Who is Doing the Most Good

I recently read a book by Peter Singer, The Life You Can Save. In this book he talks about how we can make a global difference in poverty and how a small amount of money can go a long way in saving lives. When I read that book and think about the work of an organization like Charity Navigator, it appears that there may be a ranking of different kinds of nonprofit work as more valuable.

An unspoken ranking system that I’ve seen developing is: global poverty, global health, local poverty, then education and healthcare, then the arts. This kind of unspoken ranking concerns me, and I am really curious what you think. From a purely financial perspective, I can understand the cost benefit of saving the most lives with the least amount of dollars, but that line of thinking would make me believe that the value of life is based only on how much it costs to live. It might cost $15,000 to save someone in a local hospital, or $5,000 to keep a homeless person off the streets. Should these people be forgotten because we could save 100 people in another country for the same amount of money? I guess I would say no, as a fundraiser. I hope we can raise money to help people locally and globally, and I’m glad that there are organizations and donors in both groups.

I believe that the world of fundraising is big enough for us all, and I am glad that there are a number of different kinds of organizations that can reach out to donors’ individual passions. The pull to save the most lives or make the “biggest difference” does speak to me in a unique way. How can nonprofits that do not serve the poorest of the poor make their message just as powerful? This brings us back to why we give. The power to address needs in your own community will often trump the needs of those we don’t know or to whom we feel no connection. Nonprofits need to be able to do a good job reaching out to the donors in their backyard, so to speak.

Do you think that one sector of nonprofit work deserves money more than another? Is there an unspoken ranking of nonprofits with your donors or in your community?

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6 Responses to Who is Doing the Most Good

  1. Bob Mcinnis says:

    Jason,
    For me personally and many supporters of the work we do, proximity is the first criteria. Geographic and systemic distance seems to absolve us of any consideration beyond the financial. Donating should be the beginning of engagement, not the end. I ‘rank’ from the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid towards the top so local organizations effectively providing food, shelter and basic healthcare rank first. Those who seek to restore people ( drug rehabilitation, domestic violence shelters, exit from sexual exploitation ..) are second. Innovative health research – third. Feel Good ( arts, animals, cultural experiences) – fourth. Small local organizations working in a disaster or conflict zone – fifth. Of course I am receptive to a great campaign and subject to my emotions so I didn’t hesitate to break all the rules and donate to MSF during the Haitian earthquake. Thanks for prompting me to think about rankings and whether they are logical, emotional, intuitive, or the sum of my experience.

  2. Robert Nelson says:

    I don’t think most fundraisers “rank” the needs of the organizations they serve. Who is to say that the needs of one organization is greater than the needs of another?… Unfortunately most people making the decisions to contribute to worthwhile causes have a mindset that is already pre-disposed. That is to say that based on the experiences of the donor, many organizations can benefit if the case is made that supports that pre-disposition. In other words some people will support human needs above educational needs given the right circumstances. On the other hand do we just say give to human needs without considering the higher needs? There will always be hunger. There will always be the underpriveleged and there will always be the donor who chooses to give to them.

    On the other hand there are those who give to empower the poor and defenseless to find ways to solve their problems through education and economic development. Is one better than the other ? Certainly not . It takes both types to make this world a better place. We can all be proud of the work we do regardless of who we raise money for. We just need to make sure the money goes for the purpose it was intended and not to feather the nest of some bureaucrat or politician.

  3. Bob Mcinnis says:

    Robert,
    I rank my organization’s needs every day. Last year we were in a sound financial position and still able to meet the needs of our stakeholders so we didn’t apply for ‘guaranteed’ foundation grants but left money on the table for other deserving organizations. I have got past the hugs and bunnies mentality that we are all doing good work and am ready willing and able to say ” the needs and work of one organization is more important than another”. We encourage all existing donors and new donors give due consideration to choices that they make regarding their giving. If people did as much research and comparison of charitable impact as they do when considering a new cell phone, the world would be a better place for those we serve. In Canada, there isn’t a ‘kill switch’ that forces ineffective organizations to get out of the marketplace and stop drawing focus away from highly impactful ones. If, as you suggest, we are unable or unwilling to judge the needs and works of others against our own, then we are likely not doing the best that we can. I advise dozens of our largest supporters on where they might find opportunities to make the greatest difference with their philanthropy. I am closer to the ground and am better able to judge the impact and side effects of programs of other charities and believe that our being observed and judged by others is helpful and forces us to adapt, change and improve (or get out of the way).

  4. Christina Merhar says:

    The idea of “ranking” organizations reminds me of the long-standing conversation around “overhead” costs and how websites, donors and funders use this as an assessment tool for the organization, and for donations. While these kind of measurement and ranking tools can be important information on an organization, I think they can be misleading and, as you said Jason, I think there IS room for everyone. It seems as though a ranking system is too simplistic and doesn’t take into account the often complex social issues we work to improve.

    Perhaps a core issue is that donors and funders want to know how their monies are being spent, they want to know that their support DOES make an important difference in the lives of those we serve and that we are good stewards of their money. I see this as a reminder that our job as fundraisers is to communicate this message to our supporters.

  5. Here in Santa Cruz, the county gives the month of October to their Employee Giving Campaign and four organizations are asked to send reps to make presentations to the various departments about their work and missions. I worked for the Cultural Council of SC County, the designated arts & culture agency for the county and shared the stage with a healthcare umbrella org, an environment umbrella org, and a social services umbrella org. You might consider it hugs and bunnies mentality, but we reps were in agreement that all of the missions had validity. We each presented our case and then asked for the county employees to give as their hearts dictated. On occasion, one of us would have to give the talk for another rep, who couldn’t make it (the County requires we do so, but we were always happy to do it). As you might guess, the Cultural Council usually got the smallest donations, but we were never dismayed by this. We know that it can be hard to think about putting on a musical when your stomach’s empty, but – speaking from experience – it can take your mind off that empty stomach, too. I was told by the other reps that no where else did the level of mutual respect for each others’ missions rise to the level of that in Santa Cruz. It made the campaign easier on all of us reps and easier for the county employees to see that no giving choice is innately wrong and giving doesn’t have to be about yes or no, but about proportion.

  6. Jason Dick says:

    Wow some really great comments. Robert I completely agree with you when you say that there is more than one way to impact a community or individual life. Feeding the hungry can be just as important as educating them, training them, and empowering them to work. And, arts or sports can impact a person’s self expression, esteem, and confidence allowing them to become more than they already are. In some ways I think humanity can only be as great as it’s greatest artists.

    From your perspective as fundraisers what motivates you to continue in your specific sector?

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