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Rambling about Charity Overhead

Yes, this is a real ad campaign by KFC for Double Down sandwiches.

Let’s say some fast food restaurant is running a slick and savvy ad campaign that’s caught my attention. When I go to buy their food, do I complain that part of the price they are charging me is meant to cover part of the cost of their ad campaign?

What if I get a heart attack after eating all that fast food? Should I complain that part of the hospital bill goes to covering the doctor’s salary so he can earn enough to repay his student loans and justify spending all those years in med school?

As consumers, we will always be paying for expenses over and above the goods and services we directly benefit from. The same is true for charity: there are expenses over and above the help that any individual or community directly benefits from.

This is a no-brainer to everyone reading this. But I feel I need to state the obvious because what I’ve been saying about trackable donations and charity overhead has been misunderstood by aid bloggers who have stumbled across this project.

I’m not saying that overhead is bad. I’m not saying that overhead isn’t required. I’m not even saying that charities need to reduce overhead. What I am saying is that there is value in charities considering a different approach to covering overhead.

They should consider this because this matters to a lot of people.

Continue reading ‘Rambling about Charity Overhead’

Response to World Vision Vloggers

Inspired by this video by Tom (one of the World Vision Vloggers), I made this video response making my pitch why World Vision could benefit (and has the technical capacity) to be more like Charity: Water:

I conclude the video by pointing out that it’s not my intention at all to be a hater. I think that needs emphasizing because it’s far too easy for a charity to mistake well-meaning advice from a supporter to be cynicism & criticism from a skeptic.

It also must be said that when giving advice to a charity like World Vision, you gotta do it with a bit of humility. World Vision has been saving lives and helping people since before I even existed. But that’s part of the point.

My parents were born and brought up in a country where World Vision doesn’t come to raise donations – but rather to comes spend them. World Vision has had a presence in my mother’s rural Bangladesh village – a village where some people are too poor to even be buried – since the 1970s.

I mention this because, as someone whose extended family (but not my most immediate aunts & uncles) still live in that village and many of whom are beneficiaries of World Vision to this very day, extreme poverty is far more complex than can be expressed in any YouTube video.

If our goal is just to sponsor more children – than World Vision Vloggers is a perfect success. But, if our goal is to end extreme poverty within our lifetime, than I hope that initiatives like World Vision Vloggers are just the first step.

World Vision Vloggers

The tl;dr version: World Vision is the first charity to genuinely engage with the YouTube community. We need to support this – but we also need to make it clear we have more to offer than just vlogs.

I’ve also said the same thing in more detail (and with examples) in this video:

During my time away from Bangladesh, I’ve been talking to a lot of charities. I’ve consulted with UNICEF, presented at Save the Children HQ, entered talks with the Red Cross, and have been giving input to World Vision.

World Vision is the first charity that’s heard me out and created a plan of action to engage the YouTube community. I was glad to have some input on this. And World Vision has done it in a way that experts like Beth Kanter would be proud: they are letting outsiders come in and aren’t worrying about perfection on the first try.

If you’ve been reading this blog, you know I’ve been advising charities to stop relying solely on Hollywood celebrities. Sending regular folks like Alex, Shawna, and Tom to Zambia have already generated over 300,000 views for World Vision on YouTube. See charities? I told you so.

The big challenge is the next step. My hope is that World Vision will use this success to do more ambitious things with the YouTube community. My fear is that, impressed by the amount of views they are getting, they won’t be challenged to try and engage this community in a deeper way.

If the support I’ve been getting is any indication, the YouTube community wants input on the charity work being on the ground. We want to see where the money goes, we want to see a project executed from start to finish, and we want to get to know the specific people our money has helped.

The technology to do this is here and it’s something I’ve been doing for a while now. But, after spending over 2 years to repair a school, what incentive does a charity have to do something like this again when I can only generate less than 40,000 views? Alex packing for his trip already got World Vision over 200,000 views.

This is an important moment for the YouTube community. We need to praise World Vision for engaging the YouTube community – but we also need to let them know we want more than just them replicating their celebrity-style visits with high profile YouTubers.

