Tag Archives: charitable giving

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

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Teaching Children to Give

Our founder and board chair Dennis Webb addressed an audience in Connecticut this past week hosted by the Family Office Association. The conference was designed for the benefit of high net-worth families, but Dennis addressed an issue that we should all consider, regardless of income level.

Whether we are wealthy or just getting by, it is quite typical that we as parents or perhaps grandparents, experienced struggles that our children have not. When parents or grandparents make the necessary sacrifices for education or to build wealth and security, the children and grandchildren are the beneficiaries without a full perspective of the efforts made on their behalf. Without dismissing the challenges of youth, many kids today live lives of relative ease, complete with cell phones, cars and laptops – sometimes failing to understand what it takes to be productive and independent or to act for the welfare of others. They are often spared the struggle and experience only the fruits.

A wise quote says, “We work so hard to give our children everything we didn’t have, that we sometimes forget to give them what we did have.” Dennis addressed this concept of instilling in our children the values that created the lives they now live. This includes a work ethic, a sense of caring and an ability to sacrifice for others. He spoke of personal experiences in taking his children on humanitarian aid missions and the differences in their lives as they experienced real need first-hand. As one of his then teen-aged sons said on a flight back from one such mission, “I had to go half way around the world to understand how blessed I am.”

There is hardly a parent who, in an effort to get a young child to finish their vegetables, has not used this line: “There are starving children who would love to have that food.” The fact is, there really are. About a third of all the children in the world would give anything for the leftovers we discard from our tables. Our children may know this, they may read about these things, but it is very easy to miss the point unless they have seen it first-hand.

The point is this: we have a great deal in this nation. Even if we are struggling at times, we are, relatively speaking, rich. I had the distinct privilege of spending some time with Marc Lubner, a gentleman and philanthropist in the truest sense of the word, from South Africa. As he so powerfully stated, “I have seen people in South Africa who are desperately poor, reach out to help others who are even poorer. That is their wealth; that is their method of coping – to reach out to another in even greater need.”

Wherever you may fall on the income spectrum, you and your children live better than most. We have so much, and while the current credit crunch may round some edges off of our self-indulgent society, we need to dig a little deeper and live with gratitude and awareness of those who have less. We need to teach this to our children so that we can have a hope of changing things. Not only is it the right thing to do, it is also the key to changing the circumstances of the less-fortunate. We would do well to teach our children that caring for others is less about “helping the poor” in the abstract, but more about our global community.

Lila Watson, part of an Australian Aboriginal group said (although she resists taking credit for a thought she claims was born of a collaborative process),

“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, the let us work together.”

An interesting thought as we approach the Thanksgiving season.

-Rick Larsen

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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.

-Rick

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Americans Still Generous Even in Troubled Times

For some nonprofits, surviving in a time of a down economy is a double-edged sword. As both corporate and private donors tighten their belts, giving tends to trend downward. Yet, as the global economy continues to falter, demand for those same nonprofits increases. These organizations are faced with the very real problem of trying to fill a growing need with diminishing resources.

I read with interest Tuesday’s reports from the Giving USA Foundation, who does an annual report on how much American’s gave to charity the prior year. In 2007, Americans gave more generously than they ever had before – to the tune of more than $3 billion dollars. Tuesday’s report indicated that while that number had fallen during the economically turbulent months of 2008, that figure still remained above $3 billion, a generous amount, given that Americans as a whole “lost 2 percent of their wealth last year.

Still, even with the smallest of declines, nonprofits have been hit as hard as anyone else by the rough economy. People nationwide are struggling to make ends meet, to keep the lights on, their children fed and clothed. Food banks, community service programs, children’s programs and other organizations providing first-line relief are feeling the pinch more than ever, especially in some of the hardest-hit communities.

There is good news however; individuals are still contributing – even if it is slightly less. In 2008, individuals contributed an estimated $229.3 billion (more than 2/3 of all charitable giving!) – a rate of giving that fell less than corporate donations. And corporate giving as a part of the gross domestic product still hovers just above 2%.

This means that even in our toughest times, Americans are still striving to be generous people, carving out something for those less fortunate, even if it means a smaller amount. It may also be good in the long run for some nonprofits, as their leaner operations may pave the way to more transparency, better operations and more efficiency.

In the last few months, we have certainly seen evidence of incredibly generous donors, as well as improved efficiency in the way charities are thinking. I hope that this generosity and this collaboration and move to efficiency continue, because even with recent signs that the economic downfall may be slowing, it’s going to be a long time before the least of us is back on his or her feet – and there are so many programs in need of help as we say … Until Every Child is OK.

-Sara

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Paying it Forward

Here in the U.S., Monday is a national holiday – Memorial Day – a day set aside to commemorate the service of men and women who died serving in the Armed Forces. It has long held a special meaning for me, as not only are my grandfather, brother and husband veterans of  the Armed Forces, but I also spent several years living in a military community, where every day I was touched by the sacrifice of someone else. It always makes me then think of all of the other people in my life to whom I owe little bits of happiness, peace and relief.

As we approach this national holiday, I would ask you to take a moment to reflect on your life – how you have been touched by someone else who has sacrificed something for you – a parent, a friend, a soldier, a stranger, a child, and how you might be in a position to “pay it forward” somehow.

While gathering with family and friends around the barbeque or at the beach, pause to take a moment to think about those who gave their lives to ensure our peace and safety, as well as those who have touched your life in other, perhaps less obvious ways. Then I encourage you to pay it forward over the next week. Go out of your way to smile at someone you pass, or to brighten a child’s day. To give a little more generously of your time, your money or your talents. To be a little more patient or understanding, to lend a helping hand or a listening ear.

