Foundation Beyond Belief: A Scientifically Informed Charity

This is a guest post by Brittany Shoots-Reinhard. 

I’ve been lucky enough to work for Foundation Beyond Belief, a humanist non-profit with the mission of showcasing and facilitating the compassion and generosity of nonbelievers. I started as the Member Development intern in 2011 and today I head up Beyond Belief Network, our community service programs for local freethought groups. BBN was formerly three separate programs (Volunteers Beyond Belief, Foundation Partners Program, and Light The Night) which were reorganized in May when we launched BBN. I also run Helping Hands and am helping coordinate our newest project, Humanist Service Corps. I have a doctorate in Social Psychology from Ohio State, and I’m an expert in many aspects of human social behavior. I have a blog series with my sister-in-law, Sarah Reinhard, a well-known Catholic blogger and writer, that explores the differences between believers and nonbelievers and our more important commonalities. I have a second blog series on Foundation Beyond Belief’s blog about the Science of Giving, which I’ll be summarizing here. 

A scientific approach to charity

Because of my background in social psychology, I sometimes give unsolicited advice on practices at FBB, or more frequently, I back up the good instincts of others with science. One thing that FBB does very well is storytelling for our featured Humanist Giving` beneficiaries. There are plenty of reasons why stories are a good communication strategy, but one is the identifiable victim effect. The identifiable victim effect is the paradox that people will bend over backwards to give to a specific person but be unmoved to help thousands or millions (Did someone say Syria?). The best explanation for the identifiable victim effect I’ve seen is that one person’s story is more emotionally moving and motivating than a statistic. People can’t connect with or visualize a statistic. They can’t feel the urgency or horror of a situation unless they put themselves in the shoes of someone who is part of that statistic. As a result, charities use stories about individuals that they help or that need help to better communicate their mission. It’s also the reason that we encourage walkers to designate Honored Heroes when fundraising for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Light The Night walks.

Another practice of FBB (and many other charities) verified by data is the use of matching grants (like the $250,000 pledged by the Stiefel family to match the first $250,000 we raise in 2013 for Light The Night).  Plenty of research confirms that campaigns with a match to campaigns perform better than the same campaign without a match (in the most realistic version, donors were randomly assigned to receive a message containing news of a match or not, and real dollars were used as the dependent variable). One interesting finding to emerge from this research is that in at least one study, simply announcing a large donation was more effective than an equivalent matching grant. This suggests that the matching is not as important as the fact that a person or corporation is willing to invest in the cause. In other words, social consensus is as important as the economic impact of a match. So announcing that Todd Stiefel captains the international FBB Light The Night team and is making a huge contribution works because it lets people know that he feels that this cause is worthy of a great deal of his money and his time.

Support charities who use science as a basis for programming

As part of the charity evaluation process for Humanist Giving, we go through several rounds of comments and research. The FBB board chooses the featured beneficiaries from a winnowed down list of staff-selected finalists. All staff are given an opportunity to comment, and I was initially resistant to featuring Bernie’s Book Bank in the program. Like any good scientist, I will explain why I was completely wrong about them. Bernie’s program pages cite research linking book ownership and literacy/academic achievement. However, books are also a pretty huge sign of parental wealth and value placed on education. Researchers had the same concern, and found the summer learning gap (i.e., the disquieting phenomenon wherein lower SES children lose quite a bit of educational ground during the summer months, while their wealthier counterparts lose less or even gain ground) is at least partially due to lack of reading materials. Bernie’s is helping reduce this gap efficiently and inexpensively.

Innocence Project of Texas has been one of my favorite Humanist Giving beneficiaries, largely because of what I know about human memory and the legal system (plus Texas’s eagerness to execute people). I could write an entire blog about improving our justice system, but I restricted this post to one problem: eyewitness identification. Eyewitness misidentifications are implicated in 75% of false convictions overturned by DNA evidence. The biggest problem as I see it is that eyewitnesses are treated as the best type of evidence in a criminal trial, but are far from ironclad. Simply asking leading questions can cause substantial changes to memory or completely false memories. As experiments and funny YouTube videos demonstrate, people are so bad at remembering details about people they’re interacting with, they often don’t notice when a person they were talking to is swapped for someone else. Counter-intuitively, this tendency is worse during a crime when low visibility, high stress, and focus on a weapon or escape trumps committing the perpetrator to memory. I also have serious concerns about institutional racism because misidentification is more likely when witness and perpetrator are of different races. Despite this, black Americans accused of crimes against white Americans are disproportionately tried, convicted, and punished severely.

Can we coexist with believers and with different goals within our movement?

Following a couple lectures I gave to Humanist Community of Central Ohio, I wrote a series of posts about using social psychology to explain problems between groups in general, reasons that believers dislike atheists in particular, fighting anti-atheist prejudice, and recruiting nonbelievers to atheist and humanist groups. I see the work of FBB and Beyond Belief Network teams as critical in improving relations between theists and nontheists, and I explain how in each post in this series and summarize the main points below.

Intergroup tension is not all that surprising. People automatically sort the world into ingroups and outgroups, and their ingroup gets preferential treatment. Ingroup success and outgroup failure both increase self-esteem, so the deck is already stacked for ingroup favoritism. Atheists represent a particularly obnoxious outgroup to believers because our mere existence threatens very important world views about justice, meaning of life, and the afterlife. We can overcome believers’ dislike by coming out to our family and friends; providing them with multiple instances of “good” atheists will combat negative stereotypes. We can also work with religious groups on common goals. This has a number of benefits, in addition to combatting stereotypes. First, it highlights shared values and eliminates distrust between believers and nonbelievers. Second, it encourages formation of a shared superordinate identity, which is a fancy way of saying that both outgroups belong to a shared ingroup. Finally, it allows nonbelievers to ask questions and hear stories of believers in a context in which they’re less combative and more receptive to atheist ideas and viewpoints.

Intergroup tension is common even when groups share a superordinate identity. Recently there’s been quite a bit of ingroup-outgroup type fighting within the atheist movement. There’s been a lot of talk about civility and real atheists and what atheists or skeptics should or should not be. A lot of people are sensing fracture in the movement. However, as a social scientist, I’m excited, not concerned. We’ve got sufficient numbers to make secondary goals part of our identity, too. We don’t have a “fixed pie” of atheists; we’re growing rapidly. Additionally, there are quite a few (perhaps a majority?) of nonbelievers who do not belong to a local group because they don’t have time, or their goals and need to socialize are being met with other groups. But by having a greater number of more specialized subgroups, we increase the likelihood that those unaffiliated nonbelievers will join one of our clubs. 

In addition, supporting minority- or women-focused groups and adding them to our super-ordinate groups is the best way to encourage diversity. A great deal of research has shown that groups over time become more and more homogenous, because people affiliate with similar others. Without intending to, a group may be unwelcoming to minority groups because of a lack of diversity in their membership. Groups have to actively work at diversity. If not, we get homogeneity. So rather than quibbling over what constitutes Real Atheism TM, we should be building hierarchical structures of smaller local and virtual interest groups (e.g., Crafting Secularly, Pub Meetups, Service Committees, etc.) that feed into larger local and regional groups that are themselves affiliates of national organizations that serve the nebulous social identity of nonbeliever/atheist/secular humanist/freethinker. That’s how we’ll grow.

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Learn more about, and donate to, Foundation Beyond Belief at their website and read their blog, which regularly updates on the foundations activities.

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