Curation has become ubiquitous in our lives, reaching its conceptual tentacles far outside the gallery walls: Our music choices are curated by Spotify, our TV viewing by Netflix, our cocktail lists are curated by specialist mixologists.
Our philanthropic experiences are highly curated too. Give lists, whether they are from word of mouth recommendations, or in digital or analogue forms, are the classic examples – lists of where to give based on someone’s eye, or a set of criteria. Last week, we held a day of talks, panels and workshops focused on Curation with a Conscience, discussing risk, impact and decision-making in philanthropy. We discussed how curation, while it may be everywhere, is far from controversial. We desperately need it to function and process information in today’s oversaturated world – but need to recognise its challenges for philanthropy in order to do it thoughtfully and effectively.
We can’t get rid of curation. There is a profusion of stuff in the world today — news, data, music, movies, shopping – and humans need help making sense of it all. If we don’t get that help, the risk is high. Psychologists talk about ‘choice overload’: when there are too many options, this results in people making sub-optimal decisions, or worse, giving up and not making a decision at all. When it comes to philanthropic giving, this is the absolute last thing we want.
We also know that curation actually helps people give more. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has supported some incredible research using randomized control trials to create data about people’s giving behavior. They studied how the use of Give Lists help spur actual giving. Their research showed that donation rates more than doubled, and volume of donations increased when lists were used.
Without a doubt, we need curation to help us make sense of the world, and of our giving. But it’s not without its challenges. Many people argue that our curation fixation has not brought us all together around an idea, exhibition or a list. In fact, it’s done the opposite.
Every time intermediaries or programme officers – or yes, consultants like us – advise on where philanthropic investments will have the most impact, or which grantees are risky or not, we use a set of codes, rules, and standards to make those judgements. Many of those things are commonly agreed upon standards to help us make wise decisions. But even with the most basic decisions, we bring our own values and indeed our own biases to the table when we curate. We don’t always see or know what they are, but they have reverberating impacts on the flow of funding, where it gets concentrated and crucially, who misses out.
The Effective Altruism movement is a great example of how an analysis that offers giving advice based on data, science and math-based analysis is rooted in its own set of subjective judgements too. Effective altruism asks one question of its acolytes: how can we use our resources to help others the most? They talk about funding the ‘best causes’ with a ‘huge impact’ to solve’ the right problems.’ While I don’t think any of us would disagree that alleviating poverty or vaccinating children are fantastic causes likely to have a huge impact, other areas like funding youth movements, reproductive rights, the arts don’t meet these criteria, and are nowhere to be found.
This isn’t meant to be a critique of the effective altruism movement: it has been extremely effective indeed at bringing new people to social change that are attracted by using data to make giving decisions. These systems are necessary. But they’re not neutral. They’re not entirely objective. And the sooner we acknowledge that fact, the more we can start to interrogate not just how understand concepts like risk and impact, but why we make the decisions we do.
Alisha Miranda is Chief Executive of I.G. Advisors