A Good Cause ≠ A Good Program

Originally seen by Nicole Chen and written by Sharon Schneider on The Philanthropic Family

Dan Pallotta’s recent column for Harvard Business Review calling on charities to start treating their donors as intelligent adults made me want to stand up and cheer. And in rising up to meet his challenge, I am here to tell you a hard truth. That truth is: most of you are doing a terrible job picking charities to receive your hard-earned money and carry the torch of your ideals.

As a person who makes social change their full-time profession, I am often frustrated that big-hearted individuals hear about the mission of a charity and say “isn’t that a wonderful charity?”

Let me be clear: it is impossible to know whether a charity is good or bad, wasteful or efficient, simply by reading its mission statement. Why do I say this?

First, because I know that a mission statement is a statement of intentions, not a statement of accomplishments. A “good cause” is not the same thing as a “good program.” And we all have good intentions but the inconvenient truth in social change work is that Good Intentions Are Not Enough.

Think of the well-meaning missionaries whose desire to “save” children from post-earthquake Haiti almost resulted in loving parents and their children being permanently separated.

Or the recent effort by World Vision to send 100,000 misprinted Super Bowl champion t-shirts to people in the third world, improving their own overhead ratios by claiming the value of these gifts-in-kind as program expenses, while in reality sending goods that are readily available even to poor people in the target geographies, widely accepted by the aid community as having the effect of undermining local businesses and creating a culture of dependency, and otherwise causing harm to the very communities they purport to help.

Or consider the Battered Mother’s Resource Fund that never actually implemented any programs it was fundraising for and potentially scared women away from seeking help by falsely claiming that many shelters separate mothers from their children. It was also proposing a children’s ranch that experts said would do great psychological harm to kids if it were ever built. Despite the fact that it was ordered to shut down by the Attorney General, this organizations still has a profile on Change.org, with 30 well-intentioned supporters. I bet those supporters read the mission statement and said “that’s a worthy cause.”

You know, they’re right: it IS a worthy cause. But it’s not a worthwhile program. This idea that different women’s shelters are doing radically different things, some of which might be actually harmful to women, is something we don’t often consider. But the same thing is true for all kinds of charities.

Some jobs programs help people spiff up their resumes and place them in dead end jobs. Others provide holistic training to prepare them for a lifetime of success in a new career. Sadly, some don’t even know what results they’re getting because they are too busy playing with allocation of costs to make their “overhead ratio” as low as possible.

As a person with good intentions, what can you do? You can pick an issue, and learn about it. In fact, I insist on it. Don’t give to any organization that asks just because it’s a “good cause.” Don’ t give thinking “What’s the harm? What’s the worst that could happen?” If you know nothing about that cause, that issue, that organization, you can be actually doing harm, as the examples above illustrate. Withholding your donation when you don’t know what you’re doing is as important a moral act as giving when asked.

The father of a childhood friend of mine used to say “Don’t be so open-minded that your brains fall out.”

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