• Comments 0

    How Soon is “Too Soon”?: Southern Alberta Floods of 2013

    Here in my province, there was epic flooding in the month of June, resulting in widespread damage and evacuations in many communities. The downtown area of one of our biggest cities was actually underwater for long periods.

    Many reacted by expressing moral support and by giving money to aid in the relief efforts.

    Some, however, also chose to raise a debate about the issues behind this disaster. For example: there was apparently a report done in 2005 about mitigation of effects of future flooding, and some are claiming it was ignored by the government.

    There are also those who believe that this kind of tragedy could be prevented or reduced by paying more attention to how and where we build our homes and businesses, how human development affects such ecological factors as watersheds, and how much we rely on external infrastructure for our basic needs.

    As more and more alarming news came out of the flood region, some started bringing these topics up on social media. They received some backlash from those who felt it was insensitive to ‘lay blame’ while people were suffering, struggling to meet basic needs, and experiencing loss. They were told that this was simply not the time to get into those topics – what we needed to focus on at that moment was supporting those affected.

    I do agree that in times of crisis, those most affected deserve the support that they need to meet their immediate needs. I also know that the desire to help often exceeds the need for it.

    So why not use that extra attention and energy to have a substantive conversation about what’s led to the crisis?

    Most of the time, getting any traction for a conversation about watersheds and developmental design is tough. There is a lot that can be done to make our homes and businesses less vulnerable to natural disasters, but it’s not something most people have much time for under normal circumstances.

    Another tough sell is self-sufficiency. I heard about one enterprising family that built a rainwater treatment system into their Calgary home. While their neighbours were struggling to get enough to drink and having to rely on outside relief, they had their own clean and usable supply.

    But during crisis free times, how easy is it to convince most people to make this kind of investment? It’s not the path of least resistance; it seems a little extreme; it takes time and money and effort.

    So why not talk about this stuff in the aftermath of a disaster, while the consequences are front and centre? About what’s behind our vulnerability to the whims of Mother Nature, and how it can be managed? About how choices at the policy level, at the organizational level, and at the individual level, affect us in this kind of situation?

    Is it a mean thing to do if it involves criticizing the choices of people who are now suffering? I don’t think so. We’re not talking about withholding relief or support from them.

    But if they’ve made choices that have led to the effects we’re seeing, why not name that? We talk about accountability – what does that mean, if not this? By definition, it means talking about failures and opportunities to do better. How else can we do better in future?

    Maybe it would be ‘nicer’ to wait until the crisis has passed. Maybe it would offend fewer people. But that seems like a really good way to see the same tragedy play out all over again, when the next disaster hits.

  • 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 4

    Activism: What’s in a name?

    What comes to mind when you hear the word “activist”?

    For some, it’s a heavily charged term. The first picture that springs to mind when I hear it is that of a militant, closed-minded fanatic; completely out of touch with the mainstream, wrapped up in his or her own activities; doing more to alienate people than to create change.Demonstration

    I know this is a wildly unfair description. I know that many people who consider themselves activists are nothing like this stereotypical depiction.

    In a positive light, ‘activism’ could be defined as any activity that bucks the status quo to promote change. You could be an activist by running a socially responsible business, by promoting unusual ideas in almost any field, by fostering discussion and debate about controversial issues. In short, ‘activist’ could be considered almost synonymous with ‘do gooder’.

    And yet, I suspect that in most peoples’ minds, it’s not.

    For me, the faintly disatasteful association persists. I witnessed a lot of pointless activity under the banner of ‘activism’ in my university days in our nation’s capital. There was almost always some sort of demonstration going on in front of the Parliament buildings, and no one paid them any attention. I saw many flyers for protest marches that read more like ads for keggers than for serious efforts at change.

    I’ve heard that there are even areas (such as environmentalism) where serious changemakers actively avoid being labelled ‘activists’, because it decreases their chances of being taken seriously. Apparently, it also counts against them in efforts to collaborate with government and industry: fields where the term “environmental activist” is anathema.

    If this visceral negative reaction to the concept of ‘activism’ is fairly common, then is it possible that it’s time to retire the term?

    If, however, the word still has value in our do-gooding, what can (or should) we do about this stigma surrounding it?

  • 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.

    Misdirection

    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 1

    Ethnic Diversity in Do-Gooding

    Despite a desire for diversity on the part of organizers like myself, many do-gooding initiatives tend to be a bit homogenous, especially ethnically.

    To put it bluntly, we tend to get a lot of white people participating in our work. People of colour do not show up, volunteer, register, etc., nearly as much.

