The Challenge of Being a Donor


I recently got an email from a reader frustrasted by how little he has learned after 30 years of being a donor to international developement causes. With his permission, I am posting our email exchange here:

The letter

I have been giving to aid organizations such as Oxfam America and Trickle Up for over 30 years. Yet my thinking has not benefited from 30 years of direct feedback. I have no independent means of hearing from the people served by these organizations.

Recently, it occurred to me that I should focus on a single region in a particular country where there is a program in place. I would see if I could develop direct relationships with people in that region. Then I would be exposed to different perspectives.

Is it plausible to think that using modern forms of communication, I might be able to form lasting long-term relationships that would give me a useful, local perspective on various aid efforts?

I am also wondering if a problem such as malaria might offer a way to partner with others who are working in the target region.

Are these sorts of relationships for two-way learning and long-term problem solving possible? Can individuals learn from each other and not have the learning mediated by the media or aid organizations?

My Answer

You’re up against one of the most frustrating situation for a committed donor: it feels like throwing your money down a well sometimes. You can’t tell if things are changing because they change so slowly, and when they do change you can’t tell how much of it was because of you. I think that feeling is a big part of what drives the current trend toward randomized controlled trials on international development interventions.

In terms of connecting with people who actually interact with aid programs, I think the answer is a qualified yes. Most of the developing world is rapidly coming online and using social media in particular. People are using the internet even when they don’t have water or consistent electricity.

However, the question that comes to mind for me is: what’s in it for them? What is the motivation for a 22-year-old Malawian to communicate with you about aid programs and their impact on her life? You would benefit from getting a local perspective on where your money goes, but how does your dialogue partner benefit? Their time is valuable and internet access is not free – why should they spend that on you?

If you can find a way past that hurdle, then I think yes, interpersonal learning is completely possible.

One final thought for you – are you familiar with the work of I don’t agree with all their conclusions, but they do an excellent job of identifying organizations that perform, and share, genuine impact evaluations. You might consider shifting your giving to such an organization.

(photo credit: jaymiek)

Giving on the Street

I have spent my adult life confronted by people asking me for money on the street. In college in Washington DC, as a young graduate in Cairo, a grad student in Boston, and in the various countries of Central Asia. I have a policy now on who I give to, and why I do it. It’s the combination of some great advice I received from a Georgetown professor* and my own knowledge of development and poverty.

Here’s the policy:

I don’t give money to children. I will give them food if I have it, but I don’t give money. Children should be in school, not out earning money on the street. I don’t want to encourage children to beg, or their parents to send them out to beg. In accounting terms, children should not be a profit center – especially not in this way – and I am not going to contribute to it.

I don’t give money and expect it to have any long-term impact. Five dollars or a banana isn’t going to change anybody’s life. It will buy their next meal, or their next beer. It will make this day a little better for them. That is all. When I give money, I give it with that understanding.

I have a budget. I spend ten dollars a week on giving money to people who ask for it. It doesn’t come out of my charitable contribution budget, because I use that for donations that will have an impact. It has its own line in my budget.

If you had to name that line in my budget, I guess you could call it humanity. I give because I don’t want to become someone who ignores the pain of others. We’re all human beings, together, on this planet, and it’s only an accident of luck that means I can give and not receive. I recognize that, and so I give. If I was hungry and alone on the street, I wouldn’t be worried about sustainability, I would be worried about dinner.

That’s it. That’s the policy.

Note #1 – The story my professor at Georgetown told our class: He was in a North African Country – Algeria, I think – and he was very uncomfortable with all the beggars on the street. He’d plan his walk to his university to avoid them. He didn’t look them in the eye. He never knew if he should give. Then, one night, he was walking with an Algerian colleague. His colleague stopped suddenly in the middle of their conversation, and crossed the street in order to give money to a beggar. My professor realized then he needed to find a way to be equally compassionate himself. He went home and told his wife about it, and she suggested a weekly budget for him, and that is what he has done ever since. And also what I do.

Note #2 – I have a friend who used to have a weekly budget for giving to the homeless, when he realized one day that $10 a week is $520 a year. Now, ever January, he writes a $600 check to an organization that works with the homeless and he never gives money on the street. That seems like a reasonable and pragmatic approach to me, but it doesn’t suit my own heart.


photo credit: P Hansen

Tapping the Fanatical Surplus

I have a confession to make: I am a fan. I read fan fiction. I participate in Livejournal communities. I have actually written fan fiction on occasion. It’s been a great hobby in a life where I can’t have hobbies that involve material things, and fan fiction has saved me more than once from death by boredom on trips too long to carry as many books as I need.

It’s traditional to pretend to be ashamed of this hobby, but I’m not. It’s been crucial to my understanding of social media, community, and the way the world has shifted to a new participatory culture. I am proud to be a textual poacher. This level playing field has even changed the way I see international development. And sometimes fans do wonderful things.

Which is a long way of getting to this post by Laurenist. In it, she deconstructs a new charity started by Misha Collins, the actor who plays Castiel on Supernatural. Here’s how she begins:

Now, Misha is attempting to once again tap his social networking prowess (and large fanbase) to raise funds for a new charity, Random Acts. Not awesome. (Sadface.)

Don’t get me wrong. I like charities! I like Misha! I want Misha’s charity to be one that I like. Unfortunately, it seems the people behind it have good intentions, but as we in the international development blogger community know, “Good intentions are not enough.”

Let’s look at how Random Acts says it’s going to spend the money it raises:

  • 33% will be divided between the orphanages we support in Haiti
  • 15% will go to support victims of the horrific flooding in Pakistan
  • 51.99% will go to support random acts of kindness all around the world
  • .01% will be spent bribing public officials

She has two major criticisms: 1) Orphanages are a bad idea and 2) Supporting random acts of kindness is not an effective use of money. I agree with her on both points. Orphanages are a bad idea, almost always. Saundra can tell you why. And the whole random acts idea strikes me as kind of weak. A lot of feel-good; not much actual result.


