Martin Luther King Day and philanthropic inactivism

I joined the social sector because I care deeply about social justice. Somewhere along the way my vocation became my job. Where I used to stay up late thinking about the millions of people in the United States with less opportunity than me simply for where they were born or the color of their skin, and the billions around the world living unimaginably on less than $2 per day, I now stay up late worrying about saving for my future and how I will provide for my family.

Social justice crusader indeed.

Everyone has to live, and everyone has ambition. On Martin Luther King day I am reminded not to let my desire to live a good life overpower my desire for everyone to live a good life.

While I firmly believe our society looks to the philanthropic sector as some sort of moral compass (seriously, everyone assumes I must be a noble person for working at a nonprofit), I don’t think we do much with it.

Passionate people join the social sector because they see the world as it is, and have a vision for how it can be better. While individually there are lots of different visions, collectively we don’t really have any vision at all, resulting in a philanthropic community that while assumed to have the moral high-ground ultimately does not stand for anything.

I think there are plenty of folks who don’t find this reality problematic. It seems a strange consensus that philanthropy and politics do not mix. Yet it is our politics, and more specifically our collective values, that creates the maladies we aim to address.

Martin Luther King was a civil rights pioneer not for creating a nonprofit that provided social services to help African Americans live a little better, but by challenging the laws and social values that subjugated a significant portion of our community. Social interventions like homeless shelters, food pantries, and tutoring programs are fundamentally responses to injustice. While these programs are wrapped in apolitical blankets, they are plainly and intuitively critiques of the system we live in.

Yet as a sector we don’t consolidate and articulate those critiques, and it is all for self serving reasons. Large corporations that perpetuate income inequality and pollute the planet also give in large amounts to nonprofits, and setup foundations that fund our work (and our lives). Politicians that support draconian immigration laws that breakup families also hold the keys to preserving the charitable deduction.

You don’t bite the hand that feeds you, so the saying goes, and the philanthropic sector certainly abides. But maybe we are hungry for the wrong thing.

Maybe we in the social sector can get more from Martin Luther King’s legacy than a paid vacation.

Why nonprofits lie about impact

I was listening to a podcast with Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, about “Why Everybody Lies”. The discussion was really interesting, but what I found especially compelling from a philanthropic lense was a portion of the discussion where Professor Ariely discusses an experiment where people’s lies affected how much money could be given to charity.

The basic point was that people are more likely to lie when the lie benefits a cause.

As the title of this post suggests, the behavioral finding highlighted in the study got me thinking about why nonprofits seem inclined to inflate their program impact claims. I used to more simplistically think that such fudging was the simple calculus that more claim to impact means more money for me. After listening to this podcast, my guess is there is impact inflation is more invovled, as the weight of the cause likely outweighs the knowledge (tacit or otherwise) that impact claims are not quite as they appear.

If nonprofits are right that their impact is large (even if not as large as they claim), then perhaps the subtle dishonesty is not so bad. But what if a nonprofit’s exaggerated claim makes a donor give more to one organization than another that in actuality is more impactful? Worse yet, what if a nonprofit actually does harm while claiming impact?

There are some in the international development space calling for cash transfers to act as a baseline metric that all other interventions should be compared against, an idea I have mulled domestically as well. If it is true that nonprofits inflate their impact metrics, then cash transfers as a comparison point gets necessarily devalued.

The challenge here of course is not just the dishonesty of inflating impact metrics, but the moralizing inherent in all of us that allows us to override fact for what we think is a more just fiction. The risk is that if we allow our rationality to get hijacked by our moralizing, we ironically run the risk of making worse the issues we deem important enough to lie for in the first place.

Nonprofits do not blog, but they should

I based GaveTo, the side project I’ve been working on to help me and other donors keep updated on our charitable gifts, in part on the assumption that nonprofits blog. This was a bad assumption.

Since I’m rolling GaveTo out in a slow elongated beta, I’m asking beta testers (signup to be one!) to recommend nonprofits they give to that they want added to the GaveTo database. While the nonprofits I give to are prolific bloggers, I wrongly assumed this was largely true of all nonprofits. Like any good beta testers, the GaveTo beta testers have suggested a ton of nonprofits that do not blog at all, calling into question one of the GaveTo founding assumptions.

For GaveTo the obvious implication is that I need to rethink some elements of the system, as it really is designed around the beliefs that nonprofits publish blog feeds as Atom or RSS.

GaveTo will survive, but the more distressing issue to me is that nonprofits do not blog. Although they don’t blog, that doesn’t mean nonprofits don’t produce content. They do, and lots of it. But the content is siloed into social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook which have a history of developer hostility. This matters for two reasons.

First, despite their names, social networks are private platforms, meaning the platform provider and not the nonprofit owns the content. As these platforms grow they become increasingly more insular, making the content produced less open and available for use outside the platform. This precludes any innovative use of content beyond the platform provider selling advertisements against it.

Second, and perhaps worse yet, social networks by and large encourage publishing of stupid content (hello cat gifs). Nonprofits have tons of interesting things to say about what they are doing, the problems they are solving, and what works and what does not. Nonprofits should blog about the substance of their work, even though social networks don’t always reward headier content.

There are some nonprofits bucking this trend, publishing thoughtful content and reaping the donor dollars and mindshare of informed donors.

Social networks are fine for trivial bits of donor clickbait, but that doesn’t mean nonprofits should stop catering to more engaged donors. Blogging is the perfect platform for nonprofits to reach savvy donors who want to really learn about what a nonprofit does. Too bad nonprofits don’t blog.

Philanthropy does not stand for anything

Donald Trump might become President of the United States, and the charitable sector doesn’t give a fuck. That’s the gist of a dead on post titled “In the Time of Trump, Philanthropy Must Find Its Voice” by Maxwell King, CEO of the Pittsburgh Foundation.

