Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Ethical Gifts Are Unethical?!?

If you haven't seen this already, you have to check it out

A day after Christmas, Philip Greenspun wrote that a friend of his had received a "water buffalo for Christmas from her dad." The gift was made through Heifer International's catalog of "ethical gifts." On their website, they call their catalog "The most important gift catalog in the world." Wow. Quite the claim. We're all familiar with the appeal of buying "ethical gifts" for friends and family. Many international relief and development charities have similar catalogues and new websites have emerged in recent years as online catalogues of these gifts.

Here's the catch: As Phillip's blog post said "If you read the fine print on the page, however, it turns out that there is no actual buffalo and no actual family and you won’t get a photo of your family and your buffalo. The money simply gets dumped into the common fund at the charity. We are trying to decide if this is the crummiest possible Christmas present."

The defense goes like this: "Donors are too lazy, or too uninterested in the details of our activities, so we're going to publish anecdotes that can be easily related and sold to the average consumer." At the best case, this is just lazy and unimaginative and at the worst case, well... In the days of heightened paranoia around "transparency ad accountability" and all of those other multisyllabic words that all cry "who can we trust?" isn't it some relatively dark shade of outright dishonesty?

The other problem with these unethically presented ethical gifts is that they let the donor off the hook. "Well ma, I bought you the Water Buffalo so that's my contribution for the year. Maybe for your birthday, I'll buy a pig, then we'll really have made a difference!"

Not only does it let the donor off the hook but it lessens the likelihood that you can engage that donor in the actual good work that really is happening on the ground.

I think it's high time we treat donors more intelligently, yes, even those that only have $100 to give. Instead of giving them this dumbed-down approach to giving, find new ways to express what it means to take on the problems of a community, embrace media like the one I linked to at the top of this post. Take some of your massive fund-raising budget and spend it on inexpensive video cameras, and a small centrally located edit suite, license some songs, and start posting 'em to YouTube like the clip I posted the other day.

That's the way to engage donors, not treat them like they need to be lied to.

Of course, I can't help but mention that it's this more respectful, intelligent approach that we do at GiveMeaning, but that aside, really, I'm saying to all my colleagues and "competitors" (your view, not mine): Treat donors with more respect and assume a higher degree of intelligence and interest in your work than in the "most important gifts" variety.

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