Expecting Donors To Inspect More

So I recently read a rather thought-provoking guest post by Anna McKeon, on Daniela Papi’s Lessons I Learned blog. In the post, McKeon basically says non-profits are making it too easy to donate and volunteer.

Now she is mostly speaking in relation to programs that non-governmental organizations run internationally, but I read with interest thinking that what she said might be applicable across the board with non-profit organizations. McKeon talks about how easy it is to text or click a button on a website to donate without ensuring the money will be used responsibly.

She cites an interesting news report about the negative impacts of voluntourism where people are bussed in to small village where they help build an orphange, feel like they have bonded and made an impact with the local population only to be replaced by another bus load of people doing the same thing the next afternoon.

We shouldn’t make it easy. We’re doing a disservice to ourselves. We’re encouraging each other not to think, not to explore, not to discover. We’re not challenging ourselves, our commitment, our perceptions, or our opinions. We’re promoting a life of ease where a sense of goodwill can be bought and not earned.

So let’s leave some things to be difficult. Difficulty helps us learn. It helps us discover more about the very thing we are trying to achieve. It can also mean that it feels even sweeter when we do succeed in our aims. And you know what? Even though “difficult” might be a harder sell, I still know enough people out there who are up for the challenge.

She makes a semi-valid point that many organizations accept the help of volunteers whose skills are so poor they wouldn’t consider actually hiring them but involve them in the work because it is free labor. I am sure readers can think of a few volunteers they have encountered who fit that bill.

The stakes aren’t as high for ushers at a performance as they are when it comes to providing clean water to a village. But an arts organization could be utilizing volunteers to do far more advance their programs if there was a greater expectation of investment from the volunteer and a corresponding higher level of commitment to volunteer training by the organization.

The one big question that really popped into my mind was–is it really the place of a non-profit organization to demand that donors and volunteers do more due diligence before becoming involved with the non-profit? Being supported by a highly engaged and educated constituency is certainly something I would crave, but I am not sure it is realistic.

But do people care about engaging in research if they are emotionally moved by an experience? Is it our place and in our best interest to expect them to? I think it is pretty clear you can easily garner more money via $25-$100 donations if you make it easy for people to satisfy an impulse to give they feel after seeing a show.

Yes, it is superficial giving and you may never get another donation from them again–but if you hadn’t gotten that impulse donation, you may have absolutely no basis to explore their willingness to give again. If they bought a ticket at the door and left without donating because there was too much work involved, you have no donation and no contact information for them. It is a missed opportunity for further interactions of any kind.

I will concede that it is bad for all non-profits if a donor discovers they contributed to a corrupt organization and is disinclined ever to donate again. There has to be some proportionality to the effort, though. Larger donors certainly need to be cultivated and at certain levels and mutual due diligence is required, but is it worth it for either party to have high expectations associated with a small donation of time or money?

The blog owner, Daniela Papi, related an interesting anecdote in the comments section which actually made me worried about the possibility of what I will term the tyranny of expectations. She talks about an NGO which was concerned about documenting impact for the benefit of their donors to the detriment of their own programs.

“when I asked them why they were harming their programs by trapping themselves in their own donor promises their answer was “Well, Kiva does it. People know exactly who their money goes to on Kiva, and they make that easy. Kiva is our competition for funding, so we need to do it too.”

I am definitely for accountability, especially in the face of so many non-profit scandals where people abscond with funds. (Which can still happen accompanied by glorious impact reports.) But I suspect that the more prevalent impact documentation becomes, there is a danger donors will expect reporting out of proportion to their donation, seeking detailed information customized to their interests, the cost of assembling which exceeds their donation.

This may emerge alongside low administrative costs as another unrealistic expectation placed on non-profit organization. Low overhead ratio and documentation of impact are probably mutually exclusive. I would be highly skeptical of an organization which reports being highly successful at achieving both.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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