Tagged: charity

The Grumpy Philanthropist has no time for decimal points

If you think that November has a needlessly negative sound – it starts with NO, after all – then you should look into Movember, the fundraiser that puts ironic facial hair to work to fight cancer.  Grow a moustache, raise money for cancer research, everybody wins.

Well, almost everybody.

So I went over to the Movember site to make a manly donation, and selected three worthy mo-growers and made individual credit card donations to each of their pages.  It was relatively painless but I did hit a minor user experience snag or two, so I dashed off a quick note to the feedback address in the interest of continuous improvement.  I do know a little but about online fundraising, after all.  Here’s my note:

Great work guys, but I have some minor but significant gripes: the donation form forces you to enter cents – you can’t just put 50, you have to put 50.00 – why make people work? I clicked the button for “keep my donation and message private” but got an immediate tweet back from the person whose page I donated to. What does “private” mean? Can’t I donate anonymously? Thanks for your attention, David

I figure the first one is basic user experience.  Don’t make anybody do any extra work, no matter how small.  A quick check of online donation sites – including Livestrong, one of the organizations that receives Movember’s funds – found none forcing the decimal point.

The second item has been one of my annoyances with online donation services for ages, especially social-media-infused ones like Movember.  Why can’t I just make an anonymous donation?  I wrote about the roots of my thinking back in 2008 on FirstGiving’s Online Fundarising Blog.

Here’s what I got back from Movember, edited a bit for brevity, and not including the screenshots they emailed to illustrate their points:

Hey David,

Thanks so much for taking the time to send us in your feedback. We really appreciate your opinion as it helps our campaign grow and improve each year. Allow me to answer your comment in two parts:

Firstly, please forgive me, but is that a serious question re: entering cents? Typing “.00” is hardly work! J
The reason we ask people to type the cents is to force them to make sure the amount they are donating is correct. Last year when this was not a feature, some people donated $5000 instead of $50.

Secondly, when you elect to keep your donation private, it only keeps it private from the public and not also the Mo Bro themselves.

You can donate completely anonymously by using an alias in the online donation process, or typing Anonymous Donation, however your receipt will be generated with this faux name.

Hope this helps.If you have any further questions please do not hesitate to contact me. Mo than happy to help!
Thanks again for your support and feedback. Have a happy Movember!

[redacted name]

Way to go there, appreciating my feedback and making fun of me for it.

On the decimal: no, it’s not work; yes, I am serious.  Maybe making three donations in a row the irritation built up.  I can’t deny that somebody probably has donated 100x what he intended but I’m not sure that’s a problem worth solving this way.  You get to view and confirm your donation before actually paying.  What do Livestrong and all those other sites do about this since they don’t force the point?  I expect they refund 99% of the donation.

On the anonymity: wishful thinking on my part, I read “private” as “anonymous” I’ll take my lumps for that, but why isn’t anonymous an option?  In the highly competitive world of moustache-growing fundraising, I might have only enough money to support one or two Mo bros but not want them to know that I didn’t support various other Mo bros.  Faking the name is not an option.  I doubt my credit card would go through if the name didn’t match, and I doubt the IRS would be very impressed with receipts with bogus names on them.

Let me wrap this up as best I can.  I insist that it should be as easy as possible to donate, and I also insist that anonymity from the fundraiser (Mo bro or for that matter FirstGiving fundraising page owner) is a choice to which donors are entitled.

The Grumpy Philanthropist sees his shadow

It’s that time of year again, when colder weather, impending holidays and the end of the tax year turn good folks’ attention to charitable giving. And when the Grumpy Philanthropist waddles out from under his rock, writes a few checks and complains. As it turns out, this is first in a series.

I was reading Universal Hub and observed a post by the estimable Dr. Kaz in which he pledges to put a box or can of food in the food drive box for East End House each day as he buys his lunch, and encourages us all to do similar. I have issues with coat drives, can drives and the like, but rather than bore the UH folks with them, I posted a simple, “good job” note and added my plug for giving money to East End House since they need that too.  And yes, I did note that unrestricted funds were helpful.

It took no more than 20 minutes for an anonymous commenter to reply with this:

You’re really better off donating food or your time/labor to a local organization.

Unrestricted cash has a way of supporting deadwood at charity organizations rather than their core mission. It’s REALLY IMPORTANT to check what percentage of your donation goes to the core mission. If 90 cents of every dollar are going into ‘administration’ your donations are really creating a cushy job for some cocktail party asshole (whom will brag about their really non-existent do-gooding), or their kids, rather than really helping the needy.

