Speaking of New Year’s Resolutions, here’s another one to add to our lists: give wisely. With the holiday season just behind us, many have volunteered time and/or donated money, and perhaps even made resolutions to do a better job of it in 2012.
Our #occupyhealthcare principles, and an array of other important causes, are being actively pursued by nonprofits around the world, and many of us have and will in the future donate our money and volunteer our time with these organizations.
In doing so, it is important to remember that good intentions are not enough – a trap we often fall into in social service fields. We think we are helping others, so we go home feeling good about ourselves, but we don’t spend nearly enough time challenging our assumptions about whether or not what we’re doing (or what organizations we support are doing) is actually making any kind of sustainable difference.
The Boston University Economics Club highlights one common trap we fall into in an article entitled “When is it a bad idea to give the poor free stuff?”. This criticism of TOMS Shoes also describes the problem of free stuff outcompeting local goods, but goes further, pointing out issues such as doing things for instead of with people, marketing ploys disguised as awareness raising, harboring a “whites in shining armor” mentality, and failing to match the needs of those on the ground.
This last one is a particular pet peeve of mine – we often fall into the trap of taking up the cause du jour, never mind what people on the ground actually need. Daniel Halperin addresses the issue of well-intentioned but far-from-optimal (as far as improving health outcomes) donations towards HIV/AIDs prevention and treatment in a wonderful 2008 op-ed in the New York Times. He speaks of the 100-to-1 “disastrously inequitable” imbalance between U.S. spending on AIDS programs ($3 billion) vs. safe-water projects ($30 million) in Africa. This despite the fact that most African nations have a stable adult H.I.V. rate of 3% or less and despite the fact that in certain African countries, AIDS money remains unspent as even state-of-the-art H.I.V. clinics cannot accept such large influxes of cash, and in others, children suffering from basic diseases are left untreated (as clinics cannot afford to stock basic medicines) while H.I.V.-infected children are offered exemplary treatment.
Another example is breast cancer related “awareness-raising” and fundraising in the United States. Injury, violence, and a host of other diseases all claim more lives than breast cancer. This is not to say breast cancer doesn’t deserve any attention, but all the hype seems to have contributed to misperceptions about the risk of breast cancer vs. other cancers and diseases, not to mention the ridiculous slogans that objectify women, potentially furthering social norms that contribute to gender-based violence and other problems. On top of this, many of the efforts are entirely nonsensical (e.g., Yoplait’s pink yogurt lids) – unless your goal is to increase revenue for the companies that sponsor them. Even more distressing is when the products being promoted in the name of breast cancer awareness actually contain ingredients that have been linked to increased risk of breast cancer.
As one blogger put it, “The ostensible focus of all this pseudo-philanthropic pink jockeying is a kind of nebulous breast cancer “awareness,” rather than any serious effort at prevention or investigation into what actually causes breast cancer in the first place.” One of the comments on this blog post captures the issue well: “If there was some real research into the root causes of cancer or providing widespread access to quality healthcare (prevention, early detection, dealing with the disease, cure) for women, maybe I would understand. Instead a friend gives me a T-Shirt that says “Save the ta-tas” and I am supposed to believe that all is right in the world.”
How can we avoid some of the traps mentioned above, and give in ways that are more likely to contribute to actual, sustainable change?
*Choose wisely – be critical, and do your research. It’s hard to truly measure a nonprofit’s impact, but we can at least try to get a better sense of their work. What exactly does the organization do? How well does what they do match the needs of those they aim to help? What does research and evaluation say about the kinds of tactics they use? Is their work sustainable? Are they engaging and empowering those they try to help? In addition to these, goodintents.org provides a fabulous list of Dos and Don’ts for Disaster Donations and issues and tips related to voluntourism, and Think Before You Pink provides questions to ask before you buy pink (but much of what they say is relevant to looking into any cause).
*When volunteering, maximize your impact by volunteering in a way that puts your skills to use. Check out sparked.com: even more than their online, micro-volunteering approach, I appreciate the idea of trying to match a person’s skills (web design, marketing, legal, etc.) with the needs of an organization.
*Start local. Contributing your time and money to local organizations doing good, smart work (choosing wisely is still important) can help build a sense of community (for you and those you work with) and help you build long-term relationships with the organizations you choose to support and those that turn to the organization for its services. It can also be easier to get a sense of an organization’s work when you can be there in person – it’ll make for wiser giving anda more personal sense of the impact the organization and your support is having.
Here’s wishing everyone Happy and Wise Giving in 2012!
(This post is cross-posted at http://occupyhealthcare.net).