The Charity Problem

At an event I attended recently, an audience member asked why should we, as people trying to do good in this world, have to also take on the added burden of “doing our research” and vetting the charities we donate to. Now, for someone who has been in the development sector for a while now, this seems like a no brainer. I had to stop myself from answering somewhere from the back row: because hopefully you are not donating just to make yourself feel better.  This might not seem like a fair statement: after all, isn’t the most important thing the goodwill behind the donation and a desire to make an impact? The answer is, quite simply, no.

The non-profit sector is one of the arguably most corrupt and opaque sectors in the world. The levels of transparency are extremely low, the overhead costs extremely high and the impact lost between the two. It is important to realize that their core business operation is fundraising: if these organizations solve the crisis in the community they are operating in, they will be out of work. The amounts of money spend on fundraising are obscene and the fact that the sector has managed to get away with so much for so long is largely due to the fact that we as donors simply do not care. Weather it is just ticking a box on the long list of things that we do to tell a positive story of who we are, a social requirement that goes with our position in the world or a genuine care for the cause, we are simply not doing enough. If you were investing money into a business, you would make sure that your due diligence is detailed, that you have a good idea of the financial feasibility of the project and the results the business will yield. It is time we start treating our charitable donations as impact investments.

Today’s system of giving is deeply rooted in the first social marketing campaigns, with the babies with bloated bellies and flies on their faces. This kind of giving is based on a distinction between “us” and “them”, on how lucky we are to not be “them” and how sad “their” lives are. It takes away the agency and the dignity of entire peoples and communities. That is why we do not value our charity dollar as much as we value our investment dollar: because “they” do not matter to “us”.  As long as we see the charity givers and charity recipients as members of two different species, and not part of the same equation, we will not and cannot be bothered to do the research and insist on transparency.

There are many, many amazing organizations out there genuinely trying to make a difference. They live, breathe and dream the impact they want to create and are very open about what works, what does not and what needs to change. However, chances are they are also the ones struggling the hardest to get to our charity dollar. Their cause might not be sexy enough. Their promotional videos are not sad enough. They do not make me feel better about myself; instead they make me question my role in the world I live in. It is these organizations that we need more of, and it is completely in our hands to make sure there is a lot of more of them than of the well established,  “250.000 dollars yearly salary” ones that are benefiting from the status quo.

Every information you can possibly need is just a hop, skip and click away in the era of global connectivity. Do not let yourself be lulled into thinking that your money alone is making a difference. Instead, take the active role as an agent of change and start making your impact investments work for the people you claim to care about.

Tena Pick