Tag Archives: accountability

Excellence in Giving

Not too long ago I had the opportunity to listen to a wonderful speech that was given by Thomas Tierney, chairman and cofounder of Bridgespan, at the 2009 Philanthropy Roundtable Annual Meeting.  For those who have not had the opportunity to listen to it, the speech can now be found on the Philanthropy Roundtable’s website. It was a refreshing oration which I believe every donor (and nonprofit leader) would benefit from listening to. One of the focuses of the speech was to identify several brutal facts facing donors who are seeking to achieve greater impact through their contributions. Since this year, more than any other in recent memory, donors are interested in seeing their seeing their contributions stretched a little further to help more people, recognizing these facts is essential if you want to optimize the impact your philanthropy is having.  

The first brutal fact that Tierney identifies is that donors are only as good as the organizations they give to. This becomes particularly tricky when a donor considers the sheer number of nonprofits that are out there – more than a million at the latest count.

The second fact is that excellence in giving is self-imposed. It is very easy for a donor interested in average returns to stroke a check to the organization of his choice and continue on his or her merry way.  However, donors who want to see more children helped with their donation must raise the bar in their giving.  It was easy to appreciate his view that, unlike the for-profit sector, there are no predators in the nonprofit world.  In other words, if a charity underperforms, there is no larger charity that will come and absorb it. Underperformers, although often quite well-intentioned, abound in this sector.  It is left up to the donor to determine what nonprofits meet their high expectations.

The third fact that donors must face is that there are obstacles and handicaps that appear in the nonprofit sector, which are not present in the for-profit world that most donors are familiar with.  There are no capital markets for nonprofits, nor any sort of pipeline for identifying and promoting talent. Effective nonprofits must be repeatedly asking themselves the difficult questions about how they define success and how they are going to achieve that vision if they want to have the kind of impact that discerning donors are looking for.

Compound those brutal facts by this week’s press release issued by a collaborative of nonprofit watchdogs, including GuideStar and Charity Navigator, which essentially encouraged donors not to rely on overhead and fundraising ratios as a measurement of effectiveness in their favorite nonprofits: tools that have been historically used to determine a nonprofit’s efficiency.

I completely agree with what the press release had to say.  Overhead ratios do not relate to the impact that a nonprofit is having on its target population.  Not to mention these ratios encourage nonprofits to sacrifice investing in resources and talent that would increase their effectiveness but would negatively affect their ratio. On top of it all, I have never seen two nonprofits interpret the rules for determining overhead costs in the same way.

So what does that leave donors? Since excellence is self-imposed, how can donors interested in achieving more than average returns on their donation navigate the obstacles presented by the nonprofit world and find the partners that deliver the results the donor is looking for? It can be terribly overwhelming. The good news is…there is help. 

Our role at Operation Kids is to provide the research and resources necessary so that our clients can make informed giving decisions and achieve the impact they are hoping for – without taking any fees. We do this because we firmly believe that more donors giving to more effective charities results in more lives changed. If you are interested in raising the bar in your charitable giving this holiday season (or any time), contact us and see if we can help you.

 -Christopher Lindsay



Filed under Initiative: Charitable Giving & Accountability

Lessons from Ghana: Making a Difference

My recent trip to Africa reminded me of some of the finer points of delivering assistance and support in areas of great need. These are lessons learned from many years of being involved in areas like Thailand, New Orleans and other areas of unique and extraordinary need.

It is my experience and observation that generous people are drawn to certain areas and certain types of need. The conditions in many regions of Africa are a perfect example: Celebrity focus, news headlines and other media reports has created an awareness of living conditions in parts of Africa. That is good. However, awareness does not always represent a solution: sometimes action does not even represent a solution.  As we like to say within our organization, “Generosity is not the issue, effectiveness is.” Part of being effective is delivering what is truly needed in the eyes of the beneficiary.  

When delivering aid to a people, regions and cultures we may not fully understand, there are things to be aware of that, in context, easily explain why so many efforts do not work. I am going to try to articulate a couple of these important details and perhaps spark deeper thought and discussion when it comes to international giving.

Truthfully, we cannot underestimate cultural differences. We frequently see aid delivered in the form that the donor feels appropriate, rather than what the community in need really desires and recognizes. We saw this after the deadly Southeast Asian tsunami in 2004 when well-meaning groups shipped large quantities of coats and scarves to a hot, humid region of southern Thailand; the intentions were good, but the effort was lost on people with very different and specific needs. We see a similar dynamic in many international efforts: housing development for people who culturally would not live in the types of shelter being constructed; a failure to involve appropriate and respected leaders who can be the lubricant between those who want to help and those in need; Last but not least, trying to jump ahead of the process and bring people to a point we as donors feel they need to be, rather than a point they desire to be.

