Friday, May 16, 2008

The Perfect Portfolio

The more I look for the perfect giving opportunity, the pickier I get. I often wonder if there's something so inherently selfish in my pickiness that I barely break even in the karma stakes. However, what really stands out at this point is how this reflects my attitude towards money in general. I have this fear of being duped, ripped off, taken advantage of because it has happened before. On a small scale, I got suckered out of $35 by that Nigerian college scholarship scam in the late 80s (which is why you will never find me donating to any causes in that country). On a slightly larger scale, I had an uncle embezzle 90% of the family fortune right out from under everyone's noses, which is why I refer to that side of the family as The Moneytards. But I digress. So, what do I need a charity to be, to do, to offer in order to feel comfortable handing over my hard-earned greenbacks? Let's see...

Size DOES Matter
I like 'em small. I just can't get jazzed up about organizations with multimillion dollar budgets and broad-sweep goals like bringing clean water to the Third World. I totally get the importance of doing that, but I feel that a project that huge and general is going to be way more oriented towards attracting the sponsorship of large corporations and foundations. This isn't a bad thing - I think that's a very efficient way to expend their (hopefully) limited fundraising resources. But a check for $30 from little me hardly seems worth the effort to deposit, y'know? Now find me someone who got their heartstrings tugged on a trip to Ghana and wants to pull together $15,000 for a filtration and distribution system for a village of 500 households, and I'm totally on board. My tiny $30 all of the sudden equals a one-family share of clean drinking water and doesn't feel so insignificant anymore.

Offer More Than a Band-Aid
There's nothing I like more than seeing a creative twist to a solution - it's what can turn a tiny charity into a phenomenon. My favorite example of this is the growth in popularity of microlending, a concept that didn't hit the mainstream until 2-3 years ago. People who need a personal connection can do it through Kiva, those who don't or would rather help those at the bottom rung of the borrowing ladder can do it through FINCA. I've lent about $200 to businesses in South America, Central America, Southeast and Central Asia, and Africa, and every time I get an email informing me that their monthly payment has been made, I think "yes, they're succeeding! and it took so little!"

I particularly like it when a project solves both an immediate problem and builds in an ongoing solution - bonus points for being a little bit bizarre (pigs, seed exchanges, etc). I actively look for odd opportunities, like funding vocational training in tie-dyeing for a girl who has escaped human trafficking or contributing towards a village orchard by buying 10 fruit trees.

Don't Show Us Your Money
We all know that TV commercials and magazine advertising aren't free - to the contrary, they're exhorbitant. And by now, we also know that badgering us by telephone should be classified as a scam. Mailings? All that postage and paper and glossy stuff costs money, aka "fundraising costs", and we don't like that. You want more of my donor dollars? Send a bulk email when you're close to your goal or when you start a new project, but don't send me a begging note disguised as a newsletter every freaking week.

Get Personal
Some charities take this to an impractical extreme, like those sponsor-a-child deals. Can you imagine the resources it takes to send regular pictures and progress reports? How much of that $30/month goes towards making the donors feel good?

But there is a happy medium, and more than one way to achieve it...
... Tell me your goal is to vaccinate 50,000 Sudanese children against the measles and give them the first check-up of their lives @ $3 a child. I'll take 20 kids, please! And hey, while you're at it, put up a little progress ticker so we can see how close the project is to its goal.
... Blog or frequently update a current news page. I want to hear the ups and downs of what it takes to get the job done. I want to see pictures of school kids showing off the bikes we just bought them to give them access to school, I want to see at-home birthing kits being distributed to expectant mothers (but I don't need a picture of the exact 5 mothers whose kits I sponsored).

Two of the three charities I'm actively supporting have got it right: Kiva and Feed Villages. Goods4Girls is really close and will probably improve once the founder's husband gets through an aggressive round of treatment for his cancer (she doesn't get all TMI on the G4G website - I happen to read her very popular eco-blog). I look forward to finding a few more for my Portfolio for a Better World.

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