When Donors Suck

My post on the GiveWell Project and Blog sparked a flurry of comments, posts and emails. I found the most interesting response to be “When Blogging Sucks” on the NTEN Blog, which referred to my post and the GiveWell post before saying:

I’m a big believer in blogs.  They are a great outlet for sharing, tips, tricks, ideas, experiences, knowledge, and INFORMED opinions.  Lately though, I feel like there’s a lot of UNINFORMED opinion sharing going on.  There are more and more bloggers embracing the role of "watchdog" who are misprepresenting organizations (like my own!) who are just trying to do good.  It’s not right…

Here’s the deal: most nonprofits are doing their very best to serve their communities every single day in an open and transparent way.  Their web sites can not possible reflect everything about them.  We have a responsiblity to be open and transparent, but you – watchdog bloggers – have a responsibility to get off your lazy you know whats and do your homework. 

Ask us questions.  Then make your judgements.

Got it?

Here’s the thing, the GiveWell team is made up of donors. They are not “self appointed watch dogs”. When I said, “It doesn’t matter” if the GiveWell team is experienced or if they use the correct “tone” when they write, I meant that they are the donors that nonprofits have to deal with. Note that after the GiveWell blog blasted Network for Good, Katya Andresen (Network for Good’s head of marketing, who blogs at Nonprofit Marketing Blog) stopped by to give her side of the argument. She thanked the GiveWell team and said she wanted to encourage further discussion. Katya has written the very well received book Robin Hood Marketing. I’d bet she doesn’t recommend telling your donors (or customers) that they “suck” if you don’t agree with them.

I’ll let the GiveWell team respond to the NTEN post on their own. But I’ll note that on the front page of their wiki it says in bold “generosity and good intentions are helpful but not sufficient” and I would point out to the NTEN post author that GiveWell is an example of donors who are trying very hard to “do homework” and “ask questions” before making their judgments.

I find the GiveWell Project so intriguing because it is created by and for donors. Or as Maryann Devine at SmArts & Culture commented:

GiveWell is the first piece of cooperative, donor-created social media on philanthropy research that I’ve heard of. It really can’t be denied: the donors are in charge now.

Does anyone know of any other “donor-created social media on philanthropy research”? If so, let me know.


  1. Emily says:

    Hi Sean,

    The organisation I’m working with is the peak body for philanthropy in Australia, and also a membership body. So, our prime MO is to represent and support our members – philanthropic trusts, foundations and corporations in Australia. We define these ‘philanthropists’ as slightly different to the broader term of ‘donor’, which (at least in these parts) tends to refer more to individuals or businesses who structure their donation to charities, but don’t necessarily make grants. Our members are the philanthropists who make grants to charities and other community organisations, for those organisations to undertake (charitable) projects, with all the structure of accountability, collaboration and reporting that comes with the grantmaking process.

    I get the impression that GiveWell is aimed at supporting more individual donors – those who wish to structure their giving, research and make informed decisions, but ultimately are making simply a charitable donation? (is this correct?) Sitting somewhere between the institution of philanthropy/grantmaking and the folk who make one-off donations if they’re approached by a chugger on the street corner.

    Anyway, I just set that background in order to answer your question re: “donor-created social media on philanthropy research”.

    The Australian philanthropy sector is in a unique position because unlike the UK, USA, Canada and New Zealand there is no mandatory reporting and no overarching body with responsibility for the endorsement and regulation philanthropic bodies (foundations & trusts, namely). What this means is that more often than not, foundations are very private and reluctant to become transparent, share information in a more public field (though they do enjoy collaborating with each other on projects). The history of the sector, to date, has not been recorded in a central location, and this means that rather than sharing what they’ve learned from their mistakes, each individual foundation has a tendency to re-invent the wheel.

    And this is something that they’ve identified as a problem that needs solving. We’re currently working on adopting social media tools to develop solutions to these issues – namely, a project we’re developing at the moment is a knowledge bank of Australian philanthropy – which encompasses a database of previous grants, a database of projects seeking philanthropic funding, as well as our key piece, a collation of resources using wiki software that documents the philanthropy sector – the ‘nuts and bolts’ of grantmaking, primarily, but also mapping the sector and recording its stories and history.

    It’s a huge project but one we feel will be invaluable. Of course, building its content will require a shift of attitude/culture in these foundations (see above comment about privacy!), and a lot of the resources will be password protected to our members (one of the reasons they find membership valuable is that they can network with other grantmakers in a secure/private environment through us). The wiki software will also allow them to collaborate on resources themselves, again in a secure environment.

    Unlike GiveWell, we don’t provide links between grantmakers and grantseekers but rather aim to provide resources for the grantmakers to function more dynamically and effectively in the process of their grantmaking.


  2. Holly says:

    You’re right. Saying that your clients suck is not a nice thing to do – but I meant it tongue in cheek. Let me explain why and try to shift this debate around.

    The issue for me is NOT that anyone is questioning Network For Good. I think that one of the most powerful things about new media is that so many people CAN question the sector and its players – forcing more transparency and accountability. I honestly appreciate it in my own work – it makes me better at what I do and I learn something new every day.

    What I object to is having that conversation in an inflammatory, irresponsible way. The post that we’re talking about does not atcually ask any questions, it publishes assertions. And that’s disrespectful. So I decided to title my post in the same tone and manner.

    Here’s the thing I think is most important to remember. Organizations are NOT going to become more open and accountable if they feel attacked. If that post had been framed as “5 questions for Network for Good” instead of being titled “Network for what now?” and if the content had been less inflammatory, it would have been an excellent overature to conversation. As it was, I think Katya was extremely gracious in how she responded, and gave folks more than they deserved in response.

    It cuts both ways. If you want nonprofits to be more responsible to donors, donors have to communicate responsibly.