Not too long ago I received an email solicitation for money from an old acquaintance. A breast cancer survivor, Patty (her real alias) proposed to ski across the middle of the Greenland ice cap with three other female cancer survivors to "raise breast cancer awareness."
Though it was easy to see how the proposition might work — give me money and the cure for cancer will be one step closer — I couldn’t connect the "awareness" dots.
How does "awareness" actually help the struggle against cancer? Those who have it are already aware, and those who don’t have it know someone who’s had it, and are, therefore, also aware. That covers pretty much everyone. I know, the reasoning goes something like this: the more people are aware that cancer exists, the more they are likely to donate money for research, so cancer will be cured sooner. But this is tenuous and specious sophistry at best. If cancer research is the objective, why not just solicit funds for that, and skip the arctic junket? What Patty really wanted was one more great adventure in her life, and she didn’t want to pay for it.
Actually, I was envious. Adventure junkies (of whom I am one) are driven to ever more outrageous accomplishments. It gives meaning to our lives. It’s what we live for. Transcending our own abilities doesn’t always put food on the table, but it builds “human capital” (in the words of Thomas Sowell) — capital that recharges our energy and creativity, capital that can be invested in future endeavors. But these adventures cost money. Last time I checked, climbing Mount Everest cost over $70,000. Put that on your resume.
I’d faced this before. Contemplating crossing sub-arctic Canada from Great Slave Lake to Hudson Bay along the Thelon River in kayaks, my partner (a journalist) suggested we raise funds by "doing it for charity" — any charity that deigned to associate itself with us. I asked her how the accounting would work. She responded that the funds would first be used to pay for our expedition; then whatever money was left over would go to the good cause. We’d solicit media coverage, write up our trip account, get it published, and donate the receipts (if any) to our charity.
Our incentives didn’t align with the still-unchosen charity’s. Our primary objective was crossing Canada above the 60th parallel: raising money and awareness for a generic "good cause" was just a way to finance our trip. To me, it seemed dishonest to flip the two and pretend that our charity was our primary objective while our trip was a self-imposed hair shirt to show dedication to the cause. So, in a spirit of greater transparency, I suggested soliciting commercial sponsorship from companies whose products we could use and who would actually benefit from supporting our venture through ads and testimonials. After all, I couldn’t — with a straight face — declare that I was kayaking the Thelon for Jerry’s Kids when I was actually doing it for Miller’s Adult: me.
Kelty, Hormel, and L’Oreal responded. They sent a tent, two cases of tinned meat, and assorted cosmetics. (Our pitch to L’Oreal had been that outdoorsy women also use cosmetics. They bought it.) In the big scheme of expedition funding, this was chump — albeit honest — change: we were very grateful and never failed to mention them.
Now don’t get me wrong. I am not against charity (with the caveat that charity, either with someone else’s money or at the expense of one’s own needs, is no virtue [while stinginess with one’s own property is no vice]). And I’m a firm believer in the libertarian value of uncoerced, private funding. Additionally, my heart always skips a beat whenever I think of Terry Fox, the cancer amputee who attempted to run across Canada with a 1970’s-era prosthetic leg, in unimaginable pain, come rain or shine, and in a constantly deteriorating condition, to inspire people to donate funds for cancer research. Fox’s only motivation was to cure cancer: he literally ran himself into the grave in a heroic act of total dedication. It was about the only thing left he could do.
I turned Patty down, telling her I needed my money for my own inspiring adventures, wished her luck, and congratulated her on her gambit.
She responded that I was small-minded, and that it was people like me who were what’s wrong with modern society.
Patty’s expedition succeeded in crossing a notable portion of Greenland’s ice cap but met with defeat for the usual reasons: weather, personal conflicts, equipment failure, less-than-perfect conditions, etc. — all understandable. Still, I can’t help but think that perhaps a bit of the wrong motivation had something to do with the failure.