And I thought I had issues.  Well, I’m not going to defend waste (or cocktail party assholes) but I find the attitude that nonprofit organizations should operate on only the barest of budgets and that NPO employees should earn lousy salaries very disappointing.  Caveat donor, but how are you going to get efficiency of operation if you don’t hire the best managers and workers to deliver your charitable services?

I’m happy to report that the comment stream after this generally defended the good work of NPOs and generally supported anybody’s charitable efforts, whatever form they take.

If you are really interested in the details of what a nonprofit organization is doing with your money, you can go right to their tax return, called a form 990.  It’s a tax form so you have to do some wading, but they’re all public info.  I found out for example, that the aforementioned East End House had a $1.8 million budget and exactly one full-time paid employee who earned $100,000 in 2009.  Make of that what you will.

You can also use some NPO rating services, most of which cull their data from the 990 forms and some of which layer on ratings, comparisons, and information from the organizations.  GuideStar and CharityNavigator are two, and I’m sure there are more.

If you’re interested in a very different view on how nonprofit organizations should operate and be managed and evaluated, you can find the source of some of my grumpy ideas in Dan Pallotta’s Uncharitable book and website.

There’s more to grump about before the year is over, but I’ll stop here for a moment and quote the last comment on the original food drive post:

Anyone who can afford it, should try to give time, food, money.

Happy holidays.

The fourth part of book club; holiday globe appeal

Last week, we took Book Club to a new level with a guest appearance by the author – Belmont’s own Toby Lester – of our chosen book, The Fourth Part of the World.  I had worried that such an august presence would impede the club’s traditional focus on wine, gossip and whingeing about our jobs, but we had plenty of time for all four parts.

Lester’s book is a vivd and polymathematical ramble across a few centuries of history leading up to the European “age of discovery” largely seen through the prism of mapmakers, especially a certain Waldseemüller, who in 1507 first printed “America” on a map of the hemisphere from which I am now writing.  We got a fresh look at some familiar figures like Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus and some wonderfully-told new (to most of us) stories.  Have you heard of Prester John?

The Fourth Part of the World reminds us that Columbus was nowhere near the first to conceive of the world as round, and it tells the story of many approximations close and not so close of the actual size of the globe, and the gradual discovery by Europeans of the true arrangement of the continents and their contents.  Looking at the beautiful plates I was reminded that while today’s schoolchildren are pretty clear on the roundness of the earth, they might not be as clear on the arrangement or content of the lands upon it.

Perhaps you remember last Fall’s grumbling about non-educational globes for sale at Target?  Well, a quick scan of DonorsChoose shows over 100 classrooms in the US in need of globes and maps.  So, as if you haven’t been harangued enough on this blog to do some good in the world, I urge you to consider giving some of your holiday charity budget to one of these worthy projects – our children need the best understanding of the shape of the world and its different people that they can get.

Podcamp panel ponders power of philanthropic philosophies: build or buy, Gates or Buffett

Podcamp Boston #4 is coming this weekend.  It’s an “unconference” which means that anybody can give a session.  If you need proof, look no further than the fact that they’re letting me present.  I’m doing a discussion session with the estimable Gradon Tripp called, “Are you a Gates or Buffett?“on Saturday at 4pm in the ballroom.

The somewhat cryptic title used to have a clarifying subtitle but the podcamperati truncated it, so let me explain a little.  Gradon and I were pondering why so many people seem to want to start their own nonprofit organizations for causes that already have lots of existing NPOs.  (There are over 1.7 million NPOs in the USA)  There seems to be a real divide between people wanting to build their own social change solution and those who want to channel their energies (or monies, or both) into supporting existing social change solutions.  Sort of a build vs buy discussion like we get in tech companies all the time.

The framing device of Gates and Buffett refers to the two billionaires’ approaches to charitable foundations.  Gates used his massive wealth to create a new one, and Buffett decided to simply add his massive wealth to Gates‘ rather than establish another whole new foundation.  Both commendable acts, to be sure, but which model prevails for regular folks trying to figure out how to use their own meager resources for good?

In our podcamp session, we’ll kick that ball around, focusing on how social media can make those meager resources go a long way and how social technologies can mitigate the advantage previously held by incumbent organizations.  In keeping with the podcamp ethos, we’re not going to script or structure things too much, but I expect that there will be talk of Twestival, Uncharitable, Facebook Causes, Lance Armstrong, the Staley Foundation, and whatever else the crowd brings.  I hope you’ll join us.

