Friday, February 26, 2010

Area Man's Starbucks Purchase Finally Ends African AIDS Epidemic

After deciding to add a bag of (Starbucks) RED brand coffee on top of his vente mocha latte order, area man Bill West completed the final piece of the puzzle to end the AIDS epidemic in Africa, which claimed the lives of over 1.4 million people in 2008 alone.

The mood was subdued at the local Starbucks where the historic purchase was made, as many did not realize the gravity of West's last-minute decision to purchase the $11.95 bag of coffee. But as the news spread around the world, communities erupted in celebration.

"This is a great day for humanity," said Michel Kazatchkine, Executive Director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, where Starbucks made the $1 donation--taken from West's purchase--needed to rid the continent of the disease that had crippled it for decades. "All of our work, all of our time, all of our hopes are now validated by this one last push to end AIDS in Africa."

Health workers from Cairo to Cape Town were finally able to rest after years of working against an overwhelming stream of growing infection rates. People in even the most remote villages of the African Savannah joined together in the mass celebration that pulsed with joy and spread around the world.

"It's over! It's over!" cried one formerly-affected African as she danced with her friends and family in Ghanzi, a remote village in Botswana, a country which once had the highest rates of the disease before its eradication. "We are free!"

Most people received news of the disease's defeat but glossed over how the victory was won. Bono, humanitarian activist and U2 front-man, reached out to the broader global community to recognize the efforts of the people that made it possible.

"It is important to remember what went into this momentous occasion," said the rock star, one of the founders of the Product RED brand. "The Product RED line successfully mobilized Western consumers to go out and buy things they either already had or only moderately desired under the guise of social responsibility. With out these compassionate consumers, or the compassionate Starbucks marketing directors who decided to give up razor-thin amounts of their profit margin to the Global Fund in exchange for the Product Red partnership, this debilitating disease would still be destroying Africa."

RED, in partnership with the Global Fund and the One Campaign, created an website where individuals could go to thank West for his purchase. In a matter of hours, over 10 million had visited the site.

West was tracked down by reporters minutes after the purchase, halfway through his latte. He remained calm and humble when he learned the service he had done for the world.

"I was just doing my part," West said.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Satire Roundup

There are only two things I like more than comedy. It's hard to be funny and even harder to be funny about something as nuanced and complicated as philanthropy and social change, so I thought I'd feature those items that make you laugh (and make you think!) here, in my own digest of sorts. It will be periodic (or maybe never again, depending on the feasibility of this feature) and will stretch out of the blogosphere and into my other comedic interests, which are mostly SNL, the Onion and the Daily Show. I hope you enjoy.
This list has inspired my to do my own philanthropic satire. Look for that soon.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Capitalism Cop-out?

I've never met a Tea-Partier, but if I did, I think I'd ask his or her opinion on philanthropy. Decidedly anti-socialist, I know the Tea-Party has a strong stance against government spreading the wealth around. But I wonder how they feel about capitalism doing the same thing.

Capitalism's venue of wealth-spreading is a result of its beneficiaries sharing their wealth with the less fortunate (or depending on how conservative you are, the less able) through their philanthropic donations. I imagine the Tea Party people wouldn't have a problem with this form of wealth-spreading, as it's nicely explained through market forces. Because they don't take issue with philanthropy, it makes me think I should. (As much as I hate the culture wars, they are pretty crazy.)

Philanthropy, after-all, may just be a convenient way to justify (or at least, minimize) the excess and greed of our society. Micheal Edwards, a guest blogger at Philanthropy Central, calls philanthropy the "path of least resistance" for our consumer society. Georgia Levenson Keohane, writing at the Center for Effective Philanthropy on the banking industry, says that "charitable giving is no substitute for sector reform."

So what am I doing here, discussing the intricacies of philanthropy, when charitable donations only justify the corporate greed at the heart of the American society? My employer, a community-health center, occasionally receives in-kind donations from a local Wal-Mart. Essentially, these "gifts" are the rejected, returned, or damaged goods the store can no longer sell. Instead of tossing them into the trash, Wal-Mart donates them and lets us deal with it. Are charitable donations just the equivalent: Spill-over from the capitalist machine, given away to the losers of the economic game as an after-thought?

Well, it might have been at one point, but now, I'm not so sure. There are still organizations and individuals who operate under that paradigm (see my Wal-Mart example above), but those are becoming the minority. I see philanthropy (or more broadly, civil society) not as a by-product of capitalism, or in conflict with it, but as an integrated part of the economic sphere. As charitable donations come more and more from individuals in small increments, and those individuals start to see what those donations really are (social investments), it will be clear that social change is the foundation of any economic system. Corporations can even benefit from it.

