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Giving to charity is almost universally admired. The decision to take some personal resources and hand them over to an organization that is dedicated to some attempt to make the world a better place is generally considered a good thing and has deep historical, cultural, and religious roots. When most of us give to a favourite charity it is a private matter, and one that happens with no scrutiny from others. Only rarely are average people critiqued for their giving and then, it is usually because they are supporting a cause others oppose. Things are different for the ultra-wealthy. This week a billionaire hedge fund manager in the United States donated $400 million US to Harvard University to support their engineering school, which will now bear his name. It is the largest single gift in Harvard’s history and received significant fanfare. Not everyone is impressed. The New Yorker’s famed author Malcolm Gladwell went on an unprecedented twitter binge mocking the donation and the donor for adding resources to an elite school that is already massively endowed. His humorous suggestions for next steps for the donor are clever and biting. Other writers have decried the gift as ridiculous and wasteful given the impact those same funds could have in a myriad of other charities or causes. All of this raises a few questions for me: 1. When is it appropriate to question or criticize the charitable choices of others? 2. What responsibility do donors have to consider the impact of their gifts to society as a whole? 3. What is the impact of naming institutions/buildings after major donors? When is it appropriate? 4. At what point is the endowment of a charity so large that it should not be funded further? 5. Do our current tax laws for charitable donations truly serve the needs and desires of our nation? 6. Should an organization that serve almost entirely the financially elite retain charitable status? What about an organization that only serves people of a single faith, gender, race, or political perspective? 7. Should we assess generosity based on the size of the donation or on the impact of the gift on both the charity and the donor? 8. Is $400 million from someone who made well over $2 billion last year alone really an impressive act of generosity? Your thoughts?    
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Years ago when I was an Inter-Varsity staff member working at Ontario Pioneer Camp I had little contact with our National Office staff. I confess I saw them as administrative pencil pushers and policy cops who neither understood nor added much to the “real” work I was doing.   How wrong I was.   The thing is, my sentiments were common then, and they still are. Many organizations, especially those with staff and programs that are scattered across a region, nation, or the planet, have some level of tension and confusion over the role of Head Office. Field staff find them irrelevant or irritating, donors don’t see the value in supporting work that is removed from the frontlines, and even the office team can struggle to see how their efforts fit into the grand vision being accomplished “out there”.   Yesterday I was at a lunch event with Youth For Christ Canada and they showed this video:     How good is that?!?   In less than three and a half minutes they’ve captured the crucial connection the national office plays in supporting the field staff and expressed it in a way that affirms both roles, tying them directly into the reason the organization exists.   If I worked for YFC Canada this would be a huge encouragement to me. I’ve already passed it on to some other organizations as an example of what can be done to show the relevance and value of supporting what some people ignorantly dismiss as overhead. Well done YFC! I hope other organizations will affirm their office staff as well as you have done here.
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Late December is the busiest time of year for our P.O. Box. It seems each day brings a combination of year end appeals and annual reports from charities we’ve interacted with over the past 7 years. I confess that some of these go into the recycling bin unopened. Catalyst doesn’t fund according to the annual calendar so year end donation requests, particularly from organizations we haven’t connected with in a few years are easily dismissed. What’s much more interesting to me are the annual reports; particularly as I prepare our own internal review of the year. I know how deeply many leaders agonize over the content, layout, and presentation of the annual report. I can appreciate the importance of communicating clearly and with accountability to stakeholders, and the responsibility to present something that is both truly accurate and hopefully inspiring. Here are a few thoughts from an interested amateur on what I appreciate in these pieces. 1. Theme: Make it clear to me, even on the envelope if possible, what you consider to be the single most significant impression you want me to take from your report. I can dig for the details that are of interest to me, but I want you to provide the general sense of things from the start. I’m much more likely to read the whole thing if I can identify the general sense of things at the outset. 2. Honesty: Every year isn’t great. Quite often things don’t go according to plan and there are challenges, failures, and transitions that affect progress. I know that so don’t try to hide it. I respect and appreciate a charity that acknowledges the simple reality that every effort isn’t a roaring success and tells me directly when there have been struggles and what is being done to address them.An over abundance of “glory stories” raises my suspicions. 3. Accuracy: There is no excuse for numbers that don’t add up. These should be triple checked by multiple people before they are sent out. While many donors may pay little attention to these charts and lists usually buried on the final pages of the report, those who do look at them will probably be unforgiving if they find errors. This goes for program statistics and impact measurements as well as finances. 4. Visuals: To be honest, this is just about the lowest priority for me when I open your report, but I know I’m the exception. Choosing images and layout carefully, ensuring they are printed with quality, and using your own pictures instead of stock photos whenever possible will make a difference to a lot of readers. It is often worthwhile to have this done professionally if you don’t have the internal capability to get the look right. 