A charity, of course, may rely primarily on their reputation to obtain donations but to a large extent they need to hook you – essentially a customer – into thinking you’ll “get something out of it.” If the charity bumbles this concept and fails to deliver what you expected, they probably won’t continue to get your money.
I have a few specific experiences I’ve had with charities in mind. One is. If you sign up to sponsor a child, you get pictures of the child, occasional letters and all kinds of appeals for holiday presents, birthday presents and so on. Your donation probably goes to a general fund and gets redistributed – it’s not like your check being cashed by the child – but still they give you the illusion that you are supporting a child.
I supported Children International for a number of years although I recently stopped contributing. I had started doing it a long time ago and Bubelah and I decided we’d rather see our money go to different causes (Russian Children’s Welfare Society and The Salvation Army, primarily) The Salvation Army, in particular, has us hooked almost as much as “customers” as donors – they take away things we don’t want anymore – gently worn coats, shirts, shoes and so on. We get more out of them than they do out of us, I think. The RCWS sends us a very pleasant, low-key request for donations a few times a year, but they also provide newsletters and charity fund-raiser invitations, and since both of us have significant connections to Russia we feel some personal connection to their mission.
But there’s another kind of charity – one that despite an admirable mission really botches their chance at hooking someone in for life. I think a lot of charitable givers do get “hooked in” or “turned off” on their initial contact with the charity. I dislike the United Way for what I saw as heavy-handed “forced giving” tactics in the corporate environment. I was pressured incessantly by my company’s management to give to the United Way when I was a wet-behind-the-ears accountant. My office was a 100% giver! Woohoo! Yet I said I preferred not to give, because at the time I supported another local charity and saw no reason to give to a national organization. It may not have been United Way’s fault, but getting reamed by senior partners about giving to one charity instead of their precious United Way (and thereby messing up their 100% giver claim) made me unlikely to give to United Way again in my lifetime.
Another one was Doctors Without Borders. I love their mission – it is one of the purest forms of charity I can imagine to go into a war zone and treat ANYONE injured, regardless of status or creed or condition. Yet they fumbled their initial encounter with me. I made a fairly large (for my income at the time) donation to them in my dad’s name and asked them to send a card telling him about it for his birthday. This was an established program, not something I made up. They missed it. They never sent it, despite several calls. Yet I started receiving an avalanche of mail seeking further donations – probably more than any other charity who has ever approached me. So since my attention span for charity giving is not unlimited, they lost my attention. I turned and looked elsewhere.
A charity is in a tenuous position compared to a business. Since they seldom actually give you anything in return other than a good feeling, it’s hard for them to capture your attention if they ever give you the slightest bad feeling. I grumble about Microsoft products but I still keep using Windows, because the good outweighs the bad. A charity can’t do that. They need to bat 1.000. There is no margin for error. There are so many charities doing so many good things that it’s easy to be distracted by the next ‘good charity’ when a ‘bad charity’ fumbles that initial contact.
So who are the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ charities? I am willing to bet two people will have exactly the opposite view of the same organization, and I’m sure someone could disagree with all of my assessments above just because of their own initial contacts with those organizations. It’s all determined by that first contact, when you decide whether or not to become a customer.