I recently ran across a charity called Project AK-47 that declares:
Over 100,000 kids are carrying machine guns in the armies of Southeast Asia. Instead of walking to school, they march to war. Instead of playing, they train to kill. If we don’t intervene, most of these children will be soldiers for at least 7 more years…assuming they survive.
We have been rescuing as many of these child soldiers as possible. But right now, without more help, we have to turn many child soldiers away. Your $7 can make the difference between life and death for a child soldier.
A kid or a killer…you decide.
It’s a powerful emotional appeal, and if I could make the purchase they advertise, I would (many times over). There’s just one problem: after carefully examining the entire website, I cannot determine what this organization does.
It mentions paying for “7 days of food,” “7 days of quality education,” “play clothes to replace a child’s army uniform,” and “supplies for a child’s initial urgent medical care and hygiene” … but what is the plan to prevent them from becoming soldiers? Is this nonprofit hiring mercenaries to conduct armed rescues? Coming into peaceful communities and hoping that its help will discourage children from turning to the military? Or something else? And whatever it is, is it doable and does it work? I couldn’t find the answer.
It’s an extreme example of a style of argument common to nonprofits: point to a problem so large and severe (and the world has many such problems) that donors immediately focus on that problem – feeling compelled to give to the organization working on addressing it – without giving equal attention to the proposed solution, how much it costs, and how likely it is to work. Another example is the massive support for organizations such as the Save Darfur movement, despite serious questions about what exactly Save Darfur is trying to do (questions that I doubt most of its supporters have looked into).
Many of the donors we hear from are passionately committed to fighting global warming because it’s the “most pressing problem,” or to a particular disease because it affected them personally – even while freely admitting that they know nothing about the most promising potential solutions. I ask these donors to consider the experience related by William Easterly:
I am among the many who have tried hard to find the answer to the question of what the end of poverty requires of foreign aid. I realized only belatedly that I was asking the question backward … the right way around [is]: What can foreign aid do for poor people? (White Man’s Burden pg 11)
As a single human being, your powers are limited. As a donor, you’re even more limited – you’re not giving your talent or your creativity, just your money. This creates a fundamentally different challenge from identifying the problem you care most about, and can lead to a completely different answer.
In my case: I would rather close the achievement gap than fight developing-world disease, but my giving goes to the latter because it’s a problem that I can do much more to address.
The truth is that you may not be able to do anything to help address the root causes of poverty or cure cancer or solve the global energy crisis.* But you probably can save a life, and insisting on giving to the “biggest problem” could be passing up that chance.
*I haven’t looked into the latter two, and it’s possible that they are more tractable. If you know something about their tractability, I encourage you to share it.