Thursday, December 30, 2010

How things have changed

A friend of mine with a 10 year old asked me how she could spend time with him making their charitable donations this year. She and her son are generous people and are actively involved in local community and political issues. The dollar amount of their giving is significant to them and puts them squarely in the heart of American generosity - they are absolutely typical of the long tail of American givers who collectively donate $225 billion +/- each year.

She had a working list of about two dozen organizations covering a range of issues, mostly environmental and wildlife preservation. She had heard of a site where she could check their overhead ratios (Charity Navigator). But she wasn't convinced that overhead was the most important factor in choosing a nonprofit organization and she thought that her son wouldn't care. Most of the organizations she had on her list had the same number of stars so this wasn't going to filter anything out for her.

I told her about GiveWell, the BBB, Philanthropedia and GreatNonprofits but warned her that these sites don't cover the full breadth of issues and may not have information on the organizations she was considering.

Remember - she wasn't looking for new organizations she was trying to compare organizations against each other. I told her she could look at the grant lists of organizations like GlobalGreenGrants, The Goldman Environmental Prize, The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, her local community foundation, the Environmental Grantmakers Association and other funders of the environment to see if they had information she could use.

If she'd been looking for new ideas I would have sent her to those funders' lists above and to GlobalGiving or perhaps this new site I just learned of - SeeYourImpact. If this post from Sean had been up last week I'd have sent them to it.

All of this was helpful and rational. But not particularly emotionally satisfying. And if you are trying to get a 10 year old to do something there had better be some kind of fun or emotional hit or direct feedback to the kid. Otherwise giving is going to be like doing homework.

We talked about what she was hoping to accomplish by doing this with her 10 year old. She wanted him to make giving something he always did and would always plan for. She wanted him to gain some awareness of how different organizations do their work. And she wanted him to begin understanding how complicated and interconnected the issues of environmental health, animal habitat, and human health really are.

I gave her the following advice - send her son to the websites of each of the organizations on her list. With a pen and paper. Give him 20 minutes per site to answer the following questions:
  1. What does the organization do?
  2. How do they do it?
  3. How do they know if they are making a difference?
His task was to answer these questions for each organization. If he couldn't find the answers, she'd ask him why and what he thought that said about the organization. Then they'd look through the information they'd found and make some decisions. They could "balance their portfolio" with policy and advocacy and direct service organizations if they wanted. They could focus geographically, or by type of service, or by type of environmental issue.

I also asked him to take note of the organizations for which he couldn't find this information from their websites. I want him to email them and let them know what he did and what he could and couldn't find. Her conversations with her son, before, during and after his "research project" would probably be the most meaningful part of the effort in terms of her goals for him.

Throughout our conversation (or email exchange - which is how most of this transpired over the holidays) I kept thinking about how different this exercise was now than it would have been in 2000. So much more information. So much easier to access. All of it waiting to be found by a 10 year old (who is completely facile in finding information on the Internet, though still learning how to judge credibility). I'm still waiting to hear back from him about what he found, what he thought mattered, and how it influenced his decision making.

I spend a lot of time on the "rational" side of philanthropy so this was a great reminder of what the user experience of giving markets and nonprofit websites is like for others. I expect to learn a lot from my friend's son. Especially after explaining this all to my own 10 year old and hearing this from him: "Is 'overhead' what you call meetings? You go to so many meetings, Mama - I don't want to fund meetings. I want to help girls go to school in places where girls don't get to go to school." Talk about being put in my place.


Laurie said...

Thank you for all you are doing, Ms. Bernholz. I can see why you've garnered such accolades, and I appreciate all you're so skillfully accomplishing. Although we work on different scales at this moment, I do believe that we are aligned in our intentions, so I'm adding you to my blogroll immediately.
If I can serve your mission in any way, please do contact me.
Laurie Pitts

FYI: I'm an English teacher & educational coach with non-profit management experience who's also an avid yet discriminating reader striving to change the world with every book.

Bob Ottenhoff said...

Hi Lucy, thanks for your comments on holiday giving. It’s a question we were asked a lot by reporters and users coming to our site over the last few weeks. In fact, I recently blogged about this subject and suggested donors ask three questions remarkably similar to yours – see :

Bob Ottenhoff

Victoria Vrana said...

I can't wait to see what the 10-year old found, great idea of going through websites.

Just 2 quick thoughts: 1. my duaghters also think going to work is all about going to meetings (or "playing" on the computer all day. and 2. I highly recommend your daughter check out You may want to screen her story first which is true and incredibly powerful but would take some explaining to a 10-year old. I personally know Kakenya and her dream (and now reality) of a school in her village for girls where none existed before is incredibly inspiring. (Full disclosure - my husband built her gorgeous website as a pro-bono project!) Happy New Year!