One way you can do this is let World Vision know. They are listening. On the World Vision Vloggers website, they have a place where you can leave a note (see the photo below for where the link is). Feel free to drop them a line. You can also tweet something using the #wvv hashtag and they will see it.

World Vision wants your feedback either through leaving a note (see link that I highlighted in the photo) or by tweeting #wvv as a hashtag.

Beth Kanter Gets It

When I was a student, I would often find scholars who were thinking the same thing I was – but were able to express themselves far more eloquently than I ever could. I’ve recently found someone just like that when it comes to my thoughts on charities. That person is Beth Kanter.

Beth Kanter

I don’t believe the reason extreme poverty exists is because of a lack of charities. In my lifetime, the number of charities fighting global poverty has grown astronomically. Yet, we haven’t seen a proportional decrease in global poverty.

The reason I haven’t formalized, disadvantages aside, is because global poverty won’t be solved with yet another charity. Instead, I believe we need to change the conversation and change how we work to solve this problem.

Before starting this project, I never realized how competitive and insular many charities can become. Some charities won’t even talk to their sister branches in other countries! And many charities expect outsiders like me just to stick to signing petitions and checks.

Whether or not it’s through my project, I want charities to be more about communities – not corporate structure. I want them to collaborate – not compete. I want individuals like me to be able to “plug in” and help.

That’s exactly what Beth Kanter is talking about. Except she does it from a position of a well-respected expert and scholar. Here’s what she has to say about how charities should be conducting themselves in the 21st century:

What I like about Beth is that she completely understands the frustrations I have to deal with. I’m what she calls a “free agent”: someone who does what a charity does, but as an individual. Both Beth & I think free agents should team up with charities – but many charities resist this:

Thanks to Beth and the Red Cross’s Wendy Harman, I’ve been making a lot of progress in teaming up with the Red Cross. In fact, I’ve made more progress in a few weeks with the Red Cross than I have with my year-long talks with Save the Children.

Prior to meeting Beth, I would have raised my arms in frustration at this resistance many charities throw up when it comes to teaming up with free agents. But, Beth has made me realize that I need to imagine organizations complexly. People inside may want change, but the organization itself might be a “fortress”.

And really, in many respects, people like Beth aren’t just talking about what charities should be doing. What Beth is really talking about is what charities must do if they want to exist in the 21st century. It will be interesting to see which ones evolve… and which ones become obsolete.

Does Steve Jobs Care about Global Poverty?

Less than 24 hours ago, Apple surpassed Microsoft to become the world’s biggest tech company. As someone who used to spell Microsoft with a dollar sign, I can’t believe what I’m about to say: this is a bad thing for the world.

The only thing I love more than Apple is what I use my Mac gear for: fighting poverty in developing countries. In this regard, unlike Microsoft & Bill Gates, Apple & Steve Jobs don’t seem to care much about poverty and global development.

One runs the biggest tech company in the world, the other is a global leader in fighting poverty.

Before starting this project, I really wasn’t aware of just how much Microsoft was doing in the fight against global poverty. I’m not even referring to Bill Gates and how he has used his own personal wealth to create The Gates Foundation.

As a company, Microsoft is hugely invested in fighting poverty. They partner with charities that keep aid workers connected during disasters, they invest in global health initiatives that save lives, they match employee donations, and much more.

And, as I learned after the earthquake in Haiti, Microsoft even has a disaster response team to provide assistance after natural disasters – with technology, equipment, & even funding. This is mind-boggingly unprecedented from a for-profit.

NetHope (a charity Micorsoft has partnered with) provides connectivity for relief workers in Haiti.

In fact, in the three years I’ve been doing this project, it seems like virtually every aid & development contact I’ve made in Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas seems to have (or knows of) someone who can help them from Microsoft.

The same cannot be said for Apple. In fact, to this day despite all the contacts I’ve made, I have yet to find a single person who knows anything Apple has funded or supported in the fight against global poverty.

In fact, when I started this project back in 2007, I placed a formal written request to see if Apple would help me through either lending or donating Apple software or gear. Their response? They don’t do that kind of stuff.

Click to read full letter.

