Leadership, Philanthropy

Dumbing It Down

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.