5. Story: “Whoever tells the best stories wins” is an adage to remember. Whether you use a single story throughout the report or several shorter ones is open for discussion, ensuring that the narrative is compelling, focused on the impact of your work particularly, and relatable for your audience is not. Tell me how my donation has (or can) make a difference in the real life of a specific person, with their permission of course, is essential. It doesn’t have to be a recipient of your service: I’ve read great reports that featured stories of staff, volunteers, and donors too. 6. Jargon: You understand your organization in ways that your donors just don’t. You also invest a lot of time in crafting the messaging and presentation of this report. That can make you vulnerable to seeing things differently than your audience. You should always have a few trusted, brutally honest, outsiders review the report before it is sent to print. You may be assuming knowledge, clarity, or understanding that they will tell you needs improvement. They can also catch potentially embarrassing typos, double entendres, and awkward phrasing that you might miss. 7. Surprise: My favourite university professor taught me that Attention = Contrast. Your donors are probably receiving several fairly similar annual reports from charities they have supported. What is different enough about yours to get their attention? I give credit to Wellspring Foundation for including a recipe for an African Chicken Peanut Stew in their latest mailing. I’ll be making it next week and thinking of them when I do. IMG_4151 The Annual Report can be a document of celebration both for those preparing it and those who receive it. What are you doing to ensure that yours gets read before it gets recycled?
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In the last 2 days WestJet, a Canadian airline with a similar strategy and culture to SouthWest in the United States has generated an enormous social media response, and a lot of tear filled tissues, with this year’s holiday video. It’s well worth watching. The Dominican community they show is one I’ve visited several times. I recognize both faces and places. I have walked those streets and met those people. I know some people will bring a skeptical bias to this thing. It is in some ways a publicity stunt I suppose and no doubt WestJet is hoping it draws customers as well as “likes”. There is room for asking some questions. North Americans showing up in a struggling village a sleigh full of gifts the local folks simply couldn’t afford and then filming a party together for corporate promotion lends itself to the kind of critique books like When Helping Hurts do very well. Isolated acts of extravagant gift giving tend to offer more in good feelings to the givers than meaningful impact in the community. That’s why I’m glad WestJet also released a second video: For those who missed the line at the start of the first video, WestJet has been doing projects in Nuevo Renacer for several years. Their partner (and ours) Live Different have been there frequently for even longer. They know every person you see in the video, they understand the complexities present, and they took on this project not as a one time glory story, but as a legitimate celebration of an ongoing transformation that is truly rooted in what the local people are doing for themselves. So, enjoy the video. Shed a few tears. And trust that it is only a glimpse into a much more involved and more joyful process that is a whole lot longer than the six minutes or so you get to see.
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Given that it is December 1st it was appropriate that at our house we had our first fire of the season, roasted chestnuts for the first time ever (mildly disappointing but nostalgic), and listened to Christmas music while enjoying cookies and hot cocoa. At one point in the beauty of the evening I found myself paying more attention to the lyrics of an old Christmas carol than I may ever have before. It may have David Francey‘s plaintive simple voice and Scottish accent, but I heard Good King Wenceslas in a way I never understood it before. We’ve been working on developing a way to encourage joyful generosity for several years. We hope we’re closer than we’ve ever been to presenting something that may be impactful for people to experience the remarkable freedom that comes from giving to others in a way that is both sacrificial and personally transformative. The familiar words of Good King Wenceslas unlocked for me a couple key principles. 1. “Good King Wenceslas looked out” In the middle of what was probably a major celebration, the king paused long enough to notice a peasant far in the distance on a snowy night. Giving requires us to turn our attention beyond ourselves and our familiar people and patterns to see needs that may usually be overlooked. 2. “Hither page and stand by me… yonder peasant who is he?” Wenceslas didn’t assume he knew the man out in the wind and snow, but he knew someone who would know, and he asked their advice. It is easy for those of us who are wealthy (and that is pretty much all of us if we have some perspective), to assume that our success in accumulating money and influence makes us experts in everything. It takes humility to go to someone else and learn from their insight, but it is the best way to avoid embarrassing waste and unintended harm to those we hope to assist. 3. “…when we bear them thither” The king went personally to the peasant. He could have simply sent the page, but he knew both that the page wasn’t strong enough to do the task alone, and that the joy. was going to come not just from assigning the wood and food to be delivered, but from going directly to share a meal. Joy rarely comes from a distance. It takes getting out of our comfortable castles to discover it at fireside with people we easily see as “other”. 4. “Mark my footsteps…” Sharing the giving experience divides the work and multiplies the joy. We can imagine that the page never saw another peasant or snowstorm without being reminded of the blessing that came from blessing the poor. In my fantasy it is the page himself who is the narrator of the song. My role with Catalyst is sometimes that of the page, helping my employers to understand and respond to the needs we notice. I am spoiled to work with and for a family who are sincere in their desire to give, who have the willingness to reduce their lifestyle to allow them to give more, and who are continually discovering that their is uncommon joy to be found in giving that makes it of greater worth to them than anything else they could do with those funds. Best of the season to you and yours.
