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Rationally changing how we feel about giving?

Tuesday, October 5th, 2010

Charities that support cuddly animals invariably receive more than their fair share of the public donations pie, given their contributions to society (compared to say, a refugee support group or a rape crisis centre). But is a ‘charity ranking system’ a good way to shift this imbalance? If our giving choices are indeed ‘visceral’ and ‘irrational’, is a measured, rational system likely to change them?

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New Philanthropy Capital logoOn Wednesday, Martin Brookes, CEO of New Philanthropy Capital, spoke at the RSA on ‘The Morality of Charity’, arguing for a charity ranking system to help the public decide which organisations are more worthy of their donations than others.  At the core of his speech, he said, were moral judgments on:

  • the value of particular causes over others;
  • the ability of some organisations to deliver more effectively on those causes than others.

His hope was a system that could divert sparse resources to the most deserving, rather than the most popular causes.

On one level, I can appreciate the sentiment here; those who know me know I often bemoan the vast reserves sitting in the bank accounts of a small number of ultra-large national organisations.  However, there seem too many trade-offs associated with the proposal, trade-offs which may deeply undermine public trust in charities, as well as the sector’s broader independence and individual donors’ right to choose.

I’ve purposely avoided the question of practical difficulties, as I feel Sophie Hudson has already summarised the argument, but also because I’m keen to avoid the rhetoric of ‘let’s not do it because it seems ‘impossible’.  My approach looks at the risks I see as inherent in making such judgments about the value of the truly vast range of charitable efforts, and the complexity of their contributions to society.

All causes were not created equal…

Martin makes the example of charities that have traditionally delivered services which, retrospectively have been deemed damaging (cigarettes for soldiers, blood letting, etc), as a justification for a ranking system, to discourage money from reaching such groups.  However, he didn’t mention the examples of charities which were ‘ahead of their time’ and whose services may not have been formally recognised as critical when they were established, but have since come to be seen as integral in their field.  A ranking system, without the benefits of hindsight, would only have current ‘fact’ – that which is already ‘proven’ (versus that which is essentially being trialled by a charity who strongly believes in a new approach), on which a judgment could be passed.  This creates an imperative for organisations to stick to established methods, shunning risk and innovation, for fear of lowering their ranking with a yet unproven means of delivery. This seems like a formula for the calcification of a sector, de-incentivised to push beyond established practices, due to concern over lowering their ranking, and thus, their income.

What about politics?

While I would agree that there is an unfair allocation of resources towards ‘sexy’ – and broadly widely agreeable causes, those who are most in need (if I can indeed make such a judgment) are often those least likely to receive public donations.  Undercutting this reality, as uncomfortably as it sits with much of the charity world, is politics.  People won’t agree on the most deserving causes because their underpinning political beliefs will answer this question differently.  Refugees and asylum seekers are often among the most harshly treated groups in the country, yet many will argue against their right to be here at all, let alone to have money to support them.

As long as political divides exist, we will view different charities as differently ‘worthy’, regardless of what information we are given about their value.  If we don’t talk about politics, we are unlikely to get very far in this discussion.

Conversely, if we do acknowledge political differences in such a system, it seems we will end up with either rankings that reinforces the political status quo (a dangerous choice, as discriminatory as it is), or a system so watered-down, that only donkeys, cancer and football will qualify for support, as the only causes not (arguably) steeped in political baggage.

Campaigning?

Speaking of politics, what about if an organisation is working to influence broader social or governmental forces?  Their impacts may be much harder to see than those exclusively delivering services.  In many cases, the broader influencing work will be ultimately more important, holding the key to changing a systemic injustice creating the need for services in the first place, but how could this be ranked alongside groups whose efforts are based totally on addressing immediate, visible need?

It’s a complex, complex world…

Martin Brookes, CEO of New Philanthropy Capital

Martin Brookes, CEO of New Philanthropy Capital

We live in a complex world in which an arts charity may be vastly improving the life prospects of cancer patients and a youth football project may be significantly reducing local violent crime.  This means that many of the best organisations cannot be categorised according to (as Martin suggests as an option), Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (with food and water as the base, and arts and leisure activities at the peak).

Maslow’s hierarchy doesn’t address the complex inter-relationships between work affecting different parts of the pyramid described above. Parallels to the arts or football examples above likely exist in every voluntary or community organisation that doesn’t supply food and water to sub-Saharan African villages, making classification a broadly meaningless activity, which would likely just encourage groups to distort their categorisations to rank more highly than they otherwise might, in the interests of maintaining the impression of public value. Much like currently imposed systems of monitoring and evaluation, groups will find ways to fill in the forms to give themselves preferential results. And this would be a completely understandable thing to do, if you knew your future income was dependent not on your work, per se, but on the perception of your work you were able to create amongst donors or funders.

