Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Charity is Sales

“You know what the number one reason that people donate to charities is?”
“They think they have a moral obligation to?”
“The number one reason is guilt.”

He said he had read it in The Sydney Morning Herald. That the study had been done by some prestigious research group. Whether or not he had actually read it, it was an interesting idea. And probably true. But insight or not, I wasn’t about to give this guy our spot. He smiled and said that since I was working for a charity I really should stay up with this kind of news.

“You know what the second most common reason is?”
He went on, not waiting for a response.
“Because people think ‘it’s the right thing to do.’”
Wasn’t that what I had just said?
He sighed, raising his eyebrows and giving me a meaningful look, “You know, whenever we work in this area we always use this spot…”

These mini turf wars happened every couple of days. Like gangs, each fundraising crew had their colors. This guy, who was trying to set himself up as the alpha to my beta by teaching me something, was wearing the white shirt and blue letters of UNICEF. I wore the opposite. A solid blue T-shirt with Australian Conservation Foundation written in white across the chest. Save the Children was in maroon. Red Cross wore red. And Green Peace, the often dread-locked wild cards, were repin’ green.

The crowded streets of the hip and well-to-do areas of Sydney were our battleground, and competition for the best piece of sidewalk could be fierce. Especially on days like today; when you had all five organizations on the same city block. You had to get your crew out early, take the lunch break in shifts, and even then sometimes other crews would succeed in moving in and forcing you out of your spot.

I wasn’t moving. Mr. UNICEF changed tactics.

“Hey, did you guys get the permit you need to work here?”
He was lying, you didn’t need a permit to do fundraising in this neighborhood.
“Of course we did.”
“Can I see it?”
Even where you did need a permit you didn’t need to have it with you.
“No, it’s at the office. I can give you the address though, it’s only an hour each way if you take the Metro.”
“Oh, I just don’t want you guys to get into any trouble, that's all.”
I thanked him for his concern. He muttered something and went back to his crew.

Sales is a huge part of what charities do. We sell a feeling. In the two months I spent working those streets seven hours a day, I came to realize that Mr. UNICEF was dead-on when he said that most donor's primary motivations are guilt and morals. Without that guilt charities couldn’t exist, because what we sell is relief from it. A feeling that, in spite of little day-to-day moral shortcomings, because you made that donation, you are in the clear. You're a good person. We sell you that feeling of satisfaction that makes looking in the mirror every morning that little bit more self-affirming.

But it is a competitive market. There are a lot of problems in the world and even more people with ideas on how to fix them. All they need is money and support. So you have to set your organization apart. Show them- because it’s not enough just to tell them- that your solutions are smart, farsighted and that they work. Each donor needs to feel that they are a part of your team, your family. That the problem is bad, yes, but that their contribution can make a real and necessary difference.

Above all it has to be easy. The vast majority of donors don’t want to give anything more than a little money to get that feeling. So they have to feel like they can easily understand the problem, and that, with just a signature or swipe of a credit card, they can help solve it. Because if you can’t give them that, there are a hundred organizations waiting behind you who can.

And that's what I have been working on, here in northern India, this last week. Helping to make educating some of the least privileged kids in the world more marketable.

Some of the 21 schools that are run directly through Partnership Ministries Society (yes, PMS) are getting impressively close to being self-reliant, but they are not there yet. Self-reliance here, however, is also a relative thing. Sure, you can teach 70 kids in one classroom made of bamboo, but they would probably learn more split into two concrete classrooms with real desks. And we can’t do that by ourselves. At least not when we only charge each student $2 a month and the closest construction supplies are a 20 hour drive away.

So we are putting together a one-page info sheet on each school, with the stats on school and village population, distance to a major town, planned projects, expected costs, etc,. The sheets also will have pictures of the current facility and students. You can even put all the sheets in a catalog so potential donors can decide which project they like best. The idea is that it shouldn’t take the donor more than 20 seconds to feel like they understand the problem and the solution.

Those sheets are going to be mostly for new or occasional donors. But even more important than getting new supporters is keeping the regular donors that you already have.

Student sponsorship is a huge part of PMS. It includes 3,520 of its 9,000+ students. When families in America decide they want to sponsor a kid, they make a pledge to donate $20 a month for as long as they are able. In return, the student is expected to write letters- at least 4 a year- thanking their host family. This doesn’t always happen. When a sponsor doesn’t get the letters they are expecting they can start to feel unappreciated. They are not getting that affirming, feel-good fix that they paid for. They cancel the donation and the student is left high and dry.

Now, that scenario is certainly not universal. Things happen and sometimes you do have to make hard decisions. Some of the sponsors that cancel are really torn up about it, but times are tight and they don’t have a choice. But the correlation between a lack of letter writing and sponsor loss is strong enough that we have been asked to find a way to fix it.

