Logistics and liquidity: what the crisis in Japan teaches us about philanthropy

The tragic crisis in Japan has been followed by an outpouring of sympathy around the world and frustratingly predictable financial opportunism by the non-profit sector.

Givewell and Good Intentions Are Not Enough have posted excellent pieces on why giving to aid organizations in Japan right now is not a good idea, despite our natural desire to do so.

In short, Japan doesn’t need it. Lack of money is not the issue in the rescue efforts. Nor should it be, Japan is one of the richest countries in the world.

However, like in Katrina, getting the logistic right has proven exceedingly difficult. Indeed, there are legitimate risks of starvation, dehydration, and death from airborne illnesses, not to mention the radiation risks. But these risks are not the result of financial deprivation.

Delivering services to people in need, like delivering any intervention, is tremendously complicated. There is a lot more to providing effective interventions than money. Given this fact, if improving peoples lives is really what the social sector is about, why so much attention on giving rather than doing?

Simple, the focus on giving is easier, rewarding, and for those who facilitate it, lucrative as well.

But the hard work of the social sector is in the doing. Figuring out what works and what does not. Sure, raising funds is important, but the crisis in Japan makes it clear that both good intentions, and ample financial resources, are not enough.

Yet heralded social enterprises like Causes are pushing people to give to a crisis that does not necessarily need the money. Why? Because that is all they can do.

And therein lies the lesson. I don’t mean to disparage innovations that facilitate giving. The problem instead is that the sector’s best talent focuses so much on donations.

Look at the technical prowess of Causes or the insightfullness of Givewell. The sector is lucky to have these organizations. But our most pressing problems are what to do, followed by how to finance, not the other-way around.

Raising money does not solve logistical issues, and increasing endowments does not necessarily beget higher impact social interventions. Is there a correlation between money and effectiveness? Absolutely. But money is hardly the sole independent variable.

I get why so much of the talent in the sector focuses on donations. If there is money to be made in the poverty sector, by and large it’s on the donor end. But if we want that money to go to actual use, we’ll have to do more than help organizations raise money and focus on criticizing interventions that don’t work. Instead, we’ll have to put our money, or at least the money of others, where our hearts are, and put our best talent on the front lines instead of the back channels of donor portals.

(Photo by un.org)