• Comments 4

    Taking Dan Pallotta a Step Further

    Dan Pallotta says a lot of shocking things about charity. His message about our attitude towards the charitable sector flies in the face of a lot of accepted wisdom. And yet – when you really think about it, it makes sense.

     Except… there are elements of it that I agree with only conditionally; they make sense only under certain assumptions. As we listen to Dan’s words, here are some things I think we have to keep in mind:

    Dan says: charity should spend more on marketing and advertising.

    I agree, IF: the money is not spent on the same old fundraising tactics we’re all sick of already. There’s a new trend in marketing and advertising. It’s smarter, more sophisticated, more respectful, and more effective. It depends less on mass bombardment and more on targeted messaging. It’s interactive with and responsive to the people it’s trying to reach. It seeks to match the item being advertised with people who genuinely need or want it. It doesn’t rely on cheap emotional manipulation. Only on the condition that investing more money in charitable marketing and advertising will lead to this more advanced, less annoying, more productive form of charity campaigning, am I all for it.

    Dan says: more money going to charity is a good thing.

    I agree, IF: There is a parallel increase in focus on making charities accountable for the results they produce with that mony. A charitable sector that can demonstrate that it’s making a real difference in the issues we care about is a charitable sector I don’t mind giving more money to. But that means that just getting more cash into its hands isn’t enough. We have to start asking more hard questions, being more aware of what’s happening with the issues. Right now, there’s very little attention paid to that conversation. That desperately needs to change before I’ll feel comfortable giving one penny more to charity.

    I suspect that Mr. Pallotta knows all of this. Of course, he has to keep his messaging clean and simple, and he’s chosen to focus on the elements he feels are most crucial. But for us, the audience, this context is important if we are to avoid the idea that he’s simply advocating for a richer sector with permission to bombard us even more than they do now.

  • Comments 2

    Solving the Wrong Problem

    Here in Edmonton, there’s a new tech startup trying to helping nonprofit organizations reduce their costs. I debated one of their founders on television last week.

    Across the country, legislators are working hard to adjust the tax structures and reporting rules that charities live by. Across the world, legal acrobatics are being performed to create new designations for things that both do business and do good.

    All this is done with one goal: to do more good by increasing the productivity and/or efficiency and/or toolbox of organizations that are labelled “for good”. But there’s a piece missing; a colossal assumption underlying all this: How do we know whether these organizations actually do any good?

    None of the work I’ve mentioned above involves any of that accountability, as far as I can tell. We ‘help’ them improve on blind faith that, by virtue of being labeled “charity”, “nonprofit”, or “social enterprise”, they’re doing worthwhile things, and doing them well.

    As this excellent short piece from Seth Godin points out, it’s easy to get lost in a discussion of tools to such an extent that the tools become the point. We can lose sight of what we’re actually trying to get done.

    If all this work succeeds, we might end up with the lowest-cost, most perfectly administered, most perfectly legislated and taxed organizations possible. But no one will know whether they’re actually accomplishing anything, let alone anything that’s truly needed.


    What good is running if you’re on the wrong road?

    If all this work were taking place alongside an equally energetic and well-publicized movement for examining results, that would be one thing. But it’s not.

    In the absence of this conversation, all the tool-building work isn’t much good. Worse, it’s a distraction. It grabs the attention, and makes itself the focus of the conversation about improvement. Let’s put it back in it proper place: buried deep inside a broader discussion about what really works.

  • Comments 0

    That Awkward Moment

    At a recent charity gala event, I met some lovely people working on development and health projects overseas. When they talk about their approach, they say all the right things:

    • They work with the local people on the ground, rather than dictating solutions to them.
    • They look at different ways to do things and pick the ones with the best chance of success.

    They’re very positive and sincere. I really want to believe them, and in them. But I’m skeptical. Because every charity rep seems to have read the same articles. Everyone seems to know the same catchphrases. Ideas like the concept of doing things with the people we’re trying to help instead of for them are not new or revolutionary.

    So everyone talks the talk. Everyone knows what kinds of values and practices they’re supposed to be embracing.

    And yet – we know they’re not all getting everything right. We know there are degrees of quality in charity work.