Valuing ‘effectiveness’

I feel I mostly addressed this one in May when NPC’s work in this area first came to my attention.  Any system which attempts to make a blanket evaluation of the overall effectiveness of different organisations, will inevitably lose the nuance that makes a cattery different from a rape crisis centre, or youth music programme.  If the currently established systems of organisational evaluation are anything to go by, they will not begin to capture the full value offered by most charities.

Even on an issue as seemingly straightforward as how money is spent and overhead costs, these lines can be incredibly blurred, depending on the how distinctions are drawn between frontline staff and management, or if fundraising budgets can be justified, based on their cash return, though they might look disproportionate to the objective outsider.

Better allocation of too few resources?

As for this bigger question, I wonder why we are asking it the way we are.  Would we try to regulate who people become friends with, because there are some people who don’t have enough friends in their lives, and some who have many? Those with the most friends may be popular, funny, but ultimately, less reliable as friends than some of their less-popular alternatives; but will this stop people from gravitating towards them?

It’s not ideal, but systems are notoriously bad at addressing these things on any scale.  Charity is a deeply personal issue for many people and outside information is unlikely to sway someone’s visceral response to an issue they have come to care about.

Further, if we try to do so, we run the (I feel) inevitable risk of:

  • alienating or confusing current and future donors who feel judged for the issues they support
  • encouraging dishonesty from organisations looking to find ways to boost their ranking
  • devaluing the critical work that is done by charities to influence broader systemic change
  • reinforcing the status of large charities with specialised staff to address grading requirements
  • wasting vast sums of money to cram complex issues into insufficiently complex categorisations

For all of Martin’s reminders that people are not rational in their giving habits (he is a self-confessed donkey sanctuary donor), he seems convinced that a rational system of ranking is what is needed to convince us to give differently.  If it is feeling and instinct that drive our current donations, why not look at how feeling and instinct could help to shape new ones, rather than creating a system which tries to undermine these things?  Not a challenge any easier than NPC’s, but maybe one with a greater precedent for success?

The sooner we can dispel the institutional myth that you can count, measure and rank complex social efforts, as you would a football league table, or a budget deficit, the sooner we can get on to really understanding the value they do or don’t provide.

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#DannyDyerDonate: A flop film, the web + £400 for charity

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

A quick timeline:

#DannyDyerDonate Just Giving Page

7/6/10, 4:00pm – I’m ‘on Twitter’; I notice a Tweet from @VictoriaPeckham, that said a remarkably low 24 people went to see Danny Dyer’s new film, Pimp, during its entire opening weekend; £205 was grossed. The blog points out that Dyer was last in the news when his advice column in Zoo lads’ mag had caused fury, after he recommended a reader cut an ex-girlfriend’s face, so ‘no one would want her’.

7/6/10, 4:10pm – I noticed that @andyvglnt had also picked-up the story, Tweeting “Danny Dyer’s new flick take £205 in 1st weekend? @Diazzzz and I took more than that for band t-shirts and cupcakes yesterday!” Banter ensues… we decide that more people would choose to support the women Dyer ‘jokes’ about cutting, than would want to see his film.  I suggest finding a suitable charity and sending a link to their donate page, @andyvglnt suggests a page on JustGiving.com, so we could see “how much more generous people are than Dyer is successful.”

7/6/10, 4:20pm – In about 10 minutes, I’d set-up a JustGiving page for #DannyDyerDonate, giving money to Solace Women’s Aid. I sent the following Tweet: “Danny Dyer’s ‘PIMP’ film made £205; can we raise more for the women he ‘jokes’ of abusing? http://bit.ly/aK91xw #DannyDyerDonate”

7/6/10, 6:30 – £210 had been made, surpassing the goal and outdoing ‘Pimp’s opening weekend take.

8/6/10, 9:25am – £420 had been raised for Solace Women’s Aid, via 47 separate donors, pitching in between £2 and £100 each.

£420 is hardly going to change the world…
In the scheme of things this sum is not a remarkable total.  But there are a few key learning points here for people who want to make change in the world, and for organisations that want to be a part of it.

