The GiveWell Blog

Two futures

My thoughts on the latest Giving Carnival:

Fundraising today is all about the pitch; 10 years from now, I hope it will be about the product.

Fundraising today reminds me a lot of car commercials. Car commercials try to convince you that a Ford is better than a Toyota or a Volvo outclasses a Volkswagen by showing pictures of cars speeding around tight curves on steep mountains. Those commercials don’t tell you anything about what distinguishes one car from another. Similarly, my experience with fundraising materials from non-profits is that they’re virtually interchangeable (all are heavy on pictures of extremely cute 5 year-old children) and give me no information about what distinguishes one non-profit from another.

In the case of cars, the world has changed such that I have the ability to distinguish between powerful cars and less powerful cars, reliable cars and less reliable cars, safe cars and less safe cars using any number of resources (Edmunds, Consumer Reports, etc.).With charities the same is not yet true, but it will be.

In the future, fundraisers will have to support their programs by clearly explaining what their programs accomplish (as Holden and I keep learning, a pretty difficult enterprise) and providing evidence for their claims. They’ll have to do this because donors will demand it. No longer willing to accept vague descriptions of program accomplishments and no longer scared to criticize organizations which, though they mean well, accomplish little, donors will force a new age of fundraising, one where the conversation revolves around how best to help those in need.

That’s the utopian future I hope for and envision. The future that frightens me most (and the one that other carnival participants, like here and here, envision) is a future that’s a stronger, faster, super-powered version of today. More efficient strategies, super-slick presentations, and lightning fast, fully-linked technologies allow people to give more with virtually no thought at all. Where the world might be improving but then again, it might not, and it doesn’t even matter because no one will care. “People are giving more than ever!”, they’ll say, and that will be that.


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