Overcoming Indecision When it Comes to Charitable Giving

Why do fish swim in schools?

Because of seal brains.

Seals have no trouble zeroing in on a solitary fish, but when you add a thousand more to the mix, their targeting system goes haywire. With so many potential options swimming and swirling around all at once, the seal brain gets overwhelmed and its decision making capabilities are incapacitated.

There’s something counterintuitive about more options being detrimental one’s ability to make a definitive decision, but in reality (at least for me and the seals), more choice leads to more indecision. You get so stuck evaluating each option against every other one that the ultimate prospect of making a decision becomes anxiety inducing. Even mundane decisions like what to watch on Netflix or which ice cream to get at Cold Stone can be incapacitating. And admittedly the majority of such instances are inconsequential annoyances at their very worst, but there are some types of indecision that have broader implications.

How often have you heard someone say, or have said yourself, “there are so many different needs in the world, it’s overwhelming to even think about addressing them”? I mean, where do you start? What’s most worth your time, attention, and resources? World hunger? Climate change? AIDS in Africa? Curing cancer? Do you address poverty in your own industrialized country, or somewhere in the developing world? And even if you do decide on a direction to take, what’s the best approach? Do you give money to one charity, or do you volunteer your time to another? By the time you arrive at a conclusion to this labyrinthine mess of potential decisions, you’re likely so overwhelmed that you’ve managed to talk yourself out of taking action in the first place. Instead you sit back, exhausted, and watch the entire school of global troubles swim safely away from your deflated best intentions.


Way to go, Seal Brain.

Since the 1970s, charitable giving has remained at 2% per GDP in the United States. This is been a stubborn statistic that many have put great effort in trying to solve. While there is much to be done regarding how charitable institutions are structured, much of the ownness is on us as members of the general public as well. And it isn’t that we’re all Ebenezer Scrooges at our core or that were closeted sociopaths with no empathy. Rather, often, it’s this problem of simply being so overwhelmed that we abandon the idea of taking action almost immediately after we have it.

So the big question is: How do we overcome this paralysis and make that executive decision to take action? If you’re one of those people stuck in this rut, I’ve detailed some food for thought below that can help get you over the hump.

Put Things in Perspective

I’m always struck each year when I get an email from Wikipedia that reminds me that if everyone who used their service would give just $3 a year, they would have everything they need to run their operation. When problems are put into perspectives that psychologically make them more manageable, it makes it that much easier to feel like your small contribution really matters. For example, while the statistic of 2% of GDP going into charitable giving makes it feel like getting to a meaningful percentage is impossible, the reality is that bumping it up to just 3% would add roughly $150 billion into the economy of good causes. The problem may seem overwhelming, it really wouldn’t take much in the way of collective effort to make an enormous impact. So even if you do only have a humble amount each year to give, go ahead and give it…your little bit really does count!

Make A List

If all you do is imagine the causes you care about, it’s easy to keep your action just as imaginary. But if you take a moment to sit down and write out the issues you’ve got the greatest passion for, that simple effort brings the idea to life. And by making a list that you can visualize, you can narrow down your options more easily to the one that you connect with most, making it that much easier to decide to act.

Take Advantage of Decision Making Resources

There are organizations who have taken it upon themselves to engineer paths of least resistance for people overwhelmed by the plethora of charitable choices out there. Organizations like The Life You Can Save and Effective Altruism help you decide where to donate by making it easy to find charities that you resonate with who are also the most effective with the money given to them.

Once you’ve made the decision to give, your task is easy. But often it’s working yourself up to actually making the decision that requires the most effort. And fortunately for us, we have an edge on the seals in our ability to outsmart the fish, to sit back, deliberate, and engineer ways to overcome our overload to not only make a decision, but make an educated, and hopefully satisfying, one as well.