Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Donors Aren't the Only Ones Online

If you visit any social service non-profit's website looking to donate or volunteer or just learn more, you'll be happy to find a well placed donation link, ways to get more involved and content on the success of its numerous programs. But if you go looking for information on how to enroll in those programs or benefit from those donations, you might be out of luck.

For most small- to medium-sized social service non-profits, websites are a way to recruit donors and volunteers, not clients. Many organizations have a bare-bones site to give people an idea of what they do and (of course) how to donate. Most charity evaluators (Charity Rater, GiveWell, Charity Navigator) rely on an organization's website to learn about a non-profit and then use this information to make recommendations to donors. In turn, non-profits have developed their sites as vehicles to draw in money. But as internet use grows, clients themselves are now going to the sites looking for information about programs and services.

When I started my job at a community health center a few months ago, my first task was to completely overhaul its site. Almost none of the programmatic information was up-to-date and the site was explicitly maintained to engage donors and volunteers. I updated content, shifted things around and designed pages exclusively for patients. It's not perfect, but at least someone thought through the process with our patients in mind.

Similarly, one of my friends at a legal assistance non-profit recently sent out a frustrated email to a listserv decrying local social service organizations for not having updated contact information and hours, making it very difficult for her to refer any of her clients to other organizations. The lack of information makes it seem like clients are expected to have someone help them navigate the system, instead of just having the information up front, which she said creates a "paternalistic" vibe.

Each non-profit has many constituents to serve--clients, donors, volunteers, other organizations. A website is the public face of an organization and its important to cater to all constituents with it. If you are in control of a social-service website, or are involved with a social service organization, make recommendations to revamp the site with clients in mind. Making necessary changes to can be as easy has having the organization's contact information and hours of operation on the main page. The site of the organization where I work has a resources page "For Patients," "For Donors," and "For Volunteers." Including these changes will not only benefit clients, but also can help other organizations seeking to learn from or partner with your non-profit.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

It's Not About You

Recently, I was reading a new study on "Virtual Volunteering" (which I mistakenly thought was about volunteer opportunities in Second Life) for Haitian relief efforts. This passage jumped out at me:
"For our purposes, virtual volunteering is understood by the volunteer herself or himself as helpful to those most directly affected by the events surrounding a crisis or those in need of volunteer assistance. Some observers may not agree that a specific form of volunteerism is useful or efficacious. For example, a volunteer who prays two hours a day for the safety of Haitians rendered homeless by earthquake damage believes she is helping, even though many third-party observers might doubt the utility of her actions." [Emphasis mine]
Say what?

The study was released in conjunction with the College of Charleston and Hope +, a social networking site where "[y]ou can use your social network to volunteer with your friends, support organizations and projects around the world, or start your own." The most important part of Hope +, they say, is you:
"HOPE+ is all about giving YOU and millions of others like YOU a way to change the world...We want to know what inspires YOU. Ultimately, we want to use HOPE+ to help turn your hopes and dreams into real change on the ground."
Needless to say, this language makes me very, very uncomfortable. The emphasis in this is on the giver, the volunteer, the donor, not the recipient.  For the Hope + virtual volunteer (which is actually someone who volunteers remotely, not a digital avatar) it doesn't matter what he or she is doing, even if it is praying, as long as the volunteer feels like he or she is making a difference.

Social networking sites like Hope + help connect individuals to create change. At their best, these sites can leverage action and donations for good causes, like Kiva does for microfinance institutions across the world. At their worst, the sites can shift accountability from the people needing help to the people doing the helping. If you visit the "Virtual Volunteer" section at Can-Do, one of Hope +'s partners, you will find a message board at the bottom of the page full of people asking how to get down to Haiti to help. Anyone who does even a little bit of research on Haitian relief will know that this is not a good idea. These types of forums build on the assumption that donors and volunteers know best and let people think of their own projects, instead of asking what is best for the recipients.

Besides encouraging little to no critical thought about donations, mobilizing social networking (or text donations) to fundraise or leverage free labor can also create too much of a focus on engaging the donor or volunteer rather than serving the organization's constituents. Dan Morrison, CEO of Citizen Effect, wrote a guest piece for Social Citizens defending "slacktivism"--the idea that we can make a difference by not doing a whole lot, like texting for Haitian relief. He says that instead of mobilizing a slacktivist to do more, we should be finding easier ways for him or her to give.