    If this is a trend, what’s it about? Do people of colour care less about making a difference? Are they selfish, or lazy? That’s pretty obviously a ridiculous notion.

    Is it that we organizers are often white people, and probably grew up with others who share our cultural traditions, religions, language, etc.; who still dominate our networks today? Could be – birds of a feather and all that.

    But within the ‘white people’ group there are a range of backgrounds, from first-generation British to second-generation Polish, to multi-generational North American mutt (like me), so I’m not sure that makes sense, either.

    I have a third theory: Is it possible that people of colour are simply less likely to identify themselves as do-gooders? That they’re doing as much good as anyone, but rather than call it “making a difference” or “giving back”, they just see it as part of their regular lives?

    Last year while working on the Edmonton Do Gooder Project, I spoke to a Latino man I consider a social entrepreneur (about profiling him as a do-gooder). He stared at me like I was a nut. He kept explaining that he was simply providing a product and a service. He saw himself as a businessman, nothing more.

    Diversity

    Does it matter what we call our good works?

    Could it be that people of colour tend to see their do-gooding as a natural part of being businesspeople, church members, family members, parents, etc., and are therefore not drawn to our ‘difference-making’, ‘giving-back’ language and activity?

    Could it be that white people’s attraction to framing good works this way is tied to some sort of white man’s burden/saviour complex psychology that people of other races don’t have?

    If not, what’s this phenomenon all about, do you think? If so, what does this say about how our society works?

  • Comments 0

    Good is Good! Bad is Bad! Give Us Money!

    Some time ago, I saw a speaker for a human rights organization give a laundry list of horrible things (child poverty, human trafficking, etc.) and declare that his organization stood against these things. So what did his organization stand for? According to the speech: justice, rights, hope, and imagination.

    Well, bully for them. They’re fighting the good fight against all those poverty-promoting, hope-hating, human suffering advocates out there. What a brave and unconventional stand to take.

    What hogwash.

    And yet – when done right, this approach can be very seductive. It’s basically the art of treating things we already agree with as revolutionary. It panders to our desire for validation; for being in the majority on issues; for feeling insightful and good. It lends itself to inspiring music and heart-wrenching pictures. None of its content can be argued with.

    But it’s not really a good argument for supporting any particular organization or initiative, is it? What we really need from any organization seeking our support is information that’s new, specific, and relevant:

    Stairs

    Don’t reward someone for telling you what you already know

    Is there something about their particular issue that few people know or have considered? Something about the way this organization is tackling its issue that’s new and/or better than the norm? Is there some action we can take to support this organization’s theory of change that we might not have thought of?

    Telling us that good is good and bad is bad, that the organization believes in that, and expecting support on the strength that alone, is nothing more than lazy fundraising.

    Watch out for it. See past the soul-stirring tunes, moving quotes, and sad pictures. Demand more substance before giving your valuable support away.

  • Comments 3

    Non Profit vs. For Profit (And Why I Don’t Care)

    What’s the best tool for making change: non-profits, charity, traditional for profit business, social enterprise, what?

    This is one of the big questions in the world of social benefit these days. Here are three really interesting recent articles on the subject, (here, here, and here).

    Despite its popularity, this may be the wrong question. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not a bad question. Somewhere in our evaluation of whether we want to support an organization, we should consider how the finances are managed, and make a call as to whether we’re on board with the approach.

    But this is often being asked outside the context of any particular organization, or even issue. It’s being asked as a big, blanket thing: “SHOULD CHANGE HAPPEN THROUGH FOR-PROFIT OR NON-PROFIT MEANS?!”

    Apathy

    Can we talk about something else, first?

    As if there could be one answer that fits every kind of change, every cause, every goal.

    This is like asking whether changemakers should use Macs or PCs; whether they should buy, lease, or rent their facilities; whether they should hold live conferences or webinars. 

    The answer, in every case, is “whatever gets the job done”.

    This for-profit vs. non-profit debate, while interesting, is just one more distraction from the real issue: accountability for real change to the cause.

    Financing, like computer systems or furniture, is a tool that organizations use to get a job done. All of these tools represent the opportunity for mismanagement, waste, skewed priorities, etc. A non-profit that overspends on luxury office chairs might damage its ability to fund its real work. But a for-profit might not do the exact same thing.

    The first question should always be the organization’s performance – how are they doing at the work they officially exist to do? All other questions flow from there.

  • Comments 0

    Who Should Pay For Things We All Need?