    So when we meet some new cheerfully enthusiastic charity worker, how do we tell the difference? What’s the savvy move in that situation? The path of least resistance is to get sucked in – to agree that their approach is more new and exciting and worthy than the rest.

    For me, though, that feels fraudulent. I want social change efforts to be held to a higher standard. I don’t want to congratulate people I just met for good intentions and efforts that may (for all I know) be doing more harm than good.

    It’s tricky to walk the line between being discriminating and being rude, expecially in the area of someone’s passion for change. I think that, for me, it’s a skill that will always be a work in progress.

    But I also think it’s worth cultivating, because the alternative is to give blanket approval to anything that claims to be ‘for good’; perpetuating treatment of all do-gooding as equal, rather than elevating, promoting, and spreading what’s actually working.

  • Comments 0

    Let’s Fight, Y’All

    I got into a bit of a scrap on Twitter the other day. It happens a fair bit, as a matter of fact.

    I see some tweet or statement that I have an issue with, or that I can see another side to, and I dive in. In the best cases, I end up in a spirited back-and-forth debate with my fellow community members, trading argument for argument, and sometimes conceding a point.

    I freaking love it. It seems like (more than in other forums) a lot of people aren’t afraid to say what they think on Twitter; to get into it, to challenge others. They also (the ones I’m connected to, anyway), usually know how to keep it civil, stick to the merits of the argument, and not get personal.

    As a result of these ‘fights’, I often find myself looking a question from a new angle, having hashed it out with someone who doesn’t agree with my view.

    One of the Edmonton Do Gooder Project participants and I were lamenting the other night how unfortunate it is that, when it comes to doing good, we often don’t see these kinds of tough questions and challenging conversations. A lot of people seem to be sort of allergic to being critical of efforts to do good things.

    But isn’t this where we need to be most critical? Isn’t this where we all need the most perspective, the most challenge, the highest standards? If we want to get better at producing good results, that is.

    So, everybody: let’s fight.

    Let’s do it respectfully. Let’s make it about the work. Let’s develop our ability to defend our positions, and to see value in the arguments of others. Let’s do it all in the name of getting better.

    Now: Put up yer dukes!

  • Comments 2

    Follow Your Heart, But Take Your Head With You

    I saw some folks promoting an event “for charity” last week on Twitter. I had to ask – which charity? Why that one? It led to quite a long conversation, eventually drawing in the event organizer.

    She was able to report that deaths resulting from the disease they’re fundraising for (a form of cancer) have dropped significantly in the past several years. That’s a great answer, but I asked for more detail about the impact of the specific organization she’s fundraising for.

    Her reply:

    “If I was a Dr., I’d be able to say all of the above. I’m just an Auntie of a 7 year old… survivor. #lovemyjob.”

    First let me say that being the auntie of a cancer survivor is a great reason to choose to work on that particular cancer. I’m an auntie, too – I can only imagine the emotion involved.

    But if I understand it right, this woman is telling me that because she has an emotional connection to it, she shouldn’t have to answer tough questions about progress in fighting this disease, or about why her organization is the best at that.

    Clearly, she’s passionate about this issue, and works very hard on raising funds for her organization of choice.

    But the minute she decided to support a particular organization, she became more than an auntie. She became a partner in the process of change and took on a certain amount of responsibility for being informed about how that works and who she partners with.

    And the minute she decided to become a fundraiser and start asking other people to support this organization with their limited funds and time, she became directly and significantly responsible for everything they do.

    She is no longer just an auntie – she is now the representative of a charity. That means she has to either be able to answer hard questions, or direct people to those who can. That means that having her heart in the right place isn’t enough anymore. Her head needs to get in the game, too.

    Note: She did provide me with stats on how much money goes ‘directly to the cause’. Many people consider that a good barometer of an organization’s worthiness.  I’ve written and spoken about why I disagree at length in the past.

  • Comments 0

    What Good Are You In the Market For?

    Imagine if you walked into a hardware store and asked for the best tool they have.

    I’m willing to bet the hardware store worker would immediately ask what you need the tool to do. They wouldn’t be able to identify the best tool without knowing what you’re trying to get done with it. There isn’t really any such thing as a ‘best’ tool – but there is a best tool for your goal.

    This logic also applies to charitable organizations. I often get asked which organization is the best one to support, and I have to ask the same question as a hardware store worker would: what are you hoping to get done?