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The weeks following Thanksgiving in Canada are chock full of fundraising events. It seems every organization schedules a banquet, arts evening, auction, gala, or other type of gathering to engage with donors and generate funds before the end of the calendar year. With so many events happening in a span of a few weeks charities work hard to distinguish not only their actual work, but the style of their fundraiser to capture the attention and dollars they need. I find it fascinating to see the variety of ways they try to draw people in. One of the questions I find myself thinking about as I hear about and attend fundraisers is whether they truly reflect the charities they support. I often wonder if the people the organization serves would fit in to the event where their stories are told. It’s rare to have donors and clients sharing the evening. Most often there might be just a couple representatives from the programs sharing their stories to an audience of funders. I suppose the uncomfortable truth may be that we aren’t sure that wealthy donors will respond to the kind of event where our clientele would fully participate. The cultural differences are too real, the distinction too awkward. When I was a youth pastor at a church we held a fun evening for the congregation that featured a dessert auction. I don’t remember what we were raising money for, but the night had a really fun atmosphere with lots of laughter and good-hearted competition. I was surprised when one of our staff, who spent a lot of time with the least economically well off people in our community, told us at staff meeting that the night had made him and the families he invited very uncomfortable. He explained that while they enjoyed the fun, they knew they couldn’t afford to bid on the cakes and pies that were for sale. It reminded them that they weren’t in the same situation as the majority of our congregation, they didn’t feel they fully belonged. I imagine that could easily be true of our fall fundraisers in their own ways. I don’t know what the solution is, but the whole thing makes me sad. Can anyone point me to an event that welcomes both donors and clients o a charity on equal footing while also raising the much needed resources to keep the organization functioning?
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Some charities are convinced that either their donors are dumb or that they prefer to be treated that way. And it’s working for them. It goes something like this. Leaders of a charity do work that is significant but not easily explained. Like many effective organizations they may be working “upstream” on an issue, trying to address root causes and improve situations that lead to problems rather than focusing their efforts on the end results of the problem. (For example: trying to improve education, employment, and social service policies so fewer people end up homeless instead of  operating a shelter). Working at this level is often the result of a more advanced strategic approach, frequently informed by some of the much improved understanding we are now able to apply to issues. This isn’t necessarily better than street level efforts, but it can have greater impact over time. The challenge is that it is more complex to explain an approach like this to the average donor. You can’t directly correlate x dollars = y impact like when funds are used to buy food and distribute it directly to hungry people. This creates a dilemma. Some decide that their donors won’t or can’t understand the greater complexity involved and determine that the best approach is to keep it simple, communicate a formula that is less than complete, and essentially reduce the real work of the organization to the lowest common denominator in pursuit of easier donor dollars. Unfortunately, this commonly proves to be justified (at least in the short term) as it appeals to a broader base of casual donors. They may not truly understand what they’re supporting, but they give. To me this is opportunistic, misleading, and lazy. It assumes that donors can’t handle complexity and relieves the charity of any responsibility for educating them. It builds a relationship of half truths for sake of expediency. And it diminishes the significant work being done in the field. It ticks me off. I expect more from both charities and donors. Changing lives should not be a commodity. It’s not enough to just increase fundraising revenue if the way you’re doing it reduces donors to simple minded bank machines, field staff to overhead, and the people you serve to statistics. Donors: Demand more. Don’t accept being called a hero for giving to something you don’t really understand. Use some of the skills that generated your money to figure out how it can best be used. Invest some time to know the work you’re supporting so you can give wholeheartedly and encourage others to do so as well. In short, grow up and expect to be treated intelligently. Charities: Show some respect and integrity. You are probably doing some meaningful work; believe in it, and yourselves, enough to show it for all it truly is. Make the effort to educate your donors so they can become passionate advocates for what you do. Your role is to benefit the lives of your donors as well as of those you serve in the field. You can’t do that by treating us like idiots. We can do better, and we should.