Misha Collins actually responded to Laurenist’s post with a well-thought-out comment, and here’s what he had to say about the “random acts” portion of his charity: “Part of what made me want to do this project was seeing so many of my followers on Twitter putting so much energy and so many resources into fandom. I think all of that energy is great, but my thinking was, perhaps, if we could harness a fraction of those resources (both creative and fiscal), we could put some of this c-list idolatry to good use.”

He’s got a point. Fans are completely off the hook crazy. I know this because I am one. I once sent a postcard to David Hewlett that said “how are you so awesome?” I have seen every movie Josh Charles ever appeared in, and that takes some serious endurance. Small wonder Misha Collins wants to tap this fanatical surplus.

The thing is, fans are crazy because being a fan is fun. It’s not meaningful, Henry Jenkins aside. It’s not purposeful. It’s just fun. People don’t do fannish things because they want to be useful. They do it to entertain themselves. While a Misha Collins doing-serious-things charity probably wouldn’t capture fannish attention, maybe his doing-silly-things charity will. And while those silly kind things may not be terribly effective, they are not, as the comments on Laurenist’s post pointed out, worthless.

Misha Collins, in his own way, knows the community he’s dealing with: nutso fans. He’s designed a charity that will appeal to nutso fans and use their energy for good. So, this time, I have to say – more power to him. (Except for the orphanages.)


Photo credit: fanpop

Yep, that’s Misha Collins.

Humbling Hospitality Experiences

1) I once did a focus group with women in rural Tajikistan, talking about increasing hunger and food insecurity. The women told terrible, desperate stories, of burning fruit trees for warmth and watching their kitchen gardens wash away in heavy spring rains. At the end of our discussion, three different women invited me to come home with them for a meal. They did realize the irony; one woman said, shyly, “I don’t have any fruit or sweets, but I have bread and tea.”

2) In 1997, I went to Jerusalem for Thanksgiving. My wallet was stolen. I told a Palestinian shopkeeper in the old city what had happened to me, and he took me into my shop and made me a cup of tea. Then he told the managers of the shops around me what had happened. Shop employees came, and brought me money. Small amounts – 5 or 6 shekels (about $2) each, but these were not people who had a lot of money. They brought me, a rich American by any standard, money, because I was alone in their country and needed help.

3) When my husband and I lived in Turkmenistan, we had a good friend, Katrina, who was a Peace Corps volunteer. Her host family treated her as a true daughter, and she reciprocated their affection. When the government marked their house for demolition, she helped them as they packed their things and got ready to move to the apartment they were being given in return. In the same period, I was re-posted to Tashkent. Katrina’s host family was determined to have us over for a meal before we left, since we’d never eaten there. We would be leaving before they moved into their new place, so they had us over to their house.

They had us over for dinner as their house was being torn down. The house had been two stories, but was down to one. It was raining that night, and the roof in the living room leaked, since it wasn’t really a roof; it was just the floor to the second story. Katrina’s host mom moved us to the kitchen, and sat us at the kitchen table while she made lamb pilaf and salad for us. We ate, all together, in the corner of the warm damp kitchen.

You can always find a way to give, if you want to.

Photo Credit: Turkmen soda pop, taken by me

Keep your banana to yourself

I read a blog post tonight about giving to beggars in India. The writer said that if you give them food instead of money, they will sell it back to shopkeepers to money. If you give them a banana, you need to peel it or they’ll sell it for the cash.

You know what? Once you’re at a place where you want to help people, if they ask you for money, give them money. Don’t give them the banana. Poor people are not stupid. They’re just poor. They know what their needs are better than you do. Respect that.

I know there are reasons – drug addiction, cultural pressure, poor organizational skills – that people will act against their own self interest. None of that is easily analyzed in the time it takes to give to a beggar on the street. Most of the time, people know what they need. If you are engaged in an act of charity, give that to them, not what you think they ought to need.

Street corner giving is not about sustainability, development, or creating long-term change. Instead, it’s a recognition of our common humanity, of the crap shoot that decides who gives and who receives. It’s reaching out to those who ask because it’s not our place to judge.

It’s really pretty unlikely that you are a donor instead of a beggar because you’re smarter, stronger, or wiser. Probably, you just got lucky and were born in the developed world, and the 20-year old in front of you knows more about street survival than you could ever imagine. Keep your banana to yourself, and hand over the cash.

Photo Credit: Isado

Oprah’s Big Give, and what’s wrong with it

This is a remarkably good post about what’s wrong with Oprah’s Big Give. The comments, however, are some of the lamest I have ever seen. They run the gamut, from a classic Sernovitz, to just plain missing the point, to my favorite, “Why would you ever criticize someone who is trying to do good?”

I find the tone-deaf comments extremely frustrating. They demonstrate to me that no one is taking charitable giving seriously; that somehow people believe all projects are equally valuable and effective. Give a car to a restaurant manager or an impoverished veteran. It’s all the same. It’s charity! And charity is good!

Some projects are better than others.

It’s not just that different nonprofits do different things. Some charities are better at stretching their budget. Some have better methods. Some are led by better people. It’s not all the same, and it’s not all equally important. Money spent on bad charity is at best wasted and at worst damaging.

I’ve mentioned this before: good intentions are not enough.

ETA: Mike makes an excellent point in the comments – the author can’t seem to decide if he hates the rules of the show, or the contestants. It seems to me that he was trying to say that the show is rigged to fail, and fail it did, but that point doesn’t really come across clearly.