7 February 2012

A thought that occurred to me late last night while I was trying to fall asleep: are we now going to wage a rainbow ribbon war? Was the whole Komen debacle just the beginning of something huge, something that could bring a whole slew of charities to their metaphorical knees? Have we hit a pinnacle of compassion fatigue and donor apathy, and will look for any and all excuses to not donate?

It’s not just Komen. Look at all the ribbons out there, the colors connected to individual causes. Pink for breast cancer is probably the most noticeable, but there’s a plethora of ribbons out there. Blue for prostate cancer. Purple for cystic fibrosis, Alzheimer’s, Fibromyalgia, and a dozen other things. Red for AIDS and heart disease. Orange for MS and leukemia. Violet for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Gold for childhood cancer.

And on and on and on.

The organizations behind them all need money.

One of the things that keeps coming at me in the last few days has been indignant utterings of “Did you see how little goes to research?” usually followed by percentages. Twenty per cent. Twenty two. Thirty. Oh my God, only ten cents of every dollar we raise!

Some complaints have come from people who walked the 3 Day and who are—and perhaps rightly so—offended that they’re spending so much time and effort training and fundraising and then getting out there for the actual walk, only to have their work minimized by the idea that of the $2300 they raise it might be that only $230 makes it to the research they’re praying will find a cure.

People are looking closely at the numbers, and while right now I think a lot of it is caught up in rhetoric and emotion (so maybe only 20% goes to research; there’s still money that goes to treatment and education, those numbers are being kind of shoved aside at the moment, but they do add up), I have a gut feeling it’s not going to end with Komen.

That’s not a bad thing; if you’re digging deep into your wallet to support a friend walking or biking for a charity, or if you’re donating directly, you have a right to know where your money goes and how it breaks down. And you should ask some questions or do a little investigating online.

The problem, though, is that what I’m hearing from upset donors is that if 100% of their money doesn’t go exactly to what they assumed it would, they’re never donating again.

To anyone.

There is no 100% in donating. Like it or not there are always going to be administrative costs; there will always be some divide of funds across multiple venues. You might like where 50% of it goes, accept where 25% goes, and hate where the remainder goes. And that’s whether it’s for breast cancer, MS, heart disease, lymphoma… No one will ever be completely satisfied with the breakdown of funds distribution.

And right now, with emotions running high over Komen’s major fumble, I suspect most of the major charitable organizations are going to suffer for it.

I hope not, but I can see it happening.

A worthy cause is still a worthy cause; I might not like that a small percentage of my donation to Charities Iz Us goes towards a bloated administrator’s salary, or that a penny on every dollar goes to operations, or even that a quarter of a penny pays JimBob McBozobrain to stand on the sidelines with his megaphone and pom poms while he cheers the people doing grunt work, but if the majority of the money goes towards the actual cause—research, treatment, grant funding, medicines—then I can live with it.

Worthwhile charities are like a classic painting. People are getting close and squinting hard to see the little details, but sometimes you really do just have to step back to take in the whole picture. Nothing will ever be perfect…but when you soak it all in, you can see the absolute beauty in what you’re looking at, and those few errant brushstrokes don’t take away from the whole thing.

The greater good, and all that…


Angel and Kirby said...

Very good post. In a 3 day walk, you have food, tents, water , medical supplies and such. THey have to pay for that some how. I don't think they really get 100 % of walk support donated. If they do, they have a better connections than most.

People complain that $3.5 is too much to pay for a box of Girl Scout cookies.
From that money, we have to pay the baker for the cookies and girl incentives. Then money is set aside for girl programs (i.e. camps, science ). SOme money goes to the council administration and then the troop gets thirty five cents (more or less) to use as they want to.

Any fund raising is the same. Whether it is a box of cookies or cancer research. People need to face the reality if it and move on. You have to pay the staff somehow!

Sleepypete said...

I think one of the reasons why ClicSargent were our main charity for our project for so long was because we knew who the administrators were. They were based just down the road from our site.

There was quite a bit of personal touch along with the good cause :-)

It was definitely more popular than the massive charities where you agree with their main theme but aren't so comfortable about some of the detail of what they do. I don't think that's it though. By supporting the little charity there was more "we made a difference" feeling.

G.G. Mueller said...

Some do not understand administrative costs, some do and don't care, and some see nothing but admin costs.
I hate to be cliche BUT---it is what it is.
The bigger the organization the bigger the costs. Running a mega-non-profit requires very special skills. Those skills require funds. They don't come for free.
I am afraid, like you, that debacles such as this will harm all non-profits. I hope not.
I hope (to complete the cliches) we keep our eyes on the prize.
We need a cure
It will take time and lots of money for all people involved.

Cheysuli and gemini said...

There is a place called Charity Navigator (I think) that rates charities. You can see what percentages go to their CEOs (some are very high but others like Amnesty International are really really low considering they are JDs and in DC at 25 grand/year) and their admin costs as a percentage of the donation as well as marketing and overhead and all the things they do--like Komen gave to PP or money to women with cancer as well as research. So you can see all that in a spread sheet and see where your money is going so you aren't surprised. After all, every charity has some expenses.

Derby, Ducky said...

I think at times we need to step back and evaluate where we send our hard earned money. Charity navigator can help, but deep down it can be an emotional tug, not just a rational, decision.

I do some global, national and local groups. I just support my local shelter, nothing national. My local food pantry gets cans of something every time I take a trip to the library as they have a drop off.

Think Global, Act Local.

Susan S. said...

Thumper, you and those you have left comments before me have done a great job of discussing the "think" and "feel" parts of donating, both of which are important, as well as the reality of administrative costs. I don't/can't believe that we'll stop making contributions because one very large organization has drawn attention to the details of its operation, though we might change direction a bit.

A thought about administrative costs, if I may use the cookie example cited above: How much money would the Girl Scouts get if there were no cookies to increase the fun of contribution? I certainly don't know the answer, though I expect the amount would be far less! Administrative costs will always be there -- even if one contributed directly to researchers. Each one of us has to think about what administrative percentage feels appropriate to oneself.

Thank you again for a balanced and thoughtful presentation of issues! (Sorry about the run-on-and-on sentences; I must be channeling Buddah.)

Christie Critters said...

we use charitynavigator.org
We have done this for some time. We generally look for something where greater than 50% goes to "programs" rather than administration. A lot of times this means that we donate to local charities who have a mere handful of administrators and after that rely on volunteer help. One of these charities is very close to our hearts and delivers over 91% to programs. Their administrative costs hover at arount 5% and their fundraising costs are only around 3%. They have a myriad of services to offer right here in our own community - and they are on charity navigator which, a few years ago ranked them very low because they didn't have a big enough "staff" and didn't spend enough money on "fundraising". They have been re-ranked to very near the top now as Charity Navigator takes in to account the huge numbers of hours donated by community members free of charge and the fact that they are so well known in the community that their fundraising costs are minimal. About 4 years ago we "attended" a "non-event" - you don't have to dress up, you don't need to eat rubber chicken, you don't need to hear boring speeches. You don't need to leave your house...just pay for the dinner you will not eat at the event that will not happen... 100% of funds raised (other than the initial mailing) went to programs. We were charmed.
This is not to say that large organizations like Komen who have a national reach don't have their place...we just prefer to SEE our dollars at work and get more bang for our donation buck.