As donors, we need to consider the culture we seek to aid from a perspective of dignity and sustainability. Anthony Oliver-Smith writes,

“The best outcomes imaginable [are] systems in which people can materially sustain themselves while beginning their own process of social reconstruction.” 

Essentially his is the “Teach a man to fish …” philosophy. The sound bites and clips we see in the media, which serve a great purpose by bringing public attention to global need, often abbreviate the situations to the point where a generous and prosperous nation like the U.S. is compelled to react immediately. Again, it is with the best of intentions, but in ways that we see as appropriate from our perspective.

The fact is that when people are in desperate circumstances, you usually find that some sort of displacement is at the heart of the situation. Whether it is caused by political unrest or natural or man-made disasters, there is almost always a dual sense of disconnect from the things they hold dear and at the same time a pride in what they consider to be their heritage. In these stressful times, many look to religious tradition for identity; they seek to reestablish what is meaningful to them. They depend on those they trust the most. That is the starting point.  

We as donors and as caring global neighbors need to remember this. Again, quoting Oliver-Smith,

“We should approach the goals of reconstructing and reconstituting community with a certain humility and realism about the limits of our abilities. Such humility and realism have not characterized to any major extent, the planners dealing with uprooted peoples to date.”

Our usual American-driven focus on cost-containment and efficiency must be maintained to be sure, but not to the point of excluding the needs and wants of the very people we are trying to help. I cannot say it any better than Oliver-Smith:

“Donor-driven …designs [can] endanger the connection that people establish with their built environment, violate cultural norms of space and place, inhibit the reweaving of social networks and discourage the re-emergence of community identity.”

With this backdrop, the Forever Young School in Ghana (the dedication of which was my reason for traveling to Ghana in the first place) is a model. It was created in partnership with local leaders. It was built by local artisans. It is staffed by local teachers who received training from outside sources, but are allowed to teach in a manner relevant to their local community. The dignity and autonomy of tribal leaders is recognized and respected. Local culture was not considered an obstacle, but an asset from which to build. The project is well-designed and takes into account details in a variety of areas, including transportation needs, recreation, academics, health and medical support. It has become the cause of community celebration!

The day we arrived for a special ceremony opening the school, families and local leaders assembled at 4:00 am to prepare for our visit, which was not scheduled until 2:00 that afternoon! They sang for us, they danced, they provided food … the sense of gratitude was at a level that can only been seen when a proud and deserving community is helped to achieve what they need in a manner meaningful to them.

As a result, I left feeling like the donors and organizations that supported this school had created something they could feel proud of – both from a relief-of-needs perspective and a donor efficiency perspective.

It was truly inspiring.


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Filed under Initiative: Charitable Giving & Accountability, Initiative: Nonprofit Operations

Best Buddies in New Orleans

 Nancy and Tara - Best Buddies Louisiana

As part of the final stage of the Operation Kids Rebuilding Dreams in New Orleans campaign, funding was provided to re-launch the New Orleans chapter of Best Buddies. As we assessed the needs and priorities of giving in a community that needed so much, you may wonder what the motivation was to include Best Buddies.

According to research, approximately 53% of people with intellectual disabilities will never receive a visit from anyone outside of a paid caregiver or a family member.  In Louisiana, this means about 155,000 children and adults with intellectual disabilities may never have a friend. And with all the focus on reconstruction, many other things were set by the wayside and forgotten.

Through the funding that Operation Kids and Drew Brees’ Brees Dream Foundation raised and provided for Best Buddies Louisiana, friendship programs throughout the Greater New Orleans Area have been set up to facilitate approximately 400 one-on-one friendships between children with intellectual disabilities and a mentor.  Through this program more  than 2,000 children will be impacted statewide.

The impact of a one-to-one mentoring relationship is an amazing thing. Yes, the person with the disability is benefited in many ways, and that warms the soul. But equally benefited are the mentors, often richly blessed by their relationships with their buddies..

As adults, many of us have found our way into volunteering and making charitable donations. Whether in church groups, local chapters of national charities or a cause or issue of personal importance to us, many adults give of their time and resources. But part of the magic of Best Buddies is the fact that these mentors, these “Buddies,” are not adults. They are middle and high school age students, and in some chapters college students, who at an unusually young age have caught the vision of putting the needs of others first. This is remarkable. It has been our observation over the last 10 years that actions like these put a young person on a path of service and caring in a unique and profound way throughout the rest of their lives.

