The Best Charity No One Has Heard Of

The GiveWell team has issued a challenge to the smart giving movement. Their top rated charity, Village Reach, consults on health system logistics in high-poverty, remote areas to help life-saving supplies get to those who need them. According to GiveWell’s analysis, Village Reach is able to do the most with donated dollars to demonstrably improve people’s lives out of all of the nonprofits they’ve looked at. The problem is “health care logistics” isn’t sexy and Village Reach struggles to raise money.

GiveWell has asked people to submit suggestions for how Village Reach can better sell their work. My interest in the challenge is that I believe that too many people who care about effective nonprofit work seem to believe that running strong programs is the key to success. In fact, nonprofits need to be able to run good programs AND raise money so they can bring their programs to more people.

Fundraising is rarely discussed within the smart giving movement. Yet, focusing on proven programs while ignoring fundraising is like a for-profit company that builds great products but doesn’t put enough time and effort into sales and marketing.

I believe that donors actually want to support great nonprofits. I believe that while great programs won’t sell themselves, that great nonprofits should be able to market what they do well. I believe that they key is to reorient the focus of nonprofit marketing to put the nonprofit itself, rather than the programs and beneficiaries, at the center of the story.

As an advisor to donors, I sometimes feel conflicted about offering advice on fundraising. However, understanding the story of a nonprofit is key to my clients’ willingness to support them and yet the story of the nonprofit itself is often buried. If nonprofits would put their own story at the center of their fundraising efforts, it would make the process of philanthropy better for my clients.

It is amazing to me how rarely nonprofits focus on their own story. So much fundraising talks about what nonprofits do instead of who they are.

But in this video, the nonprofit Acumen Fund has figured out how to tell a compelling story about themselves. The video references beneficiaries of course, but at its core, it is a story about Acumen Fund.

(If you are viewing this in an email, click here to see the video)

My suggestion for Village Reach, and for any nonprofit struggling to raise money in support of effective programs, is to realize that donors want to become a part of your story. As consumers, people buy products which help them be the person they want to be. I believe that donors want to do the same thing. We donate as a way to “self-actualize", to most fully become the person we believe we are.

There is a huge opportunity for effective nonprofits to build brands that donors want to be a part of. To tell authentic stories, which donors want a role in. Interestingly, I find that nonprofit groups which invest in other groups tell their own stories best. Groups like Acumen Fund and New Profit have learned to tell their own story in a way that donors want to be affiliated with them. Maybe that’s because these groups know that when they support another organization, they themselves are looking for groups which are able to tell an authentic story about themselves.

If the smart giving movement wants a world full of robust nonprofits, we need to recognize that sales and marketing is just as critical of a business function as program development and delivery.


  1. Good article,

    Yes, sending a stronger message about non-profits identities help in the donor acquisition process but what would really benefit charities is to apply more profitable strategies such as micro-finance or other investment in their programs in order to become more sustainable.

    This way donations will keep on giving versus having to rely on donations year after year. I think that we are all witnessing a shift in the way non-profits are operated and the strategies in their interventions are becoming more results oriented.

  2. Barbara LambHall says:

    Focus on the RESULTS, not the process. Yes, health care logistics, like many programs, are sure not sexy. But results and impact are. How many lives are saved? Bettered? How many miles are covered to do this? That’s right, doing lots with a little is what fosters awareness.

  3. Love that you are suggesting we talk about who we are, not just what we do. Also, there is a need from the donor for their story to be a part of our story. I used just about that exact line at a fundraising gathering and said, “we are going to start believing in you and expecting you to do more”. The response was tremendous because donors are really pining for this. Providing a great brand is part of what encourages them to let their story come to be part of the organizations.

    Nice post!

  4. Pamela Grow says:

    Excellent post!

    You said it best here: “ignoring fundraising is like a for-profit company that builds great products but doesn’t put enough time and effort into sales and marketing” and yet that is so often the case with nonprofit organizations. If they’re not ignoring fundraising altogether, they’re often doing it badly.

    The key is, yes, telling your organization’s stories – with joy, hope and inspiration. And, as Barbara LambHall notes, a focus on outcomes, relayed by storytelling.

    For an example of wonderfully engaging storytelling, I would suggest readers check out Heifer International’s Facebook page.

  5. I recently left Time Inc. after a 32-year career– the last 15 as top human-interest writer at People magazine, where I wrote for a weekly audience of 43 million.

    This single story in 2005 on a pediatric hospice in San Leandro, Calif. brought in $2 million in unsolicited donations, 5,000 inquiries– and a two-hour phone call to the story’s subject from Johnny Depp. Here’s the case study:

    Certainly the story’s impact was at least in part due to People’s juggernaut PR and marketing expertise. But not EVERY People human interest story drew response of that magnitude. Its success also had to do with the quality of the story– and the storytelling.

