I’m spreading my rant against the Straw Ratio across a few posts, because (a) I have a lot to say; (b) this idea is really central to what we’re doing.
Let’s start with an observation so obvious that you’re going to get mad at me for being patronizing. There is a lot you need to know about a charity besides its Straw Ratio. For example, if 99c of every dollar you give to Love the Children International goes directly to children in need (a common way of citing a strong Straw Ratio), but the specific way in which it goes to children in need is that it funds a team of singers that sings ’80s hits to them, this isn’t necessarily the best possible use of your donation.
Of course, I’m not aware of any charitable program devoted to singing ’80s hits. But I’m aware of many whose stated missions are vague enough that they may well encompass this. Some popular examples off the top of my head: one, two, three. I’m also aware that for many of the strategies I do understand, the effectiveness is far from clear. An example that jumps to mind is organizations like AmeriCares and Direct Relief International, which distribute medical supplies to areas in need, but (perhaps in pursuit of a high Straw Ratio) appear to do zero tracking of what happens to the supplies once they arrive (even though they are often arriving in extremely dangerous, disorganized areas).
So it isn’t enough to know how much of your dollar goes to programs–you need to know what the programs are. This might seem obvious, but I think it’s often overlooked. I think this because when I ask charities for budget info and evidence of their effectiveness, I often get a pie chart showing how much of my dollar goes directly to program expenses, and nothing else. And when I ask for more, I often get confusion as to why I would want anything else. Keep in mind, these are large charities, frequently with vague and all-encompassing mission statements and always with more than one major program. I want to know what they’re doing with the money. They think it’s enough to show me that they’re doing something.
If the need to know more than the Straw Ratio were obvious to everyone, this wouldn’t happen to me. If it were obvious, there wouldn’t be such a hubbub about Charity Navigator’s new feature allowing people to donate directly through the site–in other words, saving them the trouble of so much as visiting the charity’s website, and thereby allowing them to donate to a charity about which they know nothing other than the stated mission and the budget breakdown into program expenses, overhead and fundraising.
The fact is, I think most givers trust charities to do good things with their money. In other words, most givers are in a state of brain de-activation. Most of us wouldn’t give our best friend money without at least wanting to know what s/he’s going to do with it (and not just that s/he has good intentions). Yet many of us are ready to fork over a check to a bunch of total strangers as soon as they incorporate with a name like “Happy Smiles Worldwide.”
It isn’t enough to know that your dollars are being used with good intentions. You need to know that they’re being used on things that work. A yummy name and 501(c)(3) status guarantees neither that the people you’re funding are well-intentioned, nor that they have any idea what they’re doing. And as long as the Straw Ratio is all people look at, a good reputation and even a multimillion-dollar budget shouldn’t put you at ease, either. The only thing that tells you your money is accomplishing good is a description of what it’s being spent on and why that can be expected to improve people’s lives reliably and effectively.
This is obvious to anyone investing in a business, or lending to a friend, or buying a car (you do take it for a test drive, right?) So the only possible way that people can miss it when donating to charity is that they’re turning their brains off. And that’s exactly what I think is happening. Some of the smartest people I know turn into weak, gullible, soft-minded suckers the second the subject turns to “charity” or “giving.” And it’s too bad, because that’s possibly the area where their intelligence–not just their wallet–is most needed.
Tune in next time as I move on from “The Straw Ratio isn’t enough information” to “The Straw Ratio is misleading information.” I believe that a good Straw Ratio can be a bad thing–and in today’s climate, it generally is.
If what I’m saying is obvious and boring you, just fill in the arguments yourselves (comments) and I’ll go back to complaining about corrective surgery organizations.