Emergence
There is an important idea in Complexity Theory that describes how “patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions.” The common metaphor is of a flock of birds – there are no ‘leaders’ per se, but there is clearly an aligning of independent efforts that have an effect greater than any of the individual parts – the flock.  There have been countless examples of how technology has enabled social ‘flocking’ to occur.  What was simply a few combined hours of @andyvglnt and my time, became something far bigger than either our efforts or our means (we are both pretty poor right now) could have achieved.  Which leads to the next point…

Distributed effort
In the timelines above, what I failed to mention was that about 2 minutes after I sent the 1st Tweet, I got an important phone call from my sister, who I spent the next 45-minutes speaking with.  When I got back to the computer, £95 had been raised.  @andyvglnt had been pushing it during that time, but more than 20 people had also independently chosen to re-share (‘ReTweet’) the initial message and about 10 had already chipped in money.  Most people simply shared the link or made a comment.  A smaller number of people made a donation. @andyvglnt and I contributed a couple hours of our afternoon/evening.  If you could calculate the total effort, it would likely be a significant sum (given the £420 involved), but was hardly more than a few passing clicks of the mouse, for hundreds of different people.

How communication is changing via technology
Technology was obviously a big enabler in this process, whether as the initial source of information and the distribution platform (Twitter), or as the channel through which funds were received (JustGiving).  But what it did was not unique to technology – it amplified and sped-up the natural human urge to share things we find valuable, allowing them to reach far more people than would have ever been possible without it.

The importance of autonomy
When @andyvglnt and I started sending messages back-and-forth, neither of us could foresee what would happen next – but we went ahead, followed our instincts and, when those instincts happen to match up with those of several hundred others, £420 that would otherwise have stayed in individual bank accounts, made it to Solace Women’s Aid.  There was no ‘fundraising strategy’, there was no plan that extended more than about 5 minutes into the future, there was just effort, and the snowballing effect of effort that gets reflected and multiplied by others. Very few voluntary organisations I have worked with would be in a position to have enabled this to happen, as how many people in professional jobs – even if women’s rights was at the core of their work – would be able to a) pick-up on a trivial bit of knowledge like ‘Pimp’s dismal opening weekend take, and b) spend the afternoon acting on it, dropping whatever else was on the go?

How I’ve chosen to tie this into my workday
When I talk about ‘human institutions’ (as anyone who has read this blog before knows I often do), I am talking (in part) about organisations that support the potential of those within and around them to grow, and how the benefits of individual personal development can mesh with the development of the institution.  This sounds simple enough, but is actually very counter-intuitive to many of the ideas that underlie traditional management know-how.

What @andyvglnt, myself and a few hundred others did in the course of our afternoons/evenings yesterday demonstrated the microcosmic potential of what can happen when passion goes viral.  It’s happening all over the place these days.  Organisations that can tap into this kind of passion, are often most successful, regardless of their field.

As Dan Pink outlines in his RSA talk on motivation, how Aussie software company Atlassian (though I don’t often site corporate examples) recognises some element of this (at about 5min40sec): “Once a quarter, on a Thursday afternoon they say to their developers, ‘for the next 24 hours you can work on anything you want… all we ask is that you show the results to the company at the end of that 24 hours.’”  The results have been the creation and development of a whole range of new software fixes and products that would never otherwise have emerged.

My suggestion goes a step further…
While a dedicated day-per-quarter has been a successful model for supporting innovation at Atlassian, passion isn’t always something that can be scheduled, and may be sparked by, or may come to influence, a range of other time sensitive outside factors that don’t happen to fall on the given Thursday.  In other words, within this model, these are still ‘lost’ opportunities.  What would happen if a more flexible approach was taken, giving staff a certain amount of flexible time – maybe it’s a day a quarter, maybe it’s more, maybe it’s less – but that, when the conditions were right, people could feel empowered to run with an idea, while it’s ‘still warm’?  The logistics of this would prove challenging for most organisations, depending on individual workloads, but my personal, evidence-free hunch, especially in the voluntary sector, is that most staff would recognise during especially busy periods, where their efforts were most needed.

I will leave it to all of you to pick-apart the detail of this, but believe that it could provide a possible way for those of us who spend our days working for social change, to tap into some of the emergent social forces at play all around us, that we often don’t pick-up on in the course of a busy day at the office…

In the mean time, if you haven’t and are able, please chip-in or help share the #DannyDyerDonate page and help Solace Women’s Aid make a difference in the lives of the women who have been victims of the domestic violence normalised by Danny Dyer’s ‘jokes’.

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