Saving the Poor or Saving Notre Dame, or the Curse of Wicked Problems

Recently, the age of outrage took aim at large donors stepping up to help restore Notre Dame.

Part of this anger was fueled by the disbelief at the billionaire class being able to come up with hundreds of millions of dollars at a moment’s notice. The enormous wealth created in the current era just blows our collective mind (as it should). Any chance to rant against the enormous inequality stemming from these massive fortunes can’t be passed up. Even my 14-year-old daughter thought the donations were frivolous, tone deaf, and misdirected during these times. I disagree for a couple of reasons.

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First, and most obviously, Notre Dame is worth restoring. It is one of the rarest treasures of architecture and human achievement. Regardless of your religion, few humans can stand next to it and not be overwhelmed with an inspiring sense of human potential. Art is often viewed as frivolous, but it is a physical expression of our deepest emotions—faith, love, joy. The presence of monuments like Notre Dame contribute to the experience of being human that is impossible to capture in pure economic statistics. We can’t measure its value and impact, but we know it is there.

Of course, the argument against these donations is not that Notre Dame has little value, but simply there are better causes deserving the dollars. If we can spend the same dollars to save human life, ease suffering, or restore the climate, it should be an easy trade, right? But, giving to these issues differs from giving to Notre Dame in one massive respect: it usually doesn’t work. All of the big issues of our time—how to develop valuable skills in mass, how to end poverty, how to reduce environmental degradation—are classic “wicked” problems: hard to define, complex in cause, contextually and culturally dependent, and unfortunately, riddled with landmines of unintended consequences in trying to solve them.

In 2017 alone, over $400 billion was given to charity in the U.S. Take out gifts to religious groups (much of which do go to poverty) and still more than $250 billion went to philanthropy. And the wicked problems received the bulk of those dollars—$60 billion to education, $50 billion to human services, $30 billion to public-society benefit, and almost $12 billion to environmental causes. That is a ton of money and the vast majority is coming from individuals— the same ones giving to Notre Dame.

What did we get for these huge outlays? Well, I am sure there are plenty of stories of success, but the core problems remain intractable:

Poverty in the US remains stuck at 12%—roughly where it has been for three decades.

U.S. education performance continues to drop—now 38th in the world.

Our carbon emissions have dropped some, but remain massive.

Chronic disease (diabetes primarily) and obesity are now at all time highs.

And while you might argue the poor results stem from a government reduction in spending on these items, you would be wrong.

Bill Gates recently admitted of his work on public education: “we haven’t seen a big difference even after 20 years, but we’ll keep going.” My hunch is you could get the same frustration from anyone who has devoted their lives to any of these issues. But, we must keep trying. I am in favor of a more small-bet, innovation-focused style of philanthropic investing, but any and all forms of trying to crack these wicked problems are valuable and needed.

“Kind” problems present in a very different way—they are definable, contained and predictably solvable with simple money or effort. Providing turkeys to the needy at Thanksgiving, funding solar projects, endowing scholarships...or rebuilding a landmark church are all examples. These gifts tend to tackle symptoms rather than root causes but they have a direct, definable impact. But, just because they are kind doesn’t mean they don’t matter. The spirit of giving is contagious and seeing some success leads to bigger generosity.

This is surely one reason why so many donors felt compelled to donate to rebuilding Notre Dame—they know it will work, unlike the “wicked” problems they tend to support. Give money, restoration happens. Support for these “kind” problems can build momentum and support for the “wicked” problems. The tangible impact provides hope and conviction that it is possible to make a difference with philanthropy. Small victories demand bigger challenges. At worst, we get to keep Notre Dame for a few more generations. Either way, I am going to reserve my outrage for another day.