    Charitable organizations are like tools that we use to get to our goals. Just like different tools, different organizations are set up to do different jobs, and in different ways. The best one is the one that can deliver the results we’re excited about creating, and the one that operates in a way that suits our style.

    What if I were to tell you that the local animal shelter is the ‘best’ charity I’ve ever seen, and you started volunteering with them on the strength of my advice? But what if you don’t really like animals, the shelter’s volunteer management style is a little too casual for your taste, and what you really care about is making your community a safe and healthy place for immigrant seniors?

    Although it may be doing great work, that animal shelter wouldn’t really be the best organization for you to support. On the other hand, the local seniors’ drop in centre might be a perfect fit. Because it’s working on something that’s very meaningful for you, the drop in centre could be the best charity for you.

    So – what good are you in the market for?

  • Comments 0

    Charity Problems That Need Solving

    Have you ever noticed how advertisers invent problems so they can sell us the solution? Do we really need a beer can to change colour when it’s cold? How many of us have to have a pickup truck that can clear 40 acres of farmland all by itself? And yet – advertisers talk to us as if these things are our top priority.

    The world of fundraising is no different. Today, I came across the new AOL Impact site. It’s dedicated to highlighting a different charitable effort every day, and plainly has some beautiful motivation behind it. Their tag line is “Connecting People With Causes”.

    And that’s where I struggle with it. Are you hurting for causes to get involved with? Do you suffer from a shortage of charities that want your help? I don’t.

    So why are so many do-gooding intitiatives aimed at ‘connecting’ us? Where did anyone get the idea that this was a problem that needed solving?

    Then there are the efforts to make it easier to get money out of our pockets and into those of charities: websites where it just takes ‘one click’, or the ‘text-to-give’ phenomenon. Think back – has writing the cheque or handing over the cash ever been a part of the charitable giving process you found most difficult?

    There are problems with it, but these are not them. They’re things like:

    • How do I sort through the multitude of charities to identify the one(s) that will be the best fit for me?
    • How do I deal with the constant onslaught of requests for my support in a respectful yet effective way?
    • How do I know the results of my giving – both in terms of how my money is spent and in terms of what the long-term impacts of that are?

    These are things that could help us all to get more good done, and have a better time doing it. I wish the well-intentioned folk who are currently working so hard to let us know about causes and help us fork over our cash would get working on them instead.

  • Comments 0

    Where’s Your Line in the Sand?

    Last week, one of my favourite local bloggers, KikkiPlanet, wrote a piece about why she’s decided to stop supporting the Wild Rose political party.

    For the record, I tend to agree with her, but Kikki’s article and the debate that followed got me thinking about something else: our attitudes toward the organizations we support, and charities in particular.

    No organization is perfect, and nowhere is this truer than in the charitable sector. Operating on shoestring budgets, saddled with endless rules and regulations, and slaves to public opinion, charities are as prone to mistakes and imperfections as any business, if not more.

    But I think some of us feel (even subconciously) that by virtue of being charities, they’re supposed to have pure intentions, turn sow’s ears into silk purses, and never do anything questionable. If a charity ever is exposed as having made a mistake, these are the people who are most up in arms, who feel most betrayed.

    Others, I believe, take the opposite view: We have to make allowances for charities. They mean well, so it’s ok if they do things we’d rather they didn’t, like get pushy with their fundraising. It’s all for a good cause, after all.

    Both of these attitudes remind me of unhealthy gender dynamics. Expecting a charity to be pure, sweet, and infallible is reminiscent of men expecting women to be unrealistically virtuous. On the other hand, treating a charity as if, by its very nature, it isn’t capable of being responsible for its own actions is like men treating women as children; simpletons without the ability to manage their own affairs.

    It might be healthier to consider what we expect from organizations we’re involved with:

    • What imperfections are we willing to let go of in support of the greater good?
    • Do we have the ability to improve some of those imperfections?
    • Where is the line we (like Kikki) are not prepared to cross?
    • If that line is crossed, what are we prepared to do about it? Leave? Write a public article about it? What?
  • Comments 2

    The Savvy Do Gooder Take on Budget 2012

    Last week, a new federal budget came out here in Canada, with some items on charities.