And, while you’re at it, hug a child. It makes a bigger difference than you might realize.

-Sara

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181 Miles or Bust – Running to The Bronx

My fellow Operation Kids colleague Don Stirling and I just returned from representing Operation Kids at the Ragnar Relay New York race. This first-year event was a rousing success.  More than 75 teams competed in the Kingston (just south of Albany) to New York City race, running through some of the most beautiful country imaginable.  The Friday start was a gorgeous day; then clouds and cooler temperatures rolled in overnight for the remainder for the race.  The runners said they actually preferred the cooler temperatures. 

Don and I had the opportunity to talk with many of the runners both during and after the race.  They couldn’t stop talking about what a great experience they were having, and how they couldn’t wait to run again in next year’s race.  Many also planned to run in other upcoming Ragnar races in New England and Washington, DC.  Those sentiments came as no surprise; in every race we’ve attended we hear the same things from the runners.  And then the race grows exponentially the following year. 

What is it about running a Ragnar race that makes it so cool?  Is it the physical challenge of the race – each participant running 15-20 miles, divided up into three legs, with a few hours of rest between legs?  Is it the unique experience of running at night? Or getting to traverse 200 miles of some spectacular country?

It’s probably a little of all of the above, though I suspect the biggest single factor is how fun it is to do an all-nighter with 11 friends in a crazy running experience over several hundred miles.  Being together at the end, running across the finish line as a group, often in costume, to celebrate having conquered the event definitely provides an adrenaline rush unrivaled in other races.  For many teams, where they finished in the standings is inconsequential. The fact is that they finished and had a great time together. It’s no surprise they keep coming back.

We are there because Ragnar runners are encouraged to donate to Operation Kids as part of their race experience.  We, in turn, forward all the funds we raise to local charities in the race community that provide health and fitness programs to underserved children.  It’s a great opportunity to fund effective programs serving needy and deserving kids.

Many Ragnar runners are still just learning about the Operation Kids connection, but every time we tell the OK story, the runners are interested in the opportunity to help. We look forward to taking more opportunities to explain the great programs we support, and to giving runners another great reason to run.  

For Don and I, our most cherished memory from the race may be the opportunity we had to serve as volunteers.  I staffed Exchange 13 in front of the local Baptist church in Highland, New York until 1:30 am., while Don was a few miles down the road at Exchange 14.  It was great meeting and assisting the runners while making sure that our section of the race was working smoothly. It was a great time – I can’t wait to do it again next race.

We’ll see you at Ragnar Relay Wasatch Back in 4.5 weeks!

Here are some experiences Ragnar Relay New York runners have posted on their own blogs:

Run, Drive, Sleep … Repeat. Ragnar Relay!
Rangar Relay – by Sohail
Jane’s Journey – Ragnar Relay New York
The Team – Ragnar Relay 181 Miles

-Steve

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What Does “Transparency” Really Mean?

There is a lot of talk these days about “transparency,” the government, business and nonprofit buzzword of late. Have you ever wondered just what it reallyreally means?

To me, it means accountability, clear messaging and an open and direct path to who we are.

We at Operation Kids just concluded our annual presentation of the independent audit to our Board of Trustees. The auditors gave us a clean bill of health. This should be important to you because there is an ongoing concern over the lack of oversight and accountability in the not-for-profit world. That concern is at the very heart of our mission. We are determined to bring greater accountability and results to charitable giving and believe it must start with our own organization.

I recently read two articles that any charitable supporter or donor should find important: Searching for Red Flags Donors Might Wonder About and Charity Web Sites Come Up Short in Survey of Financial Disclosures.

A couple of quick highlights.

In Charity Web Sites Come Up Short in Survey of Financial Disclosures, the article discusses where some organizations fall short in providing transparency on their websites:

Most nonprofit groups do not offer enough detailed information about their finances, programs, and leadership on their Web sites, according to a new report that documents how much information charities disclose online. “The findings suggest that charities need to better respond to donors’ growing demands to know more”, says Dan Moore, vice president for public affairs at Guidestar.

“There’s a whole new level of engaged donors searching online for causes or for information about causes that meet their desired impact, and charities need to have that information available for them.”

This new level of engagement, means more people are looking at nonprofit organizations’ websites, financial information and their processes to evaluate efficiecy, transparency and impact.

But what, exactly, are donors looking for? According to Searching for Red Flags Donors Might Wonder About, H. Art Taylor, chief executive of the Better Business Bureau’s Giving Wise Alliance, in Arlington, Va., advises donors to focus on three key things when they research a nonprofit organization:

“First, I try to gather the seriousness of the organization from the quality of its mission statement. If the mission is vague and does not clearly articulate the programs of the organization, I lose patience. Secondly, …look to see if there are conflicts of interest among the board and staff. Third, …how long they have been in business. Given the number of organizations already in existence, a newer organization has to [be] better positioned than one that’s been around for a while.”

I welcome this type of advice, and in fact, we would push it a step further. We make it a point to get on the ground with each and every charity we support because there is no substitute for getting to know the people and seeing a program in action before we can endorse it, recommend it or act as fundraising partner. Not everyone has the ability or the access to do that, however, which make articles like these so valuable.

And while I’m talking transparency, we have just posted our updated financial statements for 2008. Check our website for updates on our operations, structure and financial reports. We hope you will find it useful and that it will guide how you look at other organizations. 

-Rick

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