My post on “issue-agnostic” donors struck a chord, with many readers and bloggers disagreeing with the concept. Much of a criticism focused on taking the argument to the logical extreme:
Paul Brest of the Hewlett Foundation wrote:
“[N]o donor is entirely issue agnostic. A donor who thought that his or her philanthropic dollars would have more impact in supporting organizations that provide safe abortions rather than organizations advocate against abortions, or vice versa, would likely make the choice based on the issue rather than impact.”
Paul is right and on reflection I think that the term “issue-agnostic” is overly strong. Instead, I should have focused on another phrase I used in the post: “impact-centric”.
Reader Eric Friedman commented on how he fit the model I was discussing:
“This post really resonated with me, as I’ve tried to be an issue-agnostic donor. I want to help people, but have no ideological preference for which people I help or how I help them. My process is to first determine which area of focus has the greatest opportunity for impact, then select which organization is most effective.
I have sought advice from several experts in philanthropy, and to be frank, they were not helpful. They seemed more confused or frozen by my approach, and generally told me that I should figure out what I was passionate about. They did not seem to understand my response, “I’m passionate about finding the most impactful way to help people.” For all the talk about “strategic philanthropy” and “impact,” many experts had difficulty thinking about how to maximize impact unless the donor first constraints the issue to focus on. There was only one group I found could relate well to my philosophy: GiveWell.
I view it as bothersome that the typical focus is on the donor’s interests as much as the recipient’s needs, and I know that I’m not the only one with this view. Many of the others have told me that they would give more if they actually knew what was most impactful.”
I don’t think that Eric is alone. Most donors care about a variety of issue areas and it may be that as nonprofits become better at demonstrating impact, that impact-centric donors begin to think about issue area focus as an important but secondary decision factor.
I would suggest that the success of Kiva.org has been a remarkable story of tapping into impact-centric donors. While on its surface, Kiva seems like it is focused on the “issue” of poverty alleviation (via microfinance), I would argue that few donors come to Kiva because of their own focus on this issue. I find it highly doubtful that prior to Kiva, there were many US donors who were looking for effective ways to support poor Indian entrepreneurs. Instead, I think Kiva figured out how to communicate impact well (whether Kiva achieves actual impact or simply communicates about impact well is a different argument). It is the tangible experience of achieving impact that brings donors to Kiva, not issue-area alignment.
So maybe issue-agnostic is too strong of a phrase. Maybe impact-centric as opposed to issue-centric is better wording. But I think the concept is real and growing.