Guilty Until Proven Innocent: Reexamining How We Donate to Non-Profits

Jaded. Skeptical. A hypocrite. A hater. You get called all sorts of things when you say critical things about the international aid sector. People say, "Oh come on, you can't pick on volunteers and donors! Why not complain about the bankers and the big bad guys!" The general rule of thumb seems to be "business people are bad" and "international development people are good." We're so skeptical of the legitimacy of a claim or an offer when it comes from a business, but when it comes to charities, the words "I'm helping the poor" seem to open up wallets and make us see through Mother Theresa shaded lenses. We believe the labels rather than dig deeper into the details of the work being presented to us, and sometimes our minds get carried away by the idealized impacts we think this development work is having.

We need to shift our perspective. Many people currently take an "innocent until proven guilty" perspective on non-profit work. If we see "charity" or "for the poor" or "please help us support..." we are moved to give. In the same way we look beyond the sales and marketing of a car salesman or radio advertisement for some new miracle medical pill, we need to look beyond the sales rhetoric of a non-profit's fundraising campaign. We need to take more of a "guilty until proven innocent" approach, not because we should be skeptical of all do-gooders, but because we should hold ourselves, them, and the whole development sector to a higher bar. Just because people are collecting gifts to donate abroad or building schools, or raising funds for an orphanage does not mean that money is being used wisely, that the benefits are high, nor that there aren't additional negative impacts of the work.

We shouldn't be afraid to ask questions. I'd love to see an "I ask questions!" campaign focused on getting people to ask more before they donate. If that happened, maybe there would be less waste and corruption in the sector and the most effective organizations would get more of the funds.

I'd love to see more question's focused on the hows of the proposed projects. The fundraising advertisements mostly focus on the whys ("We met these poor kids in Nigeria who needed our help, so we took action, and we need you to join us!") or the whats ("We're going to build a school, please buy a brick!") but not the hows ("To make our education efforts are most effective, we have partnered with the local government and meet with them monthly learn more about how we can contribute to their work."). Hows can be boring, and most wouldn't work in an ad campaign or on a flier, which is understandable -- NGO fundraisers, like any sales people, need to get our attention. I understand the need to "sell the why," having done fundraising myself. But once someone gets us hooked with why they are doing the work, it is up to us to dig around a bit more, ask questions, check out their website, and look beyond the sales fliers to find out if this is something we really want to support. Hows might not be handed to us on a plate, but we need to find them out if we want to distinguish good intentions from good impact.

Our team at PEPY Tours and I made this video as a spin off from Simon Sinek's fantastic TEDx talk where he says "People don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it." Granted, Sinek's talk was about "how great leaders inspire action", and he is talking about products and services you get to feel and touch. For example, if Toyota markets a car as something reliable, safe and long lasting -- but then you purchase one and it is a lemon. You can return it, or complain, or just simply stop buying from Toyota in the future. In international development work, when the projects we are choosing to fund are far from our homes, we rarely get to see the end product. If it is actually failing, or causing harm, we might never know it, and then when the donation pot comes around the next year we just keep buying more and more lemons over and over again.

Unfortunately, we can't use the same methods to find out about international aid work as we use with car research. Asking a friend how their Lexus works if you are considering buying one is not the same as asking your friend about the quality of XYZ non-profit they donated to. Though your friend might know how well her car runs, she probably doesn't have the same insight into how well the organization runs if she is just a donor: it's the communities, schools, governments and people abroad, that the international organization claims to be working for (or ideally with) that can give you those answers. That type of "user feedback" is hard to come by when you are giving internationally (where as if you are giving to an organization at the end of your road, you can check and make sure they really did teach that employment skills class to local youth and that your nephew, who took the class, benefited form it).

After six years of being part of a system in Cambodia where I saw money go into ineffective projects, corrupt hands and myopic initiatives, I am of the mindset that the problems we are looking to solve are not going to be solved with more money being donated blindly. There is enough money flowing into the aid sector. The problem is that it needs to go to the right places. And to do that, we need to start asking tough questions: about impact, about partnerships, about strategies and about lessons learned.

It's important to note that there is a reactionary movement in the international aid sector now, which is calling for impact measurement and statistical analysis of global impact trends to fight aid inefficiencies. Though I think understanding impact is indeed an essential improvement needed in the sector, I am not advocating for this extremely statistical approach to decision-making, as I think it is often focused on data that is too high level for the average donor to be able to rely on.

For example, if data showed that, on average around the world, building toilets was more effective at reducing rates of waterborne illnesses than a hand washing campaign, that doesn't mean that you should go out and give $100 to any old organization saying that they are building toilets, nor does it mean that all organizations promoting hand washing are failures. If it is statistically proven that, on average red race cars win races more often than blue ones, I'd still like to know a little more about the specific driver and car before I put my money on the next red NASCAR entrant. Similarly, the data from a 30,000 foot view in international aid can be really different from the data on the ground in the specific place you are looking to support, so we need to ask questions about the specific hows and history of the local initiatives.

What questions? GiveWell is a great place to start. They also state that "Charities that demonstrably change lives are the exception, not the rule." They have thorough lists of questions for different sectors such as questions to ask water and sanitation NGOs, and lots of good general tips for potential donors. Check out their questions and then dig around on the website of the organization you are considering donating too, but also check in with personal contacts who might have more insight into their work than a donor. I recommend using your network or social media tools to find someone you are connected to you who is working in the same geographic area as the organization, to get general feedback about their work on the ground, and at least one other person working within the same impact area who can comment on that organizations reputation in the sector. If we took the skeptical "guilty until proven innocent" approach to non-profits that we do to many business propositions and took the time to do a bit more research, we'd be able to channel more of our funding to higher impact work... and stop buying lemons over and over and over again!