    A person’s wealth should not determine their ability to access basic education, medical care, etc. This is why we have systems designed to make these things free of direct cost to anyone who needs them.

    For example: I recently discovered that both obstetricians and midwives are covered by my government health care program, meaning; they kind of seem free. I’m paying for them through taxes, but I would pay those same taxes if I never used prenatal services, and they would be free to me even if I paid no taxes.

    The monetary cost of a thing often influences our perception of its value. Something that is expensive is often seen as ‘better’, by mere token of its costliness. ‘Free’ things are often taken for granted.

    But when some of the most objectively valuable things in the world (medical care, eg.) appear to be free, what does that do to our perception of their value? Does it devalue them in the eyes of the public?

    While on a tour of a local birthing centre, I heard a gentlemen ask whether the centre is non-profit. It was my impression that he would strongly disapprove of the centre making a profit.

    Is this because he, as a product of our society, is conditioned to believe that anything that’s really needed shouldn’t cost money or make a profit?

    Business mans

    No one puts up their hand to pay for essential services

    What about the people who provide these services? What about their rent, the needs of their families? What about the significant expenses involved in providing good health care, education, etc.?

    Where do the resources come from to fund things everyone needs but no one wants to pay for? What is worth paying for? Only luxuries; things no one truly needs?

    This is a heck of a pickle. Necessities should be accessible to everyone, yes. But how will we as a society provide them if no one thinks they should have to pay for them?

  • Comments 0

    The Difference Between Giving to Charity and Going to the Dentist

    I have a friend who complains that the version of charitable giving I recommend is too much work. He compares me with health specialists who recommend an unrealistic amount of work for whatever body part is their specialty:

    The dentist wants us to brush and floss after every meal. The personal trainer wants us to spend an hour a day in the gym. Etc. If we did everything they ask, there would be no time, energy, or money left over to live our lives.

    Teeth

    Unlike charitable donations, everybody has to have these

    I understand this argument. I’ve often felt overwhelmed myself. But there’s a big difference between the work you’re encouraged to do to maintain your teeth, for example, and the work needed to give effectively.

    When it comes to your health, you can’t opt out. You do the best you can, even if it’s not the ideal that professionals recommend.

    But when it comes to giving to charity, you can opt out. Your choices are not to either; give in an informed, engaged, effective way or; in an ill-informed, unrewarding, possibly wasteful or harmful way.

    If you can’t do charitable giving well, you can (and should) choose not to. Alternatively, if you find that a non-charitable giving approach is the best way for you to do good, you can (and should) do that instead.

    Not all charitable giving results in goodness. Poorly done, it can be harmful. At a talk I gave just last week, I met a grad student who told me of numerous Africans he knows who are contemptuous of foreigners’ charity work in their homelands. Their perspective is that this do-gooding is worse than useless, and laughable.

    None of us wants to be responsible for that kind of charity. And none of us has to. We can do the work to be savvier about charitable giving, and/or we can be savvy enough to know that there are other options for creating the change we want to see in the world.

  • Comments 2

    Charity vs. Charities

    Last week, popular local blogger and 2012 Edmonton Do Gooder alum Kathleen Smith George posted a list of her Most Fascinating Twitter Accounts of 2012. I was honoured to be included as a runner up in the category of ‘Charity Case’, along with Jen Banks and Jessie Radies.

    Here’s what really tickled me about it, though – despite the name of the category, none of us is closely tied to a formal charitable organization. I have a business helping people discover their paths to doing good. Jessie promotes living local as a powerful tool for positive social and economic change. Jen (the winner) advocates for random acts of kindness and humanity.

    None of this has much to do with charities… but it has everything to do with charity. It’s an important distinction. I’m often struck by how strongly our society links charities and charity. I have to avoid using the word ‘charity’ when describing my work, because the people I’m talking to focus automatically on charitable organizations and monetary donations.

    Charity is what you make it

    Charity is what you make it

    This is a shame, because it’s limiting. Charity is bigger, broader, and more fundamental than charities. It’s the beautiful, human feeling that motivates us to help each other; make a difference; work for change; leave the world a better place than we found it. Charity is generosity, compassion, empathy, and all kinds of other good things.

    It canbe exercised through charitable organizations. But it can also be lived out through business, personal relationships, lifestyle choices, and more.

    To paraphrase the brilliant Jane Bisbee of the Social Enterprise Fund, ‘charitable organization’ is nothing more than a legal status. Charities do not have exclusive rights to charity. Jen is living charity. Jessie is living charity. I (hopefully) am living charity. None of us needs the ability to issue donation receipts to do so. And neither do you.

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