Book Report: With Charity for All: The Terrible Truth of Charitable Failure

Ken Stern, a former CEO of NPR, chronicles ways in which non-profits are financial nightmares…from overpaying CEOs, to failing to deliver on programatic 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 that non-profits are often judged on their ratio of programmatic spending to overhead. Big overhead = bad. Oh, how I wish that donors would see a big picture. Non profit employees often earn less than for-profit counterparts and are still expected to have the same level of investment in terms of 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.

So, what are we to do?

Stern suggests greater government oversight, a requirement for non-profits to reapply for their government non-profit status, and for non-profits to invest more time and energy into measuring the results of their work. But, for donors, some of the onus is on us to dig deeper into organizations we wish to support–he urges us to look beyond HOW the money we donate is spent to the RESULTS of that spending. Certainly good advice! If you need some help deciding or don’t wish to do the research yourself, GiveWell.org is a great resource for reviewing charities you are considering.

I am also asked frequently what organizations I donate to– sometimes knowing someone in the industry is helpful. I have an eye on the budgets of the some of the places where I work and being in the field helps to know which organizations have an ethos that aligns with my own (like Partners in Health) and which ones do not (like World Vision). If my ethos and values align with yours, I’d be happy to chat!

Book Report: Just Mercy

I first heard about Bryan Stevenson’s work 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 and was immediately humbled by the enormity of his work. I became more familiar with him while working at Partners In Health as he is one of the PIH board members. 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.

Mr. Stevenson represents those on death row, who 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 so that we could 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 recounts the 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. The stories made me want to celebrate those who made it OFF of death row, lay at the feet of Mr. Stevenson, and, of course, call my Senators (they are on speed dial lately!). Of course. Mr. Stevenson and his team are vigilant in their commitment to this work and, yet, they are only able to work with a fraction of the people who need his activism, representation, and his ardent belief that wrongs can be righted.

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

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–Have you seen it yet? I can’t wait!