The GiveWell Blog

Every time I tried to tell you, the words just came out wrong …

The latest Blog Carnival asks what donors wish nonprofits knew about them, and vice versa. In a way it’s a strange question: the idea of “wishing” knowledge on someone makes me think of forbidden love, or 8th-grade crushes, or at least Jim Croce. It doesn’t seem relevant when discussing two groups of adults that are supposed to communicate.

But while I’m certainly not too shy to tell nonprofits what I want them to know about me, I find too often that they still don’t know it. Here I’ve written out the claims I make that are most often ignored. And I’m glad I have, because I’m seeing a pattern.

1. I see you as competing with other charities.

All charities are trying to help the world, but they’re trying to do it in different ways. It isn’t enough for me to accomplish some good with my donation – I want to accomplish as much good as possible. That means you’re in competition, and that’s why I need so much information. It isn’t because I question your competence; it isn’t because I want to micromanage you (every donation I’ve ever made has been unrestricted); it’s because I have so many problems – and solutions – to choose from.

And if you think your only competitors are the charities “in your space,” think again. I’m not committed to addressing malaria, or diarrhea, or education. I’m just committed to helping the world. Anyone who does that better than you can win my donation away. And they will. Most importantly, they should.

2. I want to know what you’re doing with my money.

I’m deciding where to give $X, so I want to know what that $X is going to pay for. That means I want to see a budget – and at a higher level of detail than “Program expenses, administration, fundraising.” I don’t just want to know that you’re trying to help underprivileged children – I want to know how you’re trying to help them, how much it costs you, how much weight you’re placing on each of your programs, and what my $X is going to allow you to do that you couldn’t have otherwise.

Even the best organizations often can’t produce the kind of budget I’m talking about … and that just shocks me. Knowing how much you spend on each program – and what you’re purchasing (people? materials?) for those programs – is just common sense. For-profit companies can ask, “How much did we spend on airfare this year?” and conclude, “We should start flying coach.” Why do I have to drag a nonprofit kicking and screaming into telling me how much of its funds went to each continent?

3. No, listen. I want to know what you’re ACTUALLY doing with my money.

“You want numbers? I’ll give you numbers! 5c will save a child! $100 will vaccinate a village! $1000 will disband Al Qaeda!”

Sometimes I’m able to find out where these numbers are coming from. When I do, they invariably leave out necessary administrative expenses, ignore labor bottlenecks, and who knows what else. These gimmicks might fool a lot of people, but they turn off a lot of people too. When I talk to my non-giving friends, the most common reasoning I hear is “What’s my money really going to do? Those numbers in the pamphlets can’t be right.”

Administrative expenses are necessary and important. So is stability – the fact is that sometimes my money is just going to sit in a fund, helping to allow long-term planning. The truth about what my dollar allows isn’t as romantic as “20 children saved from death” … but it’s still worth a dollar.

4. I want the truth more than I want reassurance.

An extension of #3. I’ve come to your nonprofit because I want to do good; if I wanted to feel good, I’d go to a massage parlor. If you don’t think the truth is enough to convince me to give, either you think I’m a much worse person than you, or you don’t really believe in your organization. Neither of those is going to lead to great fundraising.

5. I want to help people more than I want good customer service.

The big one – really, the only one, since #1 through #4 are all ultimately motivated by #5.

As I scour the web looking to read about charity, I find myself reading a lot about marketing. (I’m not sure why this is – are marketers such a high proportion of every industry?) I’ve read a lot about making the customer feel listened to, feel important, and feel appreciated. This customer would prefer that you interrupt me, take weeks to get back to me, and call me a poop face, then demonstrate why your organization is a better avenue for improving the world than any other.

If what I say I want (say, minimal administrative expenses) doesn’t make sense, I want you to tell me why, not say you’re working on it. If my questions are based on bad assumptions, I want you to tell me so, not answer them narrowly. I’m not here for the “total experience” – I will trade 10,000 thank-you notes and 450,000 respectful compliments for a tiny bit of extra good accomplished. That’s what I’m here to do. And I’m concerned that the determination to please me is getting in my way.


  • Donor Power Blog on March 5, 2007 at 7:35 am said:

    Carnival of Nonprofit Consultants: It’s about communication…

    This week’s carnival is co-hosted here and at The Giving Carnival at Tactical Philanthropy. The topic: What donors wish nonprofits knew about them, and vice-versa. Lots of good posts, with a wide array of thoughts: Don’t Tell the Donor points…

  • The GiveWell Blog - Exploring how to get real change for your dollar. » BRB on May 5, 2007 at 12:14 pm said:

    […] Once you start focusing on the questions that matter, you find that they’re complicated. That’s OK – helping people is still worth money, and presumably the fundraisers trying to get mine agree. So why can’t we seem to communicate? Why is charity constantly oversimplified, reduced to pictures, and treated as something that donors must be cajoled and even tricked into? If fundraisers truly believe in what they’re doing, they must believe that donors don’t – and their assumptions about what donors value are keeping us from the relationship we should have: that of equals and teammates in the pursuit of improving the world. […]

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