Those holiday how-to articles on where to donate your money? Tread carefully - Generocity Philly


Nov. 5, 2018 11:25 am

Those holiday how-to articles on where to donate your money? Tread carefully

Philanthropic giving guides drive columnist and fundraiser Valerie Johnson crazy. Here's why, and her advice on avoiding bad advice.
When I see articles like Vox’s recent giving guide, “These are the charities where your money will do the most good,” I am outraged.

I know, I know, that’s a pretty strong statement. But it’s true. I can feel my blood start to boil and I start seeing red.

Why, you ask, is this seemingly innocuous article so rage inducing?

The general public does not have the level of knowledge that us nonprofit workers do about our own work. Most articles that are written to help the general public decide where to donate their money are written by — you guessed it — people without experience in the nonprofit sector.

There are some key ideas that pop up over and over again in these articles that I’m going to break down here, as they’re more nuanced than most writers make them seem.

1. Overhead

I’ve already written about the overhead myth, so I won’t fully rehash it here. Essentially, nonprofits often hinder their own success because they won’t (or can’t) invest in infrastructure that supports them in achieving their missions. When you’re supporting a nonprofit that only spends 5 percent of their budget on overhead, it is entirely possible that you are supporting an organization with outdated technology, little to no infrastructure, and low salaries for their staff.

If you’re not familiar with nonprofits, it sounds reasonable to expect nonprofits to keep their overhead low. But, there’s a difference between spending money frivolously and spending money that is necessary to the health of your organization. Do some more digging here when you’re evaluating an organization to determine if their overhead is justified; don’t just randomly choose a number and then skewer the orgs that spend more than that.

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2. Location

Giving abroad is often stated to be more effective, because of a combination of exchange rates and higher need in those countries.

Firstly, impact and effect of a donation vary vastly from organization to organization serving the same exact area as well as organizations serving different countries. To say that your dollar will go further in another country is a vast generalization.

Secondly, there may not be a higher need in another country. Africa is a large and varied continent; to assume an organization based in an African country has a higher need than an organization local to you solely because it’s based in Africa is, quite honestly, racist. There are communities right here in Philadelphia that have an immediate and dire need for support. There are communities in other areas of the world that have an immediate and dire need for support as well, but to say that ALL communities outside of America have a higher need is, again, a vast generalization.

3. Experts

The Vox article I referenced above specifically recommends giving money “directly to poor people.”

Don’t even get me started on using the phrase “poor people” in the year 2018 — that should honestly be the first indicator that this author doesn’t have a strong nonprofit background. [Editor’s note: Read this author’s argument for using person-first language here.] But I’ve seen this concept pop up more often lately across several outlets.

Moving past the poor wording choice, giving money directly to folks who are struggling is not always the best way to solve a problem. Take, for example, the case of Johnny Bobbitt, a man experiencing homelessness with a substance use disorder who was on the receiving end of a $400,000 GoFundMe campaign. His benefactors were shocked and began withholding the money when Johnny relapsed.

My take on this is that they never should have raised money for him in the first place. They should have connected him to an organization that was qualified to support folks with his unique set of struggles, and then supported him as he worked through that program. The experts are there for a reason. They know what they’re doing, they use evidence-based methods, and they have outcomes to show that what they do works. Give the money to the experts, which will enable them to help more people, and your donation will go much further.

4. Voluntourism

Have you heard of voluntourism?

If you’re not familiar, it’s when people decide to spend time during a vacation, or an entire vacation, volunteering — usually a physical labor project like constructing a building. It’s a feel-good thing for folks who can walk away knowing that they got their hands dirty and helped to make a difference.

But, breaking this down a bit further: Did that voluntourist actually make a difference? They took away what could have been a paying job for someone who actually lives in that community and contributes to that economy. They most likely completed a skilled job without the required skills, which leads to shoddy work that will need to be redone either now or in the future.

So, what would be more effective: Donating whatever you spent on that vacation to an organization that trains and pays skilled workers in that community, or spending a few days volunteering?


Now that you’ve all indulged me in explaining why these articles rankle me so, so much, let’s talk about what to look out for when you read an article like this.

  • Who wrote the article? Do they have hands-on experience in the nonprofit world?
  • What’s their angle? Are they promoting a charity evaluation website (cough, cough, Vox), a voluntourism company, or a fundraising software company?
  • Are they contributing to known myths about nonprofits, like the overhead myth?

It may be that the article is written by someone with direct knowledge of the things they’re writing about — and if that’s the case, give that article more weight than you would one that isn’t. I’m not saying that all articles on where you should give are bad, but please take it all with a grain of salt and use your own judgement when making your giving decisions.

Finally, my advice to you on how to choose which organization to support: Do what brings you joy. If you want to give local, that’s great! If you want to give outside of the U.S., that’s awesome! Truly, at the end of the day, the only thing that matters in that decision is how that donation will make you feel.

Think about the causes that are important to you, review the organizations that support that cause, and then give where you’ll get the most joy.


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