Mr. King warns:

What Donald Trump represents is a threat to the very idea of community. The normal discourse of politics can produce a sharing of ideas and perspectives that leads to common ground and facilitates communal action. Historically in this country, this common ground has been the basis for solving our most persistent problems.

The nonprofit sector exists to stand with those marginalized by society. We are supposed to stand with the poor and to fight for those new to our country. Where the free-market creates inequality we task ourselves with empowering everyone with equal opportunity.

In short, we stand for something. There are nonprofit anti-poverty groups but no pro-poverty groups. There are nonprofit anti-defamation leagues but no pro-defamation leagues. Nonprofits are different from businesses in that by our very nature we take a stand.

Yet philanthropy as a whole, the nonprofit sector as an industry, has not taken a stand on the unprecedented hate that Trump represents. Instead, our representatives in Washington D.C. like Independent Sector are too concerned with preserving the charitable deduction to lead the sector in addressing an issue of actual national importance.

The Charity Defense Council claims to “fight for the people who fight for the people”. Yet despite the philanthropic sector’s considerable clout and resources, the only recommendation we have for the country at this historic juncture is to make sure rich people can get maximum deductions for naming gifts to their alma maters. Who are we fighting for again?

The Republican party is a mess. Whether you’re a Democrat or a non-Trump supporting Republican, it is in your personal best interest to help the Republican party right itself. Indeed, it is in the country’s best interest that Donald Trump not just fail to win the presidency, but that he not secure the nomination of one of our country’s two major political parties.

I’m well aware of both the legal limitations and the sector’s cultural inclinations to stay apolitical. But Trump’s candidacy is unique in that he threatens the entirety of our sector’s body of work, and more importantly the lives and well-being of those we purport to serve.

If philanthropy stood for anything, we would stand united against Trump. The country looks to philanthropy as its moral compass, let’s pick a direction and point.

GaveTo is the Guidestar and Charity Navigator I always wanted

After completing my year-end giving last year I found myself feeling surprisingly empty. Several of the gifts I made were to organizations working in parts of the country and world that I knew nothing about. Despite the ubiquity of open data, the organizations I gave to did not do much to inform me as a donor about some basic empirical facts. Simple things like poverty rates, mortality, and literacy would have gone a long way to make me feel more informed as a donor. Instead, I was left feeling like I gave to a nonprofit, rather than investing in creating change throughout the world.

And I’m sorry to say, a nonprofit is not a cause. Giving to a nonprofit is not remotely satisfying. As a donor, I want to feel like I’ve taken a position in the impact the organization generates. Instead, I was left feeling like I’d simply given money away, without getting any sense of impact in return.

Earlier this year I started working on a side project I call GaveTo. GaveTo is the Guidestar and Charity Navigator I always wanted. I created GaveTo so that I could be a better informed donor. GaveTo has the following features that have certainly made me feel better informed:

Building GaveTo has been a lot of fun and it has met my needs as a donor incredibly well. I’m rolling GaveTo out slowly in an extended beta that might last forever. If you are interested in helping me test out GaveTo, login with your Facebook account here.

At launch there are very few nonprofits in GaveTo. If people join the site, I’ll slowly add the organizations that they care about.

Those who have followed my writing on Full Contact Philanthropy likely know I’m self aware enough to not only criticize the work of others, but to be critical of my own work as well. In that spirit, the rest of this post tries to address some tough questions I have asked myself about GaveTo.

Congratulations, didn’t you just recreate Jumo?

Jumo was a failed social network launched almost exactly five years ago that aimed to connect donors and volunteers with nonprofits. I have asked myself many times while developing GaveTo whether Jumo’s failure is evidence that GaveTo is pointless.

With GaveTo I’ve been careful not to try to create a social network. Rather, it is a tool for individual donors to track their own giving. Jumo needed nonprofits to create profiles on their site and to run a community there, while GaveTo as an aggregator doesn’t need nonprofits to do anything. Indeed, there isn’t even a way for a nonprofit to directly manage its data in GaveTo.

Why do we need GaveTo if we have Guidestar and Charity Navigator?

I like both Guidestar and Charity Navigator, but neither site meets my needs as a donor. Both sites focus a lot on financial data, which is important, but personally I just don’t care all that much. Guidestar is certainly pushing to become more useful and informative, and their new nonprofit profile pages are a vast improvement over what they had before.

Charity Navigator is trying to do the impossible. There is no one (or two, or three) metrics that define whether I should invest in a specific nonprofit. I don’t want anyone else to tell me where I should and should not give. I want the facts and I want to make my own decision.

GaveTo differs from both Guidestar and Charity Navigator in that it extracts information nonprofits are publishing in real-time and contextualizes what nonprofits are saying and doing with objective facts.

For example, every homeless service organization in the state of California insists homelessness is getting worse, a fact that does not jive with homeless counts provided by the Federal government. Now, just because homelessness is actually improving doesn’t mean I should not give to homeless service providers. As a donor, I should have all the facts then make my own decision.

GaveTo provides the facts, donors make the decisions.

Dude, donors don’t care about tracking the effectiveness of their gifts.

That’s probably true, but I care. Fundamentally I created GaveTo for me, and I’m happy to share it with anyone else who feels GaveTo might work for them as well.

What is the future of GaveTo?

I don’t know. GaveTo doesn’t cost all that much to run, and it meets a need I have as a donor, so at the very least I plan on running it as a service for myself for the foreseeable future. If others are interested as well, I might be persuaded to put more time into GaveTo, but in an era of infinite sites and apps fighting for people’s attention that’s a pretty big “if”.

Join the beta!

I would love to have you join the beta and help me test GaveTo. You can signup here and reach me with any questions, comments, or criticism on Twitter or via email.