Jacob Harold on Whether Donors Care

Jacob Harold is the program officer at the Hewlett Foundation who manages the foundation’s philanthropy program along with president Paul Brest. The program is one of the very few foundation funded efforts to support the field of philanthropy. The goals of the program are to:

Below is Jacob’s comment on my post yesterday examining whether donors really care whether the nonprofits they support are any good.

You are right that we need to get much better (and clearer) about how we’re going to actually shift donor behavior. But I think that we can resolve some of these challenges if we focus on a targeted part of the donor market. The inconsistency of the majority need not be a barrier if we can activate the minority who authentically want to maximize the impact of their giving.

First, let me offer two different models of the diffusion of behavioral change: prioritization and possibility.

(1) One way to change behavior is to get people to think that something is more important than they used to think it was–that is, to push it up their hierarchy of prioritization. This often requires breaking through the countless distractions of everyday life.

(2) Another way to change behavior is to offer new people an appealing possibility they didn’t know existed. No one knew they wanted an iPad until there were iPads to want. But interest in iPads multiplies as excitement grows, people talk about them, and they begin to see them in their daily lives.

Both strategies offer some hope for us as we try to enable smarter, more effective philanthropy. But they both have their weaknesses: changing prioritization can require expensive, brute-force interventions like paid advertising; introducing a new possibility requires a really good idea and a whole lot of luck. Ultimately, I think we can’t afford the first approach and have to figure out how to use the second.

If we’re humble in our ambition and simply try to get to the fraction (~15%, see reference here) of donors who are particularly concerned with impact we can still have an immense influence on the sector. Reaching half of them for 20% of their giving is still >$3.5 billion a year in the US alone.

Every year there are millions of visits to websites with information about nonprofit performance–even though not much good information is available. There is in fact latent demand; and it’s barely activated. There is not yet that sense of possibility that can feed on itself. If we build it, most will never come–but if we build it well, enough will come to influence billions of dollars.

What philanthropy innovations fall into Jacob’s second category? The one that immediately springs to mind for me is Kiva.org. Before Kiva, Americans were not sitting around demanding that someone help them make $25 loans to poverty stricken Indian women. But Kiva was “made to stick” as I wrote about here and have more effectively spread an idea about effective philanthropy* than almost any other group in America.

* Kiva isn’t really philanthropy since it is lending, not giving, and the effectiveness of microfinance is under intense debate. But Kiva still wins the prize if you recognize that philanthropy is broadening to include much more than just traditional charitable giving and the effectiveness of just about every philanthropic act is debatable.

One Comment

  1. Mazarine says:

    While working in nonprofit fundraising for the past seven years, what I have noticed is when you make a cause personal, when you show directly how the money is going to help, this is what makes people want to give.

    Kiva is very good at this. They have created a need but most importantly they have made it almost completely transparent, how the money flows to the person, and what they’re going to do with it. I had an idea for awhile that if each nonprofit could start a giving thermometer on its website for each of its programs, and update it with new pictures every quarter, nonprofits could get a lot more donations.