    They’re mostly about stricter financial reporting rules around political activities and foreign donations, and an $8 million dollar audit is planned to make sure that charities are following the rules.

    Some people are alarmed about what this will mean for charities, saying that it’s a lot of time and money to spend on something that’s not a significant problem, and an unreasonable burden on charities to address something that’s barely an issue – see here and here.

    An Analogy

    Imagine you’re a business owner. You have staff on salary, and contractors you outsource to. The salaried people get steady work. When they’re overloaded, or you need something they aren’t equipped for, you turn to the contractors.

    The contract people and the salaried employees often work together. But ultimately, who are they all accountable to for results? Who’s responsible, who signs the checks?

    That’s right – you. You’re the boss.

    What would happen if you stopped paying attention, no longer noticed whether anyone was producing or not? If all you ever checked before signing the checks was some arbitrary financial measure, like what percentage of revenue is spent on rent?

    And what if, when those numbers displeased you, you blamed the salaried people, yelled at them, and replaced them? If only to avoid your wrath, they might start to obsess over whatever measurement you did pay attention to, regardless of whether it had any bearing on the quality of the work.

    The employees would probably crack down hard on the contractors. Someone would have to – the boss (you) isn’t paying attention, and the contractors are not the ones who take the heat when you’re unhappy. In cracking down, they would likely focus on the same meaningless financials you do.

    The Connection

    That, in my view, is what we have happening here in Budget 2012. The government is the employee. The charities are the contractors. They’re all supposed to be working toward the same goal – a healthy society for all – and they both have the same boss – us.

    The government has gotten the idea that it’s their job to police the charities. They’re not equipped to hold them to any meaningful standard. So they fall back on the one thing they do know how to measure – finances – and beat that to death in a desperate attempt to keep us happy.

    But what do we expect? Whenever a charity is exposed as less than stellar, the cry goes up for stricter rules. “The government should do something!”, we shout. So the government tries, and makes a mess of it. Case in point: Budget 2012.

    Government doesn’t really have any business policing charity. As I’ve said before, government and charity are the left and right wing answers to the same question. They’re inherently opposed. Every dollar that goes to charity is a dollar that does not go to government. That alone should disqualify them from policing each other.

    The only people truly qualified to make charities accountable for the things that matter are the charities’ supporters – us. We’re the only ones who know what the things that matter actually are. We’re the ones who want the change we’re investing in; who understand the results we’re looking for.

    If we want the government to stop mucking about with charity accountability (and I think we do), my view is that we need to take back responsibility for it ourselves. We need to let government know that this is not their job, and accept the idea that when we choose to give, it becomes ours.

  • Comments 0

    The Break Up: Getting out of a bad charity relationship

    There are so many good ideas out there; programs and initiatives that either look great, or like they could be great with a little help.

    Getting into a charitable activity is often easy, especially if it’s grass roots and informal. And especially if you’re a compulsive volunteer, like me.

    But what about getting out? When you’ve attended meeting after meeting and things aren’t going in a direction that works for you? Or you realize that the tasks you’re ending up with are out of whack with how you hoped to spend your time? Or you realize the goals of the organization don’t line up with yours?

    If the organization you’re ‘breaking up’ with has done something wrong (like tax fraud), it’s easier – be outraged, resign. Just like (in a way) it’s easier to end a romantic relationship where the other person has betrayed you. Black and white. Clear cause-and-effect.

    But when the organization is not so much bad, as not working for you, it’s more complicated. You may still believe they’re doing good work, and wish them the best. But you, personally, want out. ASAP.

    So, just like a romantic relationship where no one’s at fault for it not working anymore, you have to find a gracious exit strategy that leaves everyone relatively unscathed. That’s hard. At least, it is for me.

    I’ve often found myself in the uncomfortable position of wanting out, but feeling terribly guilty about it. Organizations, of course, rarely want to let go of any donor or volunteer. They do everything they can to coax you to stay.

    The simple solution is to be careful about what we get ourselves into; to avoid ever reaching the ‘breaking up’ stage. But no matter how careful we are, this could still happen.

    Savvy Do Gooders, has it happened to you? Have you found a graceful way out that didn’t make you feel like dirt? Please share, either way.

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