Giving till it doesn’t hurt anymore

Last Wednesday I had a double dose of interesting thinking about giving.  First, I talked at a Harvard Extension social media class about Firstgiving and Twestival, then I popped in at the Philosophy Cafe to hear some deeper discussion of the limits of altrusim.  And then it snowed.

Act I: giving for free

At the kind invitation of Professor, author, educator and consultant Mary Lou Roberts, I led discussion in her Harvard Extension class, Social Media Marketing.  First, I talked about my employer, Firstgiving, and how they do business serving nonprofit organizations and people who support them.  I’m sure you’ve heard plenty about Firstgiving, so it should be enough for now to say it’s a social enterprise and uses social connections to do business and to do good, more than using what’s commonly called “social media” these days.

The second part of the class was a case-style discussion of Twestival.  There are far better recaps of Twestival (notably Beth Kanter’s) so I’ll simplify again.  Twestival was a global, all-volunteer fundraising event that raised a huge amount of money in many creative ways, but fell short of its perhaps over-ambitious $1M goal.   There were pledge donations via twitter, charity auctions, direct donations to Charity:Water, benefit music sales, corporate sponsors, and parties with door fees.

Some of my questions to the class, robustly discussed but not definitively answered, were these:

  • What was the true cost of this all-volunteer effort?  Was it really zero?  Could more have been raised by spending?
  • What’s the level of commitment that volunteer efforts and small donations generate?  Is that enough?
  • Of the $250k raised (at the time of discussion), how much came from “social media” like twitter pledges via Tipjoy, and how much from “old school media” like party cover charges and corporate sponsorship?
  • Was the event damaged or strengthened by the lack of full-time professional organization?
  • Did Twestival over-reach or under-achieve with the $1M goal?

One of my favorite comments towards the end of the class was one student who astutely pointed out that a charitably cause should optimize fundraising by taking advantage of all channels possible, even those with low ROI, as long as it’s all positive.  Indeed, why not do one more little thing, even if it’s little, if it brings a bit more funding for the cause?

Act II: freely giving

On the way home from class, I stopped by Harvard Bookstore where coach, workshop leader and author Hillary Rettig (and my former colleague and friend) was speaking as part of something called Philosophy Cafe.  I hadn’t paid too much attention to the event because I wasn’t sure I could make it after class, but I was quickly drawn in and stayed longer than I had planned.

The topic of discussion was “The Limits of Altruism: Why Do You Give What You Give–and Should You Be Giving More?” and Hillary was the featured guest presenter, discussing the story of her donation of a kidney to someone who was at the time a stranger.  To quote from the highbrow website description:

There are lots of explanations for altruism, or selfless giving, ranging from the mystical (karma), to the sociological (community standards), to the sociobiological (we “give” in ways that maximize our genes’ propagation). Whatever the mechanism, it’s clear that some people give a lot, while others not so much. Is there a proper level of giving, and how do we, as members of a wealthy society, justify not giving more to those in dire need, for instance in Nepal or Malawi–or even here in the U.S.? And what happens when a monetary reward or other incentive enters the picture?

I can’t do the intense and sophisticated discussion much justice, but I’ll summarize some interesting ideas that I heard during the part of the discussion centered on organ donation.

  • The mortality rate for a healthy kidney donor is about 2.5 per 10,000, or .025%, one fortieth of one percent.  The mortality rate for someone in need of a kidney is pretty much 100%.  Does this mean non-donors are implicitly valuing their lives at 4,000 times those of others?
  • In European countries where organ donation after death by road accident is presumed unless the person has opted OUT (unlike the US version where you must opt IN for post-mortem donation), there is generally a sufficient supply of organs for those in need of them, and little need for voluntary living donors.
  • While there was broad support in the room for regulatory solutions like changing the decision for post-mortem donation to opt-OUT, there was considerably more controversy around market-based solutions such as allowing people to buy and sell organs.  Some said that a market for organs would disadvantage the poor while others saw monetizing an organ as a potentially valuable ladder up from poverty.

After that, the discussion moved away from organs to a more general examination of how much one should give.  I had to head home so I missed that discussion, but both parts of the evening made for real food for thought on giving.

The philosophers at the cafe generally agreed that there was no obligation to impoverish or unduly endanger oneself in the name of altruism, but that there’s plenty of room in the average American life to give more.  I wonder if Twestival and other volunteer efforts are impoverishing themselves needlessly by foreswearing any paid services.  As the wise student said, why not do a little more?