Book Report: With Charity for All

Ken Stern, a former CEO of NPR, chronicles ways in which nonprofit organizations are financial nightmares…from overpaying CEOs, to failing to deliver on programmatic promises, and finagling suspect non-profit tax breaks.

He posits that the non-profit machine keeps churning because donors do not do their homework. We donate to a charity when a friend is fundraising on Facebook. We buy the wrapping paper because out nephews are hawking it and don’t give a thought to the beneficiary. And, oh yes, I will gladly buy those Girl Scout cookies (I will gladly support girls empowerment with inclusion of LGBT kids!)!

He also writes about non-profits that have detriment effects–like D.A.R.E. Did you know that kids who went through a D.A.R.E. program are MORE likely to try drugs? There are even more organizations who can’t prove the effect of their work; maybe they have a positive effect, maybe not. In an ideal world, every non-profit will have a skilled monitoring and evaluation team working to ensure that programs are on track. Sometimes, for small organizations, that isn’t quite feasible. When I was a Peace Corps volunteer, I worked at a very small organization with just three of us working full time. We kept track of some key data and could certainly show an effect of some of our work. Could our M&E systems have been more robust? Sure–but that would have required another person on staff!

He makes the point donors often judge nonprofits on their ratio of programmatic spending to overhead. Big overhead = bad. Oh, how I wish that donors would see a big picture. Nonprofit employees often earn less than for-profit counterparts. Yet, employers still expect the same level of investment in their education and professional development. The lowly non-profit workers are often strapped with debt, living with roommates until 35, and eating Ramen for far longer than anyone should. Interested in learning more about this aspect of the book and indulging in my tangent? Watch this great TED Talk by Dan Pallotta.

Dan Pallotta: The way we think about charity is dead wrong

So, what are we to do?

Stern urges government oversight, for nonprofits to reapply for nonprofit status, and investments in measuring impact of work. But, some of the onus is on the donor to dig deeper into organizations. Stern encourages donors to, yes, consider HOW money is spent but to go further and investigate the RESULTS of the spending. Certainly good advice! is a great resource for reviewing charities you are considering.

Interested in learning more about this topic? Read more here!

Book Report: Just Mercy

I first heard about Bryan Stevenson when I was working at the Kasungu District Prison in Malawi. I discovered his TED Talk and promptly shared it widely. As I am sharing it with you, now…

I watched that talk while working in the Kasungu District prisons. The enormity of his work humbled and impressed me. My familiarity with him grew while working at Partners In Health as he is one of the PIH board members. For some reason, I didn’t get around to reading his book, Just Mercy, until several years later. What was I waiting for?!

That should ring as not only an endorsement but a call to action…march down to your library and check it out! You won’t regret it.

The Activism of Bryan Stevenson

Mr. Stevenson represents those on death row. Those who are on death row are are overwhelmingly African American. In the book, he shares the arc of his life and tells the compelling story of how he started the Equal Justice Initiative. Equal Justice Initiative “is committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society”. Bryan Stevenson fights racism and injustice as a part of his minute-to-minute work.

The story is important. In fact, I wish that we could have a national book club to collectively examine our values and priorities. Stevenson writes, “presumptions of guilt, poverty, racial bias, and a host of other social, structural, and political dynamics have created a system that is defined by error, a system in which thousands of innocent people now suffer in prison.”

He shares stories of a few of his cases–children tried as adults, people sentenced to death row with scant evidence that they were even at the scene of the crime. As I read, I celebrated those who made it OFF of death row, wanted to lay at the feet of Mr. Stevenson, and, of course, call my Senators (they are on speed dial lately!). Mr. Stevenson and his team commit themselves to this work. Yet, they only work with a fraction of the people in need his activism, representation, and his ardent belief in righting wrongs.

Read this book. I promise you won’t regret it.

Inspiration on Every Page

In conclusion, I’ll end this with a line from Mr. Stevenson’s TED Talk, one that always moves me and inspires me. I hope it evokes the same feelings in you…

 “We need to find ways to embrace these challenges, these problems, the suffering. Because ultimately, our humanity depends on everyone’s humanity. I’ve learned very simple things doing the work that I do. It’s just taught me very simple things. I’ve come to understand and to believe that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. I believe that for every person on the planet. I think if somebody tells a lie, they’re not just a liar. I think if somebody takes something that doesn’t belong to them, they’re not just a thief. I think even if you kill someone, you’re not just a killer. 

And because of that there’s this basic human dignity that must be respected by law. I also believe that in many parts of this country, and certainly in many parts of this globe, that the opposite of poverty is not wealth. I don’t believe that. I actually think, in too many places, the opposite of poverty is justice. “

PS: A movie about Bryan Stevenson just came out! Undoubtedly, it’ll be good!

PPS: Do you struggle with keeping love at the center of your social justice fight? This course may be for you!