In keeping with out desire to realize a “multiplier effect” from our giving – helping as many people as possible through each donation, the multiples on this gift seem obvious: children in need benefited, young people with capacity and a little time changed forever, and a community raised up by the effort. The math on this project is very strong indeed – hundreds of children and teens in New Orleans are taking advantage of the expanded program and reaching out to those who are profoundly grateful for their friendship. Hundreds of intellectually disabled children and youth in New Orleans and Louisiana have been able to expand their horizons through friendship, mentoring and other opportunities made available through these relationships.  The benefits gained from these relationships spread far beyond the buddy pair – into their families, their neighborhoods, their schools and the community at large.

We salute the young mentors of New Orleans and the people involved with Best Buddies Louisiana who keep this program thriving, even through challenging times.


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Filed under New Orleans, Project updates

A Welcome Perspective

I would like to welcome a new employee to Operation Kids whose background and expertise, represents everything we are about. The prospect of bringing greater accountability to charitable giving, is something that we have to work at every single day, and Christopher Lindsay, our new Senior Charity Analyst, helps our mission in several important ways.  

Christopher joins us from his most recent post at the Electrical Safety Foundation International where he was Director of Programs. Prior to that, he served under the previous administration in the lead White House office for nonprofit policy issues. While there, his responsibilities included evaluating the results of Federal programs focused on mentoring, substance abuse recovery and prisoner re-entry. In addition, he played a pivotal role analyzing data and reporting trends on over 25,000 nonprofits who partnered with the government in providing social services – representing billions of dollars. 

This experience is unique and we are fortunate to find someone with such a background. One of our primary goals at Operation Kids is to refine the process of vetting and managing charitable giving. We often ask the question of donors, “Do you know where your last charitable gift went?” The answer is typically, “Yes, it went to (name of charity here)!” But when the question is more directed, and we ask donors if they know where it went within the organization – to  which program or which part of the organization, the response is far too often, ”I don’t really know.”

America is the most generous nation on earth – giving well over $3 billion to charity last year alone – and we give despite a general lack of trust when it comes to large charitable organizations. I have cited before the recent statistic that only 1 in 10 Americans “trusts” major charities. That is troublesome on its face and mystifying when we realize people have a need to give back, despite expressed concerns with where their giving may ultimately end up. It makes me wonder how many more people would give – and how donations might be even more generous, if they had confidence in what their money was doing and who it was helping.

This is exactly WHY we as an organization are here. And it is why we are thrilled to have someone like Christopher on our team asking the “hard questions.” I am thrilled when I consider the direct benefit this is going to have for donors and charities alike, as we are further able to provide a better understanding of how donors’ dollars are put to use and what kind of impact it has.

We have said for a long time now that when it comes to giving, caring is only part of the process. In addition to that, there must be analysis, there must be expectations and there must be accountability. It can be done. We have seen it in New Orleans, in post-tsunami Thailand and in virtually every state in the nation. It is a contagious attitude because once you see what can be done when all of a gift makes it to the child in need, you will insist on that efficiency from then on. I can promise you,  we will continue in its commitment to deliver those elements to caring donors.


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Filed under Initiative: Charitable Giving & Accountability, Initiative: Nonprofit Operations, Initiative: Thought Leadership

Donations Help Get Child Predators Off the Street

When you don a tuxedo and sit down for a fancy dinner at a black-tie fundraising gala and you make a donation, do you know where it goes?

I’ve sat through more than a few black-tie fundraisers in my lifetime, and while many have been amazing, in many more cases I’ve often wondered if they money pledged really made an impact beyond the evening’s food and entertainment. It is one of the things I’m terribly conscious of each year as we plan the annual Operation Kids Lifetime Achievement Award Galas. Part of our pledge to donors is that we follow their money all the way through to the end.

Consequently, our office was full of excitement late last week as we learned that a major child pornography sting had successfully brought in more than a dozen offenders, with as many as 18 more arrests pending, as a result of a sizeable Operation Kids donation to the Utah Internet Crimes Against Children Taskforce (ICAC) – one of the nation’s premier internet predator law enforcement agencies.

The money came directly from the generous donations of corporations like XanGo and America First and the more than 800 people who attended our 2008 Lifetime Achievement Award Gala, honoring John Walsh, in October.

