanage. Soup, salad, fresh fruit juice and Indian dal and rice were served. All organic. The cost was, well, free in a way. A simple rearrangement of resources and a slight shift in perspective.

The lunch emerged from a decision about where to stay my last night in Delhi. In India, I sometimes supplement my normal backpacker travel style. I am able to do so thanks to inconvertible Rupee proceeds from the sale of a small sugar cane farm my father bequeathed me and my brother a long time ago. Because it is a luxury I can thereby afford only in India, I planned to stay at the exquisite Shangri-La.

A friend pointed out to me the extravagance of this choice. I laughed it off at the time but I somehow could not bring myself to make a booking afterwards. And the reason was obvious. It is hard in my particular individual context to justify an indulgent stay when poverty is so readily evident right around each corner in India. I chose a more typical backpacker option instead.

I could have chosen to keep the difference of costs in my own pocket. Naturally the money was mine, any benefits of saving accrued to me. This is where a shift in perspective comes in. Rather than a spend or save perspective (“whether to pull the trigger”), I shifted to how to spend once I had made the decision to do so (“where to aim”). As I had already prepared myself to outlay a certain amount of cash (the price of a night’s stay at the Shangri-La), the choice was then about determining how that amount could best be spent. It occurred to me the number of people that could be fed in India for the price of one night’s stay. I like comfort as much as the next guy but I realized that I would be far happier choosing the backpacker option and feeding 100 people for the afternoon and supporting an orphanage.

That’s what this is about ultimately–happiness. This framework of resource allocation can be applied far, far more broadly. If enough of us shift, we could start a world-changing movement.

Economists generally assume rationality, that we make purchases with full awareness of alternative uses, in the name of maximizing utility or happiness. But how many of us actually consider the entire world of possibilities when we make an impulsive purchase or even a well-considered one? Every time we make a decision to spend, we also necessarily make a decision not to spend it elsewhere. How we spend money is a reflection of priorities.

Would you happily make do with generic orange juice instead of name-brand if it helped stop rainforest decimation? Could you happily choose chicken or vegetarian instead of steak if it meant your daughter and granddaughter could see a Bengali tiger not doomed to extinction? Leave that shirt on the rack if you could enable a month’s schooling or vital vaccinations for a child in South America? Bus instead of train can make a difference. Brown bag instead of salad bar can make a difference. Used instead of new can make a difference.

Donate the Difference. Once you shift from a pulling the trigger perspective to a where to aim perspective, each difference you save is the difference you make. Once you determine that you are comfortable spending a certain amount of money on a good or service, take an extra moment to reflect and perhaps you will find a cheaper alternative and a donation to a worthy organization will make you happier. Resources will naturally flow through our collective decision-making to our most vital causes. Let’s not be naïve. This is of course about limited resources.

What I am proposing is considering how you allocate your hard-earned dollars, euros, rupees every time you pull out your wallet. This isn’t about guilt. YOUR money is still about YOUR preferences. You have worked hard for your money and deserve to spend it how you like. Simply, you should get from your money what Economics has always assumed you get–maximum happiness.

In practice? Donating the Difference can be an entire lifestyle or a one time thing. It is all money the world needs that it is not otherwise getting. As a one-time thing it can be the 40 cents you save on Cookie Crisp because you decided to use a coupon, the $50 you saved against your April 2010 budget, or it can be the ten grand you saved getting a Prius instead of a BMW. Maybe Prius + Donation supporting hunger aid > BMW, according to your system of preferences. A lifestyle choice would not mean anything more than a commitment to look at purchases with awareness.

You can also use a Donating the Difference spending framework as a way to reward yourself. Those on stretched budgets might find this idea appealing. You could, for example, set aside 50% of your Differences for Donation and 50% for yourself. It can be 20/80 or 10/90. It doesn’t matter. You can adjust how frequently you “trim the fat”, the percentage of Difference you decide to Donate, and any other variables you see fit. You might implement Donating the Difference in your life just as much to find a new saving mechanism as a way to do good for the world. This is just about you expressing your own preferences, with awareness.

Perhaps you will find that Donating the Difference is something you would like to do. Perhaps it is an idea that states who you are in relationship to this world and what you stand for. If so, decide on the causes that move you. Decide how you will keep track of your Differences saved. Decide how regularly you will Donate your Differences–perhaps once at the end of each month or perhaps after each time you aim. Your choice, of course.

The potential is limitless–legal expenses, government defense spending, every dollar everywhere should be examined in the light of awareness. It all starts with each of us. Start looking at your own purchases more critically and see if you are getting what you want out of them. If you aren’t, make a commitment to Donate the Difference. Collectively across all of your decisions and those of everybody else, envision the resources flowing towards a more beautiful world. Let’s close the gap between the world we live in and the one we know is possible.

Please don’t chalk this up as a nice idea and place it on a shelf. This is a direct plea to YOU to the extent it resonates. Start simply, with just a change of how you see your spending. Donations can follow or not. (My guess is they likely will if you adopt this change of awareness.) Our problems and our solutions start with us. Let us vividly demonstrate the wondrous collective results from the behavior and motivations of individual actors. The difference you save is the difference you make.

PS-I wrote this while the lunch idea was still in the works. Ultimately, because Rishikesh already has free kitchen facilities, I decided to use the money to fund a charity art-exhibition at an orphanage. (Wonderlust: Not Worth the ConsternAsian) The idea remains the same–maximize your happiness.

PPS-I intend to explore the role materialism plays in society after return (which is getting closer and closer!). This may be in the form of advanced studies or some other opportunity that has yet to present itself. If you have any thoughts, tips or advice, I would love to hear it. Thanks!

PPPS-This one is a bit different than my typical post. If this idea happens to resonate with you, I respectfully request you email the link to a few friends or post it on your facebook page. I appreciate it.

PPPPS-Thanks to those friends who offered their invaluable feedback.


  1. I am all about this! I discuss this to no end in my consumer culture class. We as Americans need to evaluate our consumer selves and need to act as responsible citizens in our consumption patterns more often.

  2. Really interesting philosophy in this context — you are able to see the direct benefits of the donations and that allows for the happiness factor. While on a grassroots level this is possible, sadly I don’t think this will work as the pervasive way of life in the US (I can already hear the cries of “Socialist!”). This is also easier for people without any dependents. But lately I have been struggling with when to give, especially living in NYC where there are panhandlers and others in need all over. But my favorite part of the post (besides the fact that this clearly triggers a dialogue), is that it shows how big your heart is.

    • Thanks for the analysis and compliments Abby. But this isn’t about the size of my heart–it’s about the size of yours. I would encourage you not to extrapolate and think with other people’s minds. If this works for you, do it. If not, don’t. All this is about is maximizing your happiness. I think we can all take responsibility for that!

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