While I agree that social media/networking is a good tool to use to get people more involved more easily--whether that be through microdonations or virtual volunteering--it's also important to remember what Uncle Ben told Peter Parker: "With great power comes great responsibility." Texting donations or pointing people towards easily-done volunteer opportunities is great, as long as those donations go to good organizations and those volunteer opportunities actually benefit the people that need help. The focus should not be on how to get more out of people, but how to put untapped resources to better use. Organizations like Hope + and Citizen Effect put too much emphasis on the giver and not enough on the receiver.

So when volunteering or giving, remember: It's not about you. If you want something more ego-centric, try blogging.

Thanks to Adam for sending me the slacktivism article.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Congratulations to....You!

Over the last two weeks, the almighty William Easterly and the omnipresent

When it comes to international relief efforts, there is nothing more important than efficiency and effectiveness.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Microphilanthropy as Financial Planning

I attended YNPN's discussion last Friday given by Rebecca Schreiber of Solid Ground Financial Planning, titled "Micro-philanthropy: Making a Big Impact with Small Contributions." I showed up expecting to hear several iterations of "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world," but instead I heard something much more selfish.

Schreiber centered most of her talk on how charitable giving, particularly small, recurring amounts, can actually help balance your budget. She did touch on how easy it is to be a part of that small group of committed citizens in the digital age, as well as a brief overview of giving advice, but what interested me the most was her discussion of how charitable giving can help you prioritize your purchases and get your financials in order.

"Anything that makes us stop and think 'Is this really what I want to spend my money on?' is a good thing," said Schreiber. Taking a step back to think about where we want to donate is an important part of smart giving/social investing, but that framework for decision-making can also apply to more typical, everyday transactions.

Schreiber said that the feeling we get from making a donation should be the same feeling we get from every purchase or financial transaction. We should feel confident about every purchase just as we feel confident that the donation we make is going to the right cause. This discernment will help to make less sporadic purchases and keep an eye on budgeting.

Taking an intentional step to give and give regularily may also help some of us (younger) people budget for the first time. To prioritize smart giving is to prioritize smart budgeting, as we need to be aware of our financials to be able to give back. We also need to know how much we have to know how much we can afford to give, and Schreiber answers the difficult question of how much to give by suggesting "No more than you save." (Of course, this then asks the question, How much to save?) She underlined the importance of smart giving, both in recipient and quantity, to ensure "your ability to give in the future."

Overall, I thought the presentation, while not exactly what I expected, helped me see charitable giving in a new way. I know it's unreasonable to think I can feel as good about every purchase I make as I do with my social investments (and it might not even be good to feel good about them), but it is interesting to think about how the tangible benefits of giving go not only to the recipient, but also to the donor. 

The full version of the presentation is here, posted with permission.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Big Corporation Does Less Than It Should To Save World

So a few weeks ago, I wrote this post poking fun at Product RED and the consumers that purchase those products. (Full disclosure: I own a RED t-shirt from the GAP. I enjoy wearing it. Gasp!) This post was picked up by the almighty William Easterly and re-posted on his site.

The comments that resulted are a very engaging and thoughtful discussion of the benefits and drawbacks of the RED brand and embedded philanthropy in general. It even prompted a response post on New Millennial, which is a good summary of the merits of RED.

In the comments, there was a lot of speculation about what I was getting at in the post, and honestly, I was just trying to be funny. (Not incidentally, Professor Easterly has taken a lot of heat recently for his focus on satire. I am truly sorry I contributed to that.) One commenter took it upon himself to fight fire with fire with his own response satire, titled "Big Corporation Does Less Than It Probably Could to Save the World."

Most of the defenses of embedded philanthropy and Product RED--besides the awareness-raising aspect of it, which I think is valid--are centered around this point: "It's not a lot, but hey, at least it's something." Besides being funny, I think attacking this claim was what I wanted to accomplish with my satire. That line of thinking, when applied to both consumers and organizations, breeds complacency in the current situation and mediocrity in our actions.