I was also very lucky to meet some high-ranking Apple employees & engineers during my trip to San Francisco late last year. Unfortunately they too confirmed to me that, with one exception not related to poverty, Apple simply doesn’t have any programs which focus on charitable giving.

Until that changes, Apple will never truly surpass Microsoft.

5 Reasons I Have a Fear of Formalizing

I’ve been doing this for over three years now. And, together, we’ve done a lot. As I try and figure out how to sustain this project and continue this journey for the long-term, you might be wondering, why don’t I just register as a (non-profit) organization? Isn’t becoming an “NGO” or “NPO” just a tax status? Here’s five reasons why I disagree & dislike the idea of becoming an organization…

5) Creates Two-Tier Donors: This project was born on the internet. On the internet, everyone is equal. If there was a way I could register as an organization so that every donor – from anywhere in the world – could get a tax write-off, I would. I don’t see the point in giving one country special preference and turning a project – born out of a global online community – into something which is skewed (or becomes more skewed) to one particular country.

4) Requires Working Under the Radar: Most developing countries have different requirements for those visiting as an individual vs those coming to work as part of an organization. Some charities, like World Vision, Save the Children, & the Red Cross, invest millions of dollars to register, form a legal presence, and hire a permanent staff in all the countries they serve in. Many smaller organizations simply fly-in & work under the radar. I don’t have millions of dollars, don’t have a need to hire a permanent staff, and don’t want to disrespect the laws of the countries I visit.

3) Takes the Fun out of Fundraising: As an individual, I don’t have a bottom line and I have relatively low overhead. As an organization, I’d need to raise funds – not just to register – but to sustain the organization itself. You’d be surprised at how expensive it is to run even the smallest organization – and how breaks like pro-bono lawyers are few and far between. I don’t want to create something that requires me to pressure you to donate in order to reach some preset funding requirement.

2) Hinders Community Democracy: I wanted to give 10,000 lbs of food to the LA Food Bank. Whose permission did I ask? Yours. I wasn’t sure if I should build a Pond Sand Filter. Who made the call? You. If I was an organization, that power would be vested in a Board of Directors – not you. The ups and downs of this project have taught me this: I never want anything – or anyone – to have veto power over you guys. There is, of course, one exception: the people we are trying to serve on the ground.

1) Limits Trust-Building on the Ground: The number one question I get in Bangladesh is whether or not I’m an organization. Most rural Bangladeshis have had negative experiences with organizations and have seen NGO corruption first hand. This maybe why they get so excited when I tell them I’m just a guy. Simply not being part of an organization seems to foster trust, approachability, a willingness to brainstorm, and interaction with you guys (who I explain are my friends back home who support my work).

What I’ve learned in Bangladesh is that, as just a guy, I add value to any existing organization. Locals see me as an independent voice – one whom they can approach with their ideas, suggestions, and even complaints (and, yes, I do address and resolve their complaints – albeit not always publicly). Meanwhile, the online community sees me as their direct line to both those they help and the good they have funded.

I don’t have anything against organizations. In fact, why can’t organizations that have already done all the hard work to formalize, reap the benefit from someone like me (as an independent individual)? This is why I try so hard to pitch the idea of teaming up to multi-national organizations. It’s also why I wish foundations & funding sources supporting initiatives like mine wouldn’t brush me off just because I’m not a tax-writeoff.

Because doing good is more than just a tax status.

Do Charities Need Celebrities?

Sometimes I wish I was a celebrity. Not for the fame. Not for the fans. Not even for the money. But rather, if I was a celebrity and wanted to help people in any country, all I’d have to do is pick-up a phone and a charity would be at my beck and call.


The Front Door for Many Charities

The sad reality is that, even when I’m on location, it can be an uphill battle to team up with large reputable charities. This is regardless of how many times I get my foot in the door, regardless of how many views I can help them get on YouTube, or how many of your donations I can send their way.

I’m not going to bad-mouth any particular charity. But, needless to say, in the hours, days, and weeks since an earthquake struck Haiti, I’ve been working to contact every reptuable international charity out there. If you can think of them – I’ve probably called, emailed, tweeted, or talked to them.

All of them, with maybe one (or two) exceptions, are not interested in teaming up.

Continue reading ‘Do Charities Need Celebrities?’