You may have heard the old saying “The customer is always right”.
This saying is, or at least used to be, frequently said by businesses keen on making sure the customer is happy with the sale that is taking place, that anything the customer wants out of the sale is made, no matter how dumb it may be. You want your cheese pizza to be in the shape of a dinosaur? Well, if you’re willing to pay $20, we don’t care how stupid that sounds — we’ll do it for you. And we won’t even tell you that we think you’re being silly.
However, I feel like this saying also, whether subconsciously or consciously, has reached the non-profit world as well. It seems that the “donor is always right”. Sure, the donor is not a customer in the profit-sense, and the non-profit is emphatically not a business (nor should it be, nor can it be even if we wanted it to).
The Soft Story Sell
But non-profits remain more or less in competition for donor’s attention and money — even if they’re not competing amongst themselves, they still have to sell their cause and compete with all the other potential uses of donor money. After all, the donor is basically giving up his or her cash for an immediate nothing — only a notion that the money is going to a good cause and helping other people. Whether the donor is moved by reputation-seeking, guilt-relief, or non-cynical genuine altruism, the non-profit still has to do something to get the donation.
And most non-profits have gotten pretty good at mastering the emotional appeal, giving anecdotes from people who were involved in the program, pictures of these people, and the connection you need to trigger your empathy and bond with the cause. You’ll get a thorough description of the problem at hand and the people who suffer from it, and then an organization who tells you they’re working on that problem, and you can donate to them! There might even be a matching challenge for you to “double your impact”.
You also might get caught in a “donor illusion” — such as a promise that “all your money goes to charity”, when this zero-overhead boast makes little sense and often harms the non-profit in the long run by cutting vital administrative costs. Or you might be told that your donation is helping a specific child, when this often isn’t the case.
Now, the goal here isn’t to say that non-profits shouldn’t be doing things differently. Why do non-profits do this? Because, well, the donor wants it that way. And if these are the strategies that get the most donations, then that’s what non-profits should use. I just wish that it was differently — and I think it’s the fault of the donor themselves.
The Failure of the Story
The motivation behind “the customer is always right” is to close the sale and get as much money as possible. But when it comes to non-profits, my personal goal is do as much good as possible. I get that other donors may not share in this goal — there might be cynical reasons (some donors truly are just seeking reputation or avoiding guilt) or perfectly fine ones (some donors just want to help their own local community, give to a charity they respect, or just don’t think deeply about where to give, or don’t even want to think deeply).
But when it comes to donating without any critical thought, people suffer and bad things happen. For one example via AidWatch, a group of donors in the 1990s had a good idea for distributing more water to Africa — instead of hand water pumps that required hours of work by the woman of the village, one could instead connect pumps to merry-go-rounds and let the children play on them, pumping the water in the process.
“PlayPumps” was launched, attracting $16 million in funding from US Foreign Aid, winning the World Bank’s Development Marketplace Award. Eventually Jay-Z pitched in with publicity and more donations, it took off even further. PlayPumps eventually reached 4000 different African villages.
And PlayPumps even had some hard evidence in favor of it beyond just being a good idea. After the merry-go-rounds were installed, people went to photograph their use, and found that children flocked to the merry-go-rounds to play on them.
However, all this millions of dollars of apparent success turned to waste. It was found out that frequently the merry-go-rounds wouldn’t be used, and children only flocked to play on them when the foreigners were there and got them excited. Likewise, the merry-go-rounds were far more expensive than normal hand pumps and much more difficult to repair with village tools. They were also much harder to operate without the children playing, and produced much less water. Many villages simply wanted their old hand-pumps back.
All these good intentions and good money had failed, and this is just an uncommon and high-profile example of how, as my co-blogger summarized, people are *harming* through the aid they think is helping, because they end up all-action and little-thinking.
The Need for Critical Thought
Many donors don’t think much about where they are donating — they just think they are giving to “charity”. But the problem is that you can’t just give to charity, point blank. There is no such thing as “charity” in the abstract, there are only multiple charitable programs, and some of these work and some of them don’t. Not all causes work or work equally well, and we need to keep this in mind when donating or celebrating the donations of others.
The majority of people who aren’t thinking critically and reflecting on their goals for giving are the ones who create these demands for quick emotional appeals, and prevent non-profits from having any reason to give specific and concrete demonstrations that they’re effective. In fact, many donors obsessed with the “zero overhead” illusion are actively seeking not to fund measurements and evaluations.
It’s important we focus on the evidence and critical thought needed to figure out which ones are which. Even if you’re not interested in being the most effective, you need to at least make sure you don’t make the wrong donation and end up doing nothing, or worse, harming the people you care about.
If I were to communicate just one thing to every donor, it would be “Stop and think”. Because not all donations are created equal, and the donor simply isn’t always right. But don’t let that discourage you from donating — just make sure you do a bit of research and do it wisely. And if you get stuck, don’t forget you have help.
Author’s Note: This essay was originally posted on The Denison Venture Philanthropy Club Blog, a blog I co-write for, dedicated to discussing articles and ideas related to philanthropy and social change.
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