After stuffing ourselves nearly comatose with turkey and pie last week, Americans everywhere are grateful for the clever little weekday nicknames telling us what to do in the immediate aftermath: “Black Friday” is the day for standing in a freezing line outside Best Buy before madly racing toward electronics we can barely afford. “Cyber Monday” is the day for pretending to work while surreptitiously searching the web for the best deal on designer handbags. And today, “Giving Tuesday,” is the day to write checks to our favorite charities.
But wait – is it OK to just support the charities we believe in? Don’t we first need quantifiable proof that they have low overhead, maximum efficiency, and measurable results?
On this Giving Tuesday I’ve been bombarded by links to articles and essays telling me how to evaluate charities and how to know if they deserve my dollars. I recognize most of the advice as “industry best practice” and “supported by all the experts.” There was even one essay I thought was exceptionally good.
But sometimes I ignore it all.
I think we’ve gone way overboard in expecting charities to prove that they are making a difference. Do I want to know that a food bank is actually distributing food? Yes. Do I want to be certain the food is going to people who really need it? Sure. Do I require evidence that those clients are better off with groceries than without? Nope – I just believe it.
I also know an organization that buys books for poor preschoolers. These are children who don’t have many books in their homes and haven’t heard “Green Eggs and Ham” eight million times like I did as a child, and like my own children did. Measuring the impact of such a program requires collecting data from busy, sometimes transient people and keeping track of their children as they move on to school. It’s hard, and expensive. So can I just have faith and believe that these books make a positive difference in the life of each child?
Yes! I believe it. Does that mean I’m a bad philanthropist?
A few disclaimers: I don’t dispute the basic premise that nonprofits and charities should be well run and effective – and true to their missions. No one wants to give money to an organization that offers sky-high salaries, gilded offices, and free Starbucks coffee yet serves only a handful of clients.
In addition, large nonprofits with big budgets and copious resources should absolutely invest in tools to measure their impact. That’s how we learn what works and what doesn’t.
But smaller organizations that do awesome work at a grassroots level, providing high-touch service and helping their very deserving clients overcome one insurmountable challenge after another – they should be freer to focus on those clients and their immediate needs.
After many years of volunteering and serving on boards and running fundraisers for a variety of nonprofits, I’ve observed an obsession with outcomes that sometimes defies common sense. Donors demand it! Foundations want to see impact! I get it. But when a bare-bones organization is practically spending more money and resources trying to measure its work than it spends on the work itself, priorities beg to be reconsidered.
Nonprofits, donors, and foundations aren’t unique in sometimes missing the forest for the trees. Actual scientists – who are supposed to be smarter than the rest of us – have also spent time and money proving the obvious. The National Institute on Drug Abuse sponsored a study that revealed – wait for it – that taking both cocaine AND alcohol together is worse than taking just one or the other.
Also in breaking news, this study shows that going bald can be upsetting for men who preferred having hair! Even more unbelievable: apparently The British Medical Journal (BMJ) decided that the scientific research canon wasn’t complete without this study proving that sword swallowing can be dangerous.
So here’s my pearl of wisdom for Giving Tuesday: go with your gut. If a charity sends out a funding appeal on embossed linen stationery that’s delivered by a horse-drawn velvet and mahogany carriage, you can pass. But if a local organization asks for money to match kids with mentors or to help women fleeing domestic abuse go back to school and find work, consider just believing that those actions make sense. Check out their websites, call someone in the office to ask about their programs if you want, and GIVE.
Tuesday and every day.