The New Millennial post linked above states that the point of Product RED is not to increase consumption, but to alter consumer behavior. Whether or not this is true is up for debate, but even if that were the case, altering consumer behavior should never be the stopping point of any social-change campaign. I have no inherent problem with RED products (see note about shirt above) or the non-profit it works with, but I think the fact that the arguments for embedded philanthropy are "Hey, it's something," shows how detrimental this option is to the consumer.

We always need to push ourselves, whether that be in our giving or in the work that we do. We must never accept a small purchase as "our part" to create change. Even it is something, it is not enough. And it most certainly doesn't preclude you from doing more.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Microphilanthropy Discussion

If you are in the DC area and don't mind taking a long lunch this Friday, check out this event: "Microphilanthropy for the Young Professional." (I don't think they'll turn you away if you aren't young. And that's a pretty relative term, isn't it?)

From the site:
No one understands the importance of philanthropy better than nonprofit employees, but many young professionals feel as though they are not able to donate enough money to truly make a difference for organizations that are important to them.  Certified Financial Planner Rebecca Schreiber joins YNPNdc and Capital Area Asset Builders returns for the final session in our wildly popular Financial Management Series.  This time, she focuses on "microphilanthropy" and ways that you can make a difference with just $25 per month.
It'll be this Friday, March 12th from 12-1 at Capital Area Asset Builders, 1801 K St, NW, Suite M100. It should be a good discussion for those of us without a lot of money to give, but who are still interested in making a difference through social investments.

Monday, March 1, 2010

I can run and not help Haiti for free

If you live in the DC area and enjoy running, clean water access and Haiti relief efforts, you are going to love April 18th. Live Earth is sponsoring a global run for water, when people around the world will run the distance the average child or woman walks for clean water each day (6k). To make the event all the more enticing, Corrigan Sports Enterprises, Live Earth's local partner for the DC run, has offered to donate five gallons of clean water to Haitian relief efforts for every DC-area participant that signs up.

I was all on board up until that last part. I don't have to argue here that in-kind donations for disaster relief are ineffective. (Because that's done here, here, here and most succinctly, here. Email me for more if you'd like.) However, bottled water can be a necessary thing for disaster relief, depending on the situation, so I wanted to learn more. I emailed a representative at Corrigan Sports to see how exactly they planned to ship five gallons of water per DC runner to Haiti, and how they planned on distributing it once it got there.

The representative didn't know. He said the donations would be made to Live Earth's non-profit partner for the event, the Global Water Challenge, earmarked for the purchase of water. From there, the Global Water Challenge would go through one of its Haiti relief partners to get the water out to the people who need it.

There are a few things wrong with this plan of action, in my mind. Assuming Corrigan Sports does want their money to go to purchasing bottled water and nothing else, it will be difficult (or impossible) to track it, since there are so many intermediaries to go through. (GWC's website actually says to donate to one of their partners directly to help with Haitian relief, not to GWC itself.) Second, the Global Water Challenge partners are not organizations with long-standing development efforts in Haiti, which is essential to effective disaster relief. Third, and most fundamentally, Corrigan Sports is not basing its earmarked donation on any expressed need. It seems like they want the donations to go to water efforts because it fits nicely into the Live Earth event (which is not linked, except in DC, with Haitian relief at all.)

I expressed these thoughts to Corrigan Sports, saying I was concerned that their money might be wasted.  I suggested a general donation to an organization with a history in Haiti that has committed to development in the long term, like Partners in Health, might be better. The representative said that the charity partner for the event was Global Water Challenge and they were not concerned with a misuse of funds.

Obviously, my prodding alone isn't enough to change the minds of the people at Corrigan Sports. But I thought I'd ask the readers of this blog to express their views to them. If you live in the DC area, email Corrigan Sports and tell them you won't run in the event unless they change their donation to unrestricted funding for an organization with a commitment to long-term work in Haiti. (Even if you don't live in DC, email them anyways and tell them how you feel.) This will be a significant donation by Corrigan Sports that could be put to better use elsewhere.

It's hard for me to suggest this call to action because I want people to participate in the run. I think it will be informative and inspiring, with opportunities for further action. But, ultimately, I think it's more important to better serve those who need our help rather than feel good about participating in a global event.  And plus, I can save that forty dollars, run beside the race and make a donation on my own to Partners in Health.

So please, email Corrigan Sports and tell them why they need to think more about where their money is going.