Of course, I could be wrong. Then let's hope President Obama actually is a socialist, otherwise nothing will ever get done.

Monday, February 15, 2010

New Charity Rater!

A new charity rater site was unveiled today! It's called, well, The Charity Rater.

This release from Saundra Schimmelpfennig, the long-and-confusing-last-name blogger at Good Intentions are Not Enough, might not have an innovative title, but it does offer an innovative and, I think, necessary approach to charity evaluation.

The site is essentially a step-by-step guide (a "toolkit," as Schimmelpfennig calls it) to evaluation for individuals interested in donating to a specific charity. It offers a survey with questions that vary based on the type of organization, but include basic questions about financials, accountability, advertising, organizational structure and mission (the last of which I was very glad to see included.) It takes about 20-30 minutes and at the end, the survey spits out a score.

To make good social investments, people need to understand why an organization is more effective than another. Charity Rater provides an easily-understood glimpse into the complicated world of evaluation, efficiency and effectiveness. It creates more engagement and allows the lay-donor to be as critical of an organization as he or she would like. This is a necessary component of an effective evaluator, as any evaluation site that simply tells people where to donate is only slightly better than advertising directing those same donations. 

I played around with it to evaluate two non-profits I've worked with to see how they'd fare. Unfortunately, I was disappointed by the results. Both got shoddy marks.

Mostly these poor scores are due to Charity Rater's limited scope--it was rushed to completion to help donors vet their Haiti relief organizations. It is currently designed only to evaluate aid organizations. Soon, it will be expanded for all charities and will more accurately be able to assess the worth of any organization.

However, the negative scores my organizations received also reflects one major problem I have with most charity evaluators: They assume an organization's lack of transparency means the organization is ineffective. Charity Rater has you use an organization's website to answer the questions in its survey and if the website doesn't have the information needed, the organization is penalized.

Charity Rater does mention this weakness and the site approaches the lack of transparency issue in a positive way: "Let the charity know what information you need and that you expect them to make this same information readily available to all donors in the future." For the organizations I rated, most of the information is available, it just isn't available on the website. The organizations didn't put them online to deceive, they just didn't think about it.

Charity Rater's survey will be a great guideline not just for donors, but also for non-profits to learn what types of information should be made accessible to donors, as well as how to approach programmatic decisions. I've asked Schimmelpfennig for a copy of the survey and I hope to use it as a tool to make the organizations I work with more transparent and accessible.

I am excited to see how Charity Rater grows and for the eventual data it releases. (Schimmelpfennig says the site will publish averaged scores of surveys from the same organization over time.) Check it out and give your feedback.

(Edit: A change to Charity Rater's database had artificially deflated scores. They are working on fixing it. I feel better about my organizations' scores, but both still need work to meet Charity Rater's transparency standards.)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Can't Buy Me Love

So this is my second post discussing how much a person should give, which also, somewhat coincidentally, has a classic-rock theme. In the previous one, I discussed how any advice on how much to give will be fundamentally arbitrary. In this one, I will discuss the real question behind anyone asking how much should they give:

How much is a human life worth?

Now, bear with me. In my last post, I outlined three conditions that I think need to hold true before any system can be created to determine how much an individual should be donating:
First, that your donation (investment) will be used effectively and efficiently. Second, your donation (investment) will be used with similar amounts of effectiveness and efficiency across all causes and across all organizations. Third, you will be able to measure a return on that donation (investment) that will justify the amount of money you put in. 
I write about the first condition all the time. The second two require metrics that are able to accurately measure social change and life improvement resulting from an organization's efforts.  This system of social output measurement would be able to quantify the social output from an organization, and therefore, tell you your return on a social investment. While some have tried to do this, I am not sure it is obtainable, or something investors should seek out.

This isn't obtainable because, fundamentally, it requires the measurable value of a human life--whether that be at the individual, group of societal level. To know how much change your money is creating, you would need to be able to quantify that change. Change is always centered on improving individual's lives and an improvement of a life can only be measured if that life can be measured. We, as humans, do not have the tools (or probably the consciousness) to do this. Determining the value of life has been tried, but using money to value humanity isn't much different than letting monkeys figure out how many bananas their friends are worth.

Charles at Social Edge posted this discussion on "The Fetishization of Metrics," where he compares "Quants," (those who are interested in measuring impact through numbers) with "Qualits," (those who "know there's more to human life than numbers can possibly capture.") Quants want to determine outputs and see the numbers, while Qualits recognize that real change comes in unmeasurable units.

