Earlier today, I booked my ticket back to Bangladesh. It’s just for a month and it’s just for one or two small projects. But, the familiar butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling has returned as a million worries come into play.
I don’t have enough money to rent my own place, so where will I stay? Will I have enough money to pay for internet and stay connected with you guys? What about if I get sick? How will I pay for unexpected costs?
It’s times like this that I want to play Devil’s Advocate a bit and explain why some of the biggest and best charities in the world take their overhead and administration costs from donations from the public.
The first reason is that it adds a sense of stability. That is, if a certain amount of donations are regularly coming in, you can use a small portion of that to issue salaries to people. A consistent salary means it’s easier to pay recurring expenses like rent, food, internet, water, utilities, recreation, and health insurance.
The second reason is that it adds a sense of balance. It costs money to do charity work. If overhead comes from a percentage of the donations people give to help the poor, than it’s just a matter of making sure the percentage you take is enough to cover the cost associated with each donation.
Finally, it adds a sense of scalability. If a charity gets popular enough that they get double the donations, they may have double the work to do. But, thankfully, they can now afford to have double the staff. Of course not everything needs to scale linearly, but doing things this way makes it easy to grow.
If this works so well, why have I spent so much time rambling about charity overhead? This is because charities have to compete. And I don’t mean competing for your donations. What I mean is they have to compete for the trust and respect of those they want to help.
In a country like Bangladesh, it’s not about Save the Children vs. UNICEF. Rather, it’s about Western charities having to compete with everything else. There are village loan sharks, the military’s charity programs, personal initiatives by local Bangladeshis, and even development by extremist groups.
What I’ve seen is that Western charities sometimes lose this competition in trust and respect even if they may be providing the best paths out of poverty. At least in Bangladesh, that’s partly because some of these alternative forms of development don’t take a cut from public donations for overhead.
While I’m all for more “donor education”, I’m not convinced the solution to this problem is “recipient education”. I can’t just hand villagers a Charity Navigator rating and show how small a slice of the pie charities take from donations. That’s how we in the West measure trust. It’s not a universal metric.
As someone who is now starting the cycle of calling friends and family to see where I can stay for free while in Bangladesh, I definitely see the value in the kind of (relative) stability someone working for a charity can have. But, if I figure this out, maybe this is something we can all benefit from.