 The ICAC team was able to fund the sting as a result of the donation. Each one of the donations played a role in the 14 arrests, seven search warrants, 37 computer seizures and 26 investigations launched into trafficking and solicitation of child pornography and underage sex.

“”We were able to get to these individuals sooner than later because of the extra funds,” -Rhett McQuiston, ICAC Commander

Dozens of predators are off the streets. Hundreds, likely thousands, of children are safer today because of the work ICAC does and because of the generosity of individuals and companies last fall.

This is why I come to work every day. This is why I believe in what Operation Kids does – because it works. Whether it is a $10 donation or a thousand dollar donation, every dollar makes an impact in a child’s life – and we strive to show the donor how.

 For further details and information on the sting, here are some great articles:

“Child Porn Sting Bankrolled by Private Foundation”

“Authorities Arrest 14 for Child Pornography” (another version of this story can also be seen here and here)

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Filed under Initiative: Charitable Giving & Accountability, Project updates

The Impact of $50,000

We’re in the middle of a $50k fundraising initiative right now with Collin Raye, to help raise funds for families struggling with extraordinary medical expenses right now. It’s easy to see that $50k as a huge, insurmountable goal. However, if you break it down, if only half of Collin and Operation Kids gave $5, we’d raise well beyond that goal.

On the other hand, what can $50k do? Can it really make an impact? Can it really make a difference in children’s lives?

My response? Absolutely. Let me give you an example of how a $50k donation last winter made a difference to more than eight hundred families

Winter in Utah means skiing, snowboarding and an economic boom as people come to visit “The Greatest Snow on Earth.” For some families, however, the reality is much grimmer. Winter means going to bed cold, unable to afford rising heating costs; it means struggling to pay utilities and the rent or mortgage; for some it means bringing their families to shelters, or carving out space on the street – unable to provide even the most basic needs for their children. 

Last winter, in partnership with XanGo, an Operation Kids donation to the emergency assistance programs at Catholic Community Services was able to collectively help 830 struggling families receive assistance and opportunities to learn how to be healthy, productive, and self-sufficient members of the community. 

830 families – staying warm, staying safe, having a place to sleep – that made a big difference. The kind of difference we can collectively make through our current fundraising initiative.

In a letter to Operation Kids, CCS wrote:

CCS builds partnerships with individuals, businesses, churches, and community groups who share our passion.  In spite of our broad reach, CCS still requires support from organizations like Operation Kids, which have a strong reputation and demonstrated commitment to improving the lives of families and children in our community. The donation made by Operation Kids and XanGo allowed families and children throughout continue to receive the support they need to prevent hunger, avert homelessness, and move down the path toward self-sufficiency.

I am certain that each one of those 830 families feel that $50k makes an enormous impact.

The only challenge now? We have less than 5 weeks to raise the remaining funds. I’m confident we can do it. Find out how.


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A Letter from the President

We’ve been doing some updates to our site lately, and part of that is extending a message to all of our supporters. In case you haven’t had the chance read it, I’d like to share it with you here.

Dear Friends & Supporters of Operation Kids,

You have made a measurable difference in the lives of tens of thousands of children in 2008. The donations we received helped children in local communities and across the globe. We look back with gratitude on thousands of generous donors and nearly $2 million in support received, managed and dispersed – all thanks to you.

I want you to know that each donation has made a difference this year in the lives of tens of thousands of children. Your reach has been broad, from supporting those lovable kids who are part of Best Buddies, to providing important financial assistance to children and families clinging to hope as part of the Children’s Organ Transplant Association.

You have changed lives in Ghana through the Forever Young Foundation and given back a smile through Operation Smile. You crossed the globe delivering benefit through Vitamin Angel Alliance (critical childhood doses of key vitamins) and provided micro-credit loans through Enterprise Mentors. You have made kids safer in your own communities through the McGruff Safe House Network and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

You built the Edible Schoolyard, funded grants for the Foundation for Science & Mathematics Education, funded after-school programs for New Orleans Outreach, and rebuilt two playgrounds in New Orleans. You brought music education to lower income kids, helped families with children suffering from Autism and helped improve the health and futures of kids through the American Heart Association and Boys & Girls Clubs of America – and that’s just the beginning.

With your continued support, we look forward to addressing more critical needs and bringing an even higher level of accountability and results.  

2009 begins with assurances that we will continue our commitment to ensure that 100% of every dollar you give to Operation Kids will go directly to support proven and effective programs benefiting children.

As always, I love to hear from our supporters and what is on your minds.


Rick B. Larsen
Operation Kids

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