    There’s a reason that the country’s most profitable magazine was named “People” instead of “Organization.” It’s through storytelling that we humans come to know each other– and ourselves. Our edit staff stuck– relentlessly– to a proven formula: Want to publicize Breast Cancer Awareness Week? Find the compelling story of a young mother of triplets who’s grappling with the prospect of a prophylactic double mastectomy.

    Don’t LEAD with the organization or institution– instead, feature it in a “What You Can Do” link at the bottom of the story. If the storyteller’s done a good job, people will click on it.

    Of COURSE donors need to know nuts and bolts about the metrics and mechanics of prospective organizational recipients. But first, as PT Barnum said, you have to get the folks into the tent.

    I’m currently working on the start-up of, a global portal designed to provide top-tier, professional-quality storytelling about the 3 billion people in the world whose lives are largely ignored by mainstream media.

    We’ll upload raw content (via Flips, mobile devices, etc.) from 1.6 million NGOs worldwide, produce it into top-tier stories at our editorial headquarters in NYC, and link those stories to, well– ANYTHING. Relevant and worthy NGOs (like Village Reach and Heifer International), donor stories, more in-depth information, health, education, volunteer and donation opportunities. The possibilities are endless.

    Our goal is to serve as a global feeder portal– helping drive all-important eyeballs to sites that need them. Importantly, this will all come at little or no cost to NGOs, who often have neither the budgets nor expertise to best tell their own stories.

    [Check “The Stories” section in our Guatemala module to see how seamlessly information about local NGOs can be woven into storytelling:

    We’ll be monetized and self-sustaining by involving corporate partners who, in exchange for their ad dollars, receive coverage of CSR efforts, presence in emerging markets, favorable branding– and a global wholesale outlet for appropriate goods that users can one-click to story subjects anywhere in the world. (Think baby shoes, Crayola street chalk, cast-iron frying pans, and Caterpillar tractors….)

    Importantly, MiWorld’s after-tax profits will be directed to vetted, sustainable development and entrepreneurial initiatives, both foreign and domestic. Financial parameters? How about $220 billion in small-donor (median $50) charitable giving every year in the US– as well as Procter & Gamble’s annual ad budget of roughly $9.6 billion. Here’s what Kiplinger thinks of the idea:

    Seth Godin says that in this over-branded world, the only way to get anybody to buy anything is to make them feel part of a “tribe.” And MiWorld is indeed a very new tribe.

    In effect, I hope to take what I’ve learned about the power of first-class edit, PR and marketing throughout a three-decade career at one of the world’s largest media conglomerates– and use it to help publicize the work of thousands of NGOs around the world– as well as the very real, complex and layered lives of the people they serve.

  6. JC says:

    Heifer International (HI) is an organization that claims to work against world hunger by donating animals to families in developing countries. Its catalog deceptively portrays beautiful children holding cute animals in seemingly humane circumstances. The marketing brochure for HI does not show the animals being transported, their living and slaughter conditions, or the erosion, pollution and water use caused by the introduction of these animals and their offspring.

    By definition, animals raised for food are exploited in a variety of ways. The animals shipped to developing countries are often subject to; water and food shortages, cruel procedures without painkillers, lack of veterinary care resulting in extended suffering as a result of illness or injury.

    A large percentage of the families receiving animals from HI are struggling to provide for themselves and cannot ensure adequate living conditions, nutrition, and medical care for animals they have been given. HI provides some initial veterinary training to individuals and the initial vaccines. But, long term care for these animals and their offspring is up to the individuals.

    To make matters worse, animal agriculture causes much more harm to the environment than plant-based agriculture. The fragile land in many of the regions HI is sending the animals cannot support animal agriculture. Although they say they encourage cut and carry feeding of the animals to avoid erosion, the reality is often quite different.

    The consumption of animal products has been shown in reputable studies to contribute significantly to life-threatening diseases such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and a variety of cancers. Regions that have adopted a diet with more animal products see an increase in these diseases. The remote communities supposedly served by HI have no way of dealing with the health consequences of joining the high-cholesterol world.

    While it may seem humane and sustainable to provide just one or two dairy cows here or there, the long term consequences are an increased desire for animal products in local cultures leading to an increase in production. These communities may be able to absorb the additional water use of one or two cows, what happens when there are hundreds or thousands of dairy cows, each consuming 27 to 50 gallons of fresh water and producing tons of excrement? The heavy cost to animals, the environment and local economies is not figured into HI’s business practices.

  7. El Hadji, Barbara, Brady and Pamela. I’m glad you liked the post and thanks for your comments. If you are interested, it would be great if you would follow up with suggestions for Village Reach on the GiveWell post.