With all the people and organizations out there who would like more money, there’s something remarkable about the fact that the Gates Foundation is specifically asking people NOT to give to it (PDF) – and still couldn’t keep away over $10 million in donations in 2008.
Why the Gates Foundation doesn’t want your money
First off, I have a lot of trouble understanding the Foundation’s stated reasoning (PDF):
From time to time, people generously offer to contribute money to the foundation. We prefer that people give directly to our grantee organizations rather than to the foundation if they want to help advance the causes we’re passionate about. We have the stable funds we need to help us fulfill our mission, but our grantees often do not.
It seems to me that there are a couple of problems here.
- Is it desirable that the Gates Foundation’s grantees should have more “stable funds” than they do now? If so, why doesn’t the Gates Foundation give them these “stable funds” in the form of unrestricted grants? Couldn’t it, at the very least, use its “extra money” (the money that comes in as individual donations) in this way?
How does it make sense for the Foundation to ask people to fund something that that they choose not to fund themselves? More broadly, how does it make sense for an organization to that exists for the sole purpose of giving away money as well as possible to be discouraging people from giving to it?
- The Foundation directs people to its list of grantees – in the form of a database of (currently) over 5,000 grants. How is an individual donor to cut through this information and figure out the best fit?
Speaking as someone who personally tried to do exactly this about 3 years ago, I can tell you that the information the Gates Foundation is providing is nowhere near sufficient to figure out which nonprofits would most benefit from my donation. I’m honestly surprised that the Gates Foundation is pointing people to pages like this one (and the other pages it links to) for information. The Gates Foundation has a large and well-credentialed staff devoted to researching where to give out money, yet they’re asking individuals to make the decisions themselves based on profiles that read like fundraising brochures?
The bottom line is that I don’t think the Gates Foundation makes a compelling argument that you shouldn’t give to it (so perhaps it’s not surprising that so many people have chosen to). To me, the strongest part of its case is the implication that it actually considers pages like this one to provide all the information and analysis a donor needs. If that were the case (and I doubt that it is), I’d definitely prefer to use my own judgment.
What does $10 million mean?
Sean hypothesizes that “this is direct evidence of individual donors’ increasing interest in impact.” I’m inclined to agree.
We often hear that donors don’t really care about having the most impact possible; they care about attending benefits, or dispelling the guilt/cognitive dissonance raised by an appeal, or identifying with a cause. We respond that at least some donors are motivated primarily by wanting to make the world a better place; the question is how many of these are out there (because we know that the total pie is quite large). And we honestly don’t know the answer to that question – better research is needed.
But now we know that 2008 saw at least $10 million come from people who could not have been motivated by social events (the Gates Foundation holds none and doesn’t allow fundraisers on its behalf), in-the-moment emotions (the Gates Foundation conducts no appeals and doesn’t have a particularly cute namesake), or identification with a pet cause (the Gates Foundation’s work includes U.S. education, international aid and more, and it doesn’t allow people to earmark for a specific cause).
The only reasoning I can think of for giving to the Gates Foundation is, “They’ll do a better job with this [in terms of making the world a better place] than I can, and that’s what I want even if it doesn’t come with the donor perks of a traditional charity.” If you disagree and can think of a less altruism-based reason, please share in the comments.
Of course, that $10 million could all have come from 1-2 people for all we know (especially since only $1.6 million came in the year before). More on this below.
Will the Gates Foundation help us learn more about these donors?
Correction (added 6/11/09): Sean Stannard-Stockton has pointed out that the Gates Foundation will be releasing the names and amounts for all donors who gave more than $5000, as required by law. Assuming this is correct, the remainder of this post (from here until the end) should be disregarded.
There is growing interest improving donors’ access to quality information. In order to do this well, it would help greatly to know whom to target – in particular, whether the lion’s share of “impact-focused” charity is coming from tiny, medium, large, or mega donors. At this point we know so little about this question that having the breakdown of donation sizes from the Gates Foundation would, I believe, add a lot to our understanding.
I believe the Gates Foundation could be a good citizen and helpful to the cause of improving philanthropy by releasing information on how many donations it received of different sizes. Aggregating them by “buckets” (<$100, $100-500, etc.) and keeping all names confidential would allow this information sharing without compromising anyone's privacy. Will they do it?