Gifto reducto ad infinitum

A donor with $50,000 to give faces a surprising conundrum: she knows, intellectually (and perhaps in her gut) that $50,000  is itself not enough to make lasting, large-scale change.  However, we can all agree that $50,000 is an awful lot of money, and the donor is well within her rights to ask what will happen as the result of her donation.

Donors who push hard on this question may be asking one of three things.  It could be about accountability (“I’m going to make sure you’re not going to waste it”); it could be about comparison shopping (“the nonprofit down the street told me they could buy __________ with this money”); or it could be about the story they need to tell someone (their board, their spouse, themselves) about what they “bought” with the gift.

The real challenge here is that a number of seemingly contradictory truths happily co-exist: if you give someone in need $5 worth of ________ (de-worming; safe drinking water; emergency shelter), their lives will absolutely be significantly better for a period of time – so 10,000 “significantly betters” are potentially on offer for this $50,000 donation. OR a few medium-sized things can be built (a library, a well, a school) for $50,000. AND we also know that large-scale, lasting change comes in much bigger bites – whether to fill that school with teachers; to transform the educational outcomes for a community; to dig not one well but instead to build an organization that’s going to solve the water problem for a village or a hundred or a thousand villages.

So $5 and $50,000 and $5 million and $50 million all co exist.

More complicated still, each of those numbers is, alternately, either really big relative to the problem ($5 is a lot for a subsistence farmer making $1-2 a day), and small for the problem ($50 million doesn’t hold a candle to the annual health budget of even a very small, very poor country).

Echoing a theme from yesterday, the only truly satisfactory answer I’ve found is around solidarity: this is a change we are making together, this is what success looks like, let’s make this happen…and you figure out the piece that you can do relative to your own ability to give.

I recognize that this isn’t the strongest sales pitch, and that part of our job as people who mobilize resources is to right-size the solution to the funds being given – since it is 100% true that a gift of any size, when given to an effective organization, makes a significant impact.  But I still feel at some level that the game of optimizing a message to a particular giving level inevitably falls short of all the honest-to-goodness complexities of solving real problems in the real world.

5 thoughts on “Gifto reducto ad infinitum

  1. do we really need to “sell” donors a line?
    A person who is willing to give is not so interested in exactly what they have bought but that they have made a difference. Telling the $5 donor that he/she has made a significant difference in the life of a farmer or a $50,000 donor that he/she has built a well or contributed to a new building that will effect lots of people is enough. People involved in philanthropy have already made the decision to give, you just need to thank them. Its the people who do not contribute that we need to sell.

  2. Dana, my experience is that most donors don’t care about this but the ones that do care a lot. You?

    And I’ve always been both dissatisfied with the question AND dissatisfied with the answer. On the answer side, both the “here’s what you’re buying” and the “it’s part of this bigger undertaking” response feel underwhelming.

  3. My experience is the “what have I bought” question is increasingly important in an age where many donors view themselves as smart investors interested in investing with accountable organizations that make community impact. Many donors view a donation as a discretionary spend – especially during economically challenging times. Because of this, it’s important that we can answer the question, “what have I bought?” You only need to read Canadian media on a daily basis carrying sensationalized headlines about a charity that has spent donor money on everything but the mission.

  4. Sasha, thanks for posting this, as it answers a question I have had for a long time related to philanthropy.

    As someone trained to focus on efficiency and RoI, my rational mind wants to know “What I bought” and in so doing quantify the amount of good I created in the world. But I think this is applying entirely the wrong mindset to the gift dynamic.

    RoI and evaluation and exchange value are what you worry about when you’re doing business. Gifting is not business; it is community. To make community serve the needs of the market destroys the community.

    As a donor, I think you really just have to accept that you will *never* know what your gift did, not in totality. This is like the teacher who will *never* know which of their students’ lives were really changed by their presence in the classroom.

    In typical market exchange, you see the exchange value and you haggle. In donation, the gift goes around a corner and you don’t see it again.

    So maybe the agency wasted it. So what? Once you give them the gift, it’s up to them how they use it. That’s the definition of a gift.

  5. I’ve often wondered if a non-profit needs to keep two sets of books. One for the internal operations of the non-profits and the auditors. The other to track donations.

    The latter would be used to show that the 45% of the $50,000 donation was given to department A, 50% to department B, and 5% to administration. Then each department head would be responsible for reporting back to the donor how their money was spent.

    Just a thought.

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