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Sure, but who cares.   Okay, I’ll expand my statement. This morning I came across this article from Yahoo Finance in which a financial advisor criticizes fundraising through recreational and adventure activities as essentially vanity projects. In her words:
“Climbing a mountain, running a marathon, leaping out of a plane, and other common fundraising activities are ‘self-gratuitous adventures’ that serve no purpose to society,”
As someone who works professionally with charities and an active participant in a variety of outdoor athletic endeavours (I do product and event reviews with Get Out There Magazine) I think I can voice my two cents here. There is some validity to the idea that using activities that we would love to do anyway as a vehicle for fundraising can be manipulative. Certainly there are times when the participant portrays the event as something other than a personal achievement or dream fulfilled to encourage more giving. That’s often somewhat less than fully honest. It is very rare in my experience for anyone to run a marathon against their will to benefit a hospital, orphanage, or homeless program. And if that did occur, none of us should be party to it. Like the poorly construed argument that money spent on short term international charitable trips would be better used by just giving it directly to the people in need, this article misses the point by creating a false alternative. If the average young person doesn’t go to Ecuador to help at a soccer camp they aren’t giving the money to the orphanage, they are spending it on a vacation, new smart phone, or tuition. And if your friend doesn’t ask you for $20 in support of their charitable 10k they aren’t going to ask for it for a day spent sorting donations at the food bank. These kinds of arguments may generate heated internet comment debates, but they do little to address reality. If people want to add a feel-good charitable component to their adventures that seems like a generally good thing. Sure, some of them are pushy, and some will act as if they are doing something more noble than tagging support for a cause they may or may not truly be passionate about to what you might consider a basically selfish pursuit. (I admit that my own races and events are primarily for my own benefit). So what? If you don’t want to give to the next golf marathon, 100km cycling event, or parachute jump just say “no thanks”. If they persist asking after that you have my permission to tell them to leave you alone with as much rudeness as is necessary. But don’t be so superior to suggest that there is something fundamentally wrong with these events. They generate untold millions for charities, help motivate thousands of people to actually do things they might otherwise only dream of, and give all of us the chance to believe the best about ourselves for roughly the cost of lunch. There are definitely better ways to make a difference, but that doesn’t make these ones wrong. By the way, I am currently training for both a two day 220km bike ride in British Columbia in September and my first ever marathon in November. If you want to chip in a donation so that my selfish adventures can also help some people in need just let me know. I’d be happy to let you share in the achievement.
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In 2005 prominent economist Jeffrey Sachs released his book The End of Poverty. It articulated his conviction that a massive short term increase in foreign aid and philanthropic giving could eliminate the deepest poverty in the African continent forever. A network of Millennium Villages were launched to pioneer his model with fanfare and great confidence. I just finished reading The Idealist by journalist Nina Munk in which she tracks the progress of the project and its founder as the effort surged, struggled, and seems to be on the verge of wrapping up with no definitive measurable success. It’s a very well written book that should be widely read by those working in development, and particularly by those supporting the work. My copy was a gift from Stuart Taylor who works with IDE and has been my friend, my example, and my guide into many of the most important areas of my life. To oversimplify the message of the book, don’t oversimplify the work of changing lives. I have to confess to my own vulnerability on this, and that of Catalyst. While I hope we are characterized by sincere humility in our work, we are people of ideas and theories who have the luxury of sitting at a distance and offering opinions (often tied to funding) on the strategies and performance of those who are really doing the work. I can easily become the backseat driver, Monday morning quarterback, and talk radio commentator in my field. That’s not to deny the significant value of what I commonly call “the interested outsider”, but even in my limited experience it is abundantly clear that real, lasting impact depends on a myriad of factors beyond the control of even the most diligent strategist. Culture, nature, politics, and human selfishness and irrationality defy grand optimism. Progress over time is fickle and scaling success is unpredictable. Good, smart, well-funded projects like the Millennium Villages are just as vulnerable, and possibly even more vulnerable, to unanticipated factors undermining their outcomes as local grass-roots efforts. So what should we do? At Catalyst we try to be as raw and real about what we do as we can. I try to temper my enthusiasm with a deliberate dose of doubt. And I acknowledge that none of us are doing any of this stuff right. We are all struggling in a complex environment to make the best of what we have in the determined hope that there will be ground gained as we commit ourselves to constant learning and continued effort. As a long established idealist myself I find this rather unsatisfactory in so many ways, but I am discovering that there is profound beauty and meaning in even imperfect progress. How do you manage the tension between theoretical idealism and practical challenge in your life and work?
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