There’s an persistent conflict in international charity:
- It feels great to be able to say, “My donation helped THIS person.”
- But it’s rarely – if ever – practical for that sort of connection to be real.
As a result, international charities tend to create “donor illusions” by implying that donations can be attributed more tangibly, reliably and specifically than they really are. Some charities are more purposefully misleading than others, and some have more prominent and clear disclosures than others, but we feel that all of the cases below end up misleading many donors.
Kiva.org: making a loan
Illusion: You pick a developing-world entrepreneur who needs a loan. You lend money to that entrepreneur, interest-free. With you, s/he wouldn’t have gotten the loan.
Reality: The entrepreneur you’re viewing in your browser probably already got his/her loan and is probably paying significant interest on it. What you’re really doing is sending money to a microfinance institution that uses it as it sees fit (including for loans to less creditworthy people).
Details at GiveWell Board member Tim Ogden’s summary of the recent Kiva debate.
Child sponsorship: supporting a child
Illusion: through an organization such as Save the Children, your money supports a specific child.
Reality: as Save the Children now discloses, “Your sponsorship contributions are not given directly to a child. Instead, your contributions are pooled with those of other sponsors to provide community-based programming for all eligible children in the area.” See this David Roodman post (starting with “The Kiva Story”) for the interesting, scandal-ridden history of this practice.
Heifer International: giving livestock
Illusion: your donation pays for a cow for a specific developing-world family, helping it earn a better living.
Reality: as the fine print says, “Gifts made through this catalog represent a gift to the entire mission.” The entire mission generally includes a lot beyond livestock, including difficult projects like rural extension services.
Other donor illusions are more subtle. More on this in a future post.