I encourage you to be a Qualit in your investments and in all things. Quants have their place--we must measure what we can to determine what is working and what is not. (The authors of a study cited in Charles' post even propose a metric to better measure the intrinsic, unmeasurable value of social change.) But when pushed too far, social change measurements will always fall apart.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

I ain't no fortunate one

A simple Google search on how much to invest will overload you with advice--for 401(k)s, IRAs, stocks, bonds, commodities, beanie babies, whatever. But a similar search on giving offers up meager results at best (including some links about rat poison).

There is a lot of talk about smart giving, but not a lot of advice on how much money individuals should fork over after vetting their organization. The do-gooder answer is simple: more, more, more, but that doesn't hold much weight in a country with high-unemployment, tight budgets and normal people wanting to make a difference.

For those who live a life of excess, like the demon bankers of Wall Street, the mantra of more can be a good financial guide (or shame tactic). But for those of us debating between donating $100 and $200, or even $25 or $50, it would be good to know the optimal levels of giving.

Luckily, Peter Singer, a philosopher whose most famous work is The Life You Can Save, created a giving calculator for this specific purpose. Just type in your income and boom! there's your charitable donation for the year. I entered in mine, $12,000, and it spit out $120.

Now, I like to think of my self as generous, but, based on my stipended-volunteer budget, my expected donation is 120% of my monthly personal spending, which covers everything but room and board. I looked into the rational behind these figures and found this explanation. The levels for giving Singer devised seem a little arbitrary.

And I think that's what the answer to the question "how much should I give?" will always be: arbitrary. Asking that question assumes many things: First, that your donation (investment) will be used effectively and efficiently. Second, your donation (investment) will be used with similar amounts of effectiveness and efficiency across all causes and across all organizations. Third, you will be able to measure a return on that donation (investment) that will justify the amount of money you put in.

As it stands now, only the first of those assumptions holds, and only in certain cases. Until all those assumptions are reality, any guide on how much to give won't hold a lot of weight. One day, social impact measurements may be able to make the other two assumptions true, but I doubt we will ever (or even should) posses the tools to accurately measure social change in quantifiable amounts. (More on that later, but until then, read this.)

So, my answer to the "how much?" question is a modification, but as equally a cop-out, on the do-gooder answer. You should give what you think you can. Pushing your limits is never discouraged, but ultimately, because the return on social investments is unquantifiable social change, you are the only one who can decide what you can afford.

Unless you are one of those people living a life of excess. Then, you don't really have an excuse.

Monday, February 1, 2010

What do Sudanese goats and Carolinian lunches have in common?

Last month, the Lieutenant Governor of the great state of South Carolina made this argument about free and reduced school lunch programs for poor children:
"You're facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don't think too much further than that. And so what you've got to do is you've got to curtail that type of behavior. They don't know any better."
This is a misguided statement to say the least. Cutting off food to underserved children won't help anyone. But even if Lt. Governor Bauer's comments are ignorant at best and malicious and racist at worst, it does highlight the tension between helping others and letting others help themselves.

Part of social investment is finding the most efficient, easily scalable programs that can help the most people. But providing inexpensive and easily-replicated solutions always comes with a flip-side of creating a reliance on those services, never allowing the social investor's work to end.

A recent post on AidWatch from Diane and Dennis Bennett illustrates how a program that ultimately failed can decrease dependency. The Bennetts discuss their program to diminish the need for food assistance in southern Sudan. They gave three goats to different villagers, hoping to receive the offspring back as payment to reinvest in other community members. Instead, two of the villagers defaulted on the loans and gave the resulting goats to other villagers to start their own herds. The project failed financially and ended. But the villagers kept the goats and are no longer dependent on external food assistance. Thus, in the eyes of the Bennetts, it was a success.

I am not trying to compare goat loans in south Sudan to school lunches in South Carolina, but I think the juxtaposition of these two programs can teach us about the relationship between dependency and effectiveness. One, the goats in south Sudan, creates less dependency, but the other, the school lunches in South Carolina, is more effective. While the Bennets say their program was successful, other villages in south Sudan (or across Sudan, or in all of Africa, or across the world) could have benefited if the program was scalable. The South Carolina lunches provide more food for more children, but because of that, more people are reliant on the program.

One does not always have to sacrifice dependency for effectiveness, or vice versa. Free school lunches can be used as a part of programs aimed at poverty-alleviation. Agricultural microloans can be done on a broader scale. And, long-run dependency might not even be a concern for you.

Ultimately, what is most effective should be the priority. But ignoring dependency will ultimately ignore end-goals. When thinking about your investments, keep the long term in mind, even if it isn't at the front.