Do philanthropy bloggers care about donors?

Sean Stannard-Stockton and Nathaniel Whittemore point us to a recently-released UK report that shows that only 40% donors are interested in creating a new national charity rating scheme and 68% said such a rating scheme would not change their giving decisions.

Reflecting on these facts, Sean writes a post titled Do Donors Care Whether Nonprofits are Any Good?

And Nathanial’s title is Do Donors Care About Impact? Not Really

Nathanial’s conclusion from the aforementioned statistics: “Uh oh. That’s some pretty damning evidence that donors don’t care.”

The other way to look at these numbers is to conclude that donors don’t believe that a rating scheme is going to work; that they don’t believe that such an approach is going to effectively inform them about how to make charitable decisions. (I happen to agree that it won’t, though that’s a post for another day.)  If that’s what’s really going on, then the right headline – much less catchy, and much less likely to be retweeted – would be: “Do donors believe that rating agencies are any good at their jobs?  No.”

There’s a lot of good stuff in both Sean’s and Nathanial’s posts, especially Sean’s point that we need to put as much effort into spreading ideas as we put into assessing impact.  But I also think we have to be careful.  I don’t think we advance the field of philanthropy and champion the cause of effective philanthropy by making and tearing down caricatures of philanthropists, and I think the blog post titles do just this.

It’s fun to be provocative to grab attention, but not when it cuts directly against what I know Sean and Nathanial and all of us hope to be part of – an ever-improving, ever-more-dynamic field of philanthropy that brings about large-scale, positive social change.

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5 thoughts on “Do philanthropy bloggers care about donors?

  1. Hey Sasha

    I’m always happy to have people push the conversation to be more, not less complex, and so glad to have your post.

    That said, I think you’ve pretty significantly characterized what I wrote.

    First, the title isn’t just link bait. We live in an extraordinarily info congested world and when I want to actually get people to engage in a conversation about something, there’s no other way than titles that can cut against the grain of conventional wisdom. If I had used the title you suggested, I would have had ~30% of the retweets and engagement that I have had. Believe it or not, I don’t care about the traffic except insofar as this is an important conversation to have and I want to pull people towards it. You are welcome to disagree with this strategy, but there is a purpose beyond self-aggrandizement and simplification.

    Second, if you’re making a point about using over simplification to justify your point, it’s a little strange that you would reference a line that very clearly was not my conclusion as my conclusion to reinforce what you were saying. I spent a whole lot of words after that line trying to add depth to the conversation, so this critique rings a little hollow.

    Third, I actually believe everything I wrote, and I don’t think I maligned or over simplified any one. I wanted to be provocative with this title because I think it is a fundamental and serious problem with many of the conversations in philanthropy to assume that what super engaged donors care about is what your average citizen philanthropist cares about. I don’t believe that to be true and I think that for the good of the field, smart organizations that care deeply about impact have to engage with everyone from where they’re actually starting.

    Fourth, if it sounds like I’m annoyed in this comment, please believe I’m not at all. I love your willingness to call out something you think isn’t great, and share your sense that brand matters and over simplification is huge problem for our space. I know exactly why I wrote the post as I did, and I would do it again, but I don’t think you’re wrong to say it was provocative, and I’m glad you’re saying it.

    Thanks Sasha!

  2. Hi Nathaniel,

    Thanks for this comment – thoughtful, thorough, as is typical for everything you do. Really appreciate it.

    A few thoughts in response. First, I absolutely believe that your intention with the title was to get people to read, and that’s an effective tactic. But what I noticed is that the tweets going around became some version of “donors don’t care about impact.” So for the 3x traffic you got – and the positive engagement in the conversation that results – there’s the negative impact for all the people who didn’t dig in deeper and who only engaged with that soundbite.

    (Similarly, images and stories of deprivation and powerlessness may engage more people and get more people to give, but the message has pernicious effects that have a power all their own).

    I’ll also second Sean’s point from his post today (first comment, above) that it’s a big leap from the statistics in the study to your conclusions that rank what donors care about more (namely, affiliation over impact).

    And finally it did feel like an analytical omission on your part (which is rare, which is why I noticed it) to steer clear of the other most obvious potential conclusion from the study – that donors don’t have faith in the proposed rating system, rather than that donors don’t care about impact.

    All productive fodder for conversation, so thanks for your post and for the follow-up.

  3. Hey Sasha

    So, I think your critique about the consequences of soundbite-ization are totally fair. It’s a risk I’m comfortable with, but that’s my cost benefit analysis and it doesn’t have to be everyone’s.

    Something I think I didn’t do well enough clarifying though.

    My piece was not extrapolation but editorialization. I was making about that I believe – that when it comes to your average donor who makes up the $240odd mil that American citizens give to charity each year – the emotional gratification of their giving supersedes tangible knowledge of impact, and that they simply trust the organizations they give to do be good organizations.

    I believe that as a general rule. The piece that served as the catalyst for the post simply was evidence to that end. I agree that that study does not suggest people don’t care about impact – but the point I should have made clearer is that I do think it’s a good piece of evidence that “impact” is mostly determined by trust in an organization and its leadership.

    I also think it’s pretty fair to call me deeply skeptical about all of this – more so than most in our space. I think that for a huge percentage of those donors, unfortunately the emotional gratification (or the publicity they get) from caring is plenty, and impact is truly secondary.

    As weird as it seems, this is not a pessimistic point of view to me. I’ve always found it way more successful to start trying to convince people to think or act differently by assuming that the reasons they don’t act or think like you are legitimate and rational. This is definitely true in global activism, and may also be true in philanthropy.

    Thanks again

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