This post is part of a collection of blog posts responding to the question “What is the one thing you need to know before donating to charity this holiday season?” posed by Nathaniel Whittemore on the Social Entrepreneurship blog on Change.org.
Before donating to any charity you should be able to answer two simple questions 1) “What is this nonprofit’s strategy for affecting the cause they are working on?” and 2) “How is this nonprofit different from other nonprofits working on the same cause?” It might seem like I’m setting the bar really low with these questions. But I believe that if most people asked themselves these two questions, the nonprofit sector would be radically transformed.
Let’s take each question in turn:
- “What is this nonprofit’s strategy for affecting the cause they are working on?”: Most people give to charity because they support the cause the nonprofit is focused on. So people give to Goodwill because they want to help people who are financially disadvantaged. Or they give to the Sierra Club because they care about the environment. Answering this question makes the donor reflect on the fact that their gift will support an organization, not be magical transformed into “support for the cause.” If you can answer this question, you’ll know what the organization is actually trying to do.
- “How is this nonprofit different from other nonprofits working on the same cause?” All good nonprofits should be able to offer a good pitch for why they have an attractive strategy for affecting their cause. So the second question you need to ask focuses on what makes this nonprofit different. For instance, both the Greenpeace and the Environmental Defense Fund focus on the cause of protecting the environment. But while the Environmental Defense Fund seeks market-based solutions and partners with corporations, Greenpeace works towards “exposing the dirty secrets of corporate polluters like Exxon” and organizes protests. By asking a couple of nonprofits working on a given cause how they are different from each other, you will begin to figure out which nonprofit you want to support.
In an ideal world, a donor wouldn’t just get the answers to these questions. They would also validate whether the strategies being offered by each nonprofit actually works and determine if each nonprofit was achieving its goals. But unfortunately, most donors today do not have the capacity to validate how effective a nonprofit actual is or track their progress towards goals. But donors do have the capacity to change the way they make donations from a process that focuses on The Cause to one that focuses on The Organization to whom they are actually writing the check.
Philanthropy is about supporting organizations. Every nonprofit in the country is an organization that offers to take your donation of time or money and transform it into a specific type of impact on the cause you care about. So before you make another donation, ask yourself what strategy the nonprofit you are considering actually deploys and how its strategy is different from other nonprofits.