A lack of understanding by the students seems to be part of it; we will see about including a clear list of expectations of the student in the application for sponsorship to fix that. The biggest problem is the transit time of the letters. There is no such thing as post in many areas of the hills; you just give your mail to the next person that is going into town. This means that it can take 2 weeks to a month from the time of writing for the letters just to get to the PMS office. If they need to be rewritten by the student (which happens relatively regularly for a variety of reasons, such as being overly formal, obviously not written by the student or the letters have been made unreadable by the rough transit) then that can mean up to three months just to get one letter out.

To fix this we are thinking about hiring someone whose sole job is to go get these letters from the more remote villages. She teach the kids how to write a 'good' letter, have students rewrite any that need to be rewritten then and there, then make sure the letters get to the main office. She would also have a camera to take pictures of all the kids to send to their sponsors.

We may also go ultra-modern and get a bar-code system for the main office, so they don’t have to file and organize all the letters by hand.

All this just to make sure that the student’s letter, and the sponsor’s endorphins, keep flowing.

This sounds cynical, and it is. People are motivated by self-interest, but that’s not a bad thing. It’s just the way people work. And feeling good about helping someone less fortunate than you doesn’t belittle the gesture or mean that you have helped them any less.

Competition in providing that positive emotion also means that a good charity needs to continually be improving and adapting; redefining and clarifying both its goals and its methodology. When charities do this everybody wins. The target groups get better services and the donors (along with the workers) feel better about themselves.

I’m not sure whether Mr. UNICEF had actually seen that survey, or if he had just made it up to ‘guilt’ me into ‘doing the right thing’ and give him the best spot, but either way he was right. When I was assigned to canvass that street again about a week later, by the time I got off the Metro, the corner I had defended the week before was already filled with 20-somethings in white T-shirts with blue print.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Lessons of Travel

“Traveling turns places into people.” -Unknown

When I think back to my time in New Zealand, it is not the fields, mountains, food or towns that first come to mind. It is my host family and the friends I made. For Georgia, it is the 8 sloshed old men who called me off the street into their garage and stuffed me with bread and homemade wine. All while one of them furtively winked and flashed his nipple at me. For China, it is my friends cracking up as a way-too-stylish hair dresser, in a German soccer jersey, permed and bleached my thinning hair with what I still suspect was industrial waste. When I think about countries I haven’t yet visited, it's not the demographics, the name of the capital city or its current political situation, but rather it is the nationals whom I have encountered that first enter my thoughts.

This insight is nothing new. But what has struck me recently is the profundity and clarity which this idea of people and travel brings to our perception when it turned around. When it’s directed from abroad towards home.

“He who does not travel does not know the value of friends.” – Moorish proverb

Eric, one of my best friends and the Beloiter I lived with in Turkey, recently wrote to me, saying that the only time he felt I was truly centered was when I was traveling. When I first read this, I thought about it for a second and then dismissed it. I would hardly call the extreme emotional highs and lows I experience when on the road centered. But it nagged at me, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that, in a way, he was right. That this intensity of emotion actually comes from a far more acute awareness of it. That the power of the emotion is, paradoxically, matched by the clarity with which you can note its causes and understand its effects.

Though it happened two years before, his email made me realize that my relationship with Eric was defined by this idea.

Our decision to rent an apartment in Ankara did not have the best effect on our friendship, at least not in the short-term. By the second month we had almost completely different friend groups and really only saw each other in passing. I figured that when we got back to Beloit we would have the kind of relationship where you say hi before quickly passing on the street, maybe reminiscing about our diabolical Turkish toilet when we met at parties. It didn't work out like that. Over the summer I started to realize that it was where we were in life, not who we were, that threw a wrench into our roomie relationship. I was trying to walk on my own two feet and his presence, through no fault of his own, was like an umbilical cord that refused to break off. When we were together I felt inadvertently censored by him; because we were both white, from Beloit and living together, that my identity was intimately tied to and dependent on him.

It was the heightened emotional awareness of being somewhere foreign that allowed me to recognize the feelings for what they were. It didn’t make the feeling any less intense, but it did give me the perspective to deal with it without laying all the blame on Eric. It was, I now realize, largely this time apart that allowed us to develop into the friends we are today.

“To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.” – Bill Bryson

A big reason that third-world travel is packed with such intense emotions is that the dichotomy between the place you are and the place you left is often such a slap in the face that it forces you to consciously evaluate everything. Very little can be done instinctively because there is no basis for a reflex. It can be both affirming and very uncomfortable. Affirming in that you often find strength you didn’t know had. Uncomfortable because it can show you parts of yourself you don’t really like.

Trying to learn Chinese by immersion was just such an experience. After harassing the Beloit international exchange office into letting me go to China with just one year of language classes, I had a big chip on my shoulder to show them what I could do. The only problem was that when I arrived, I was too worried about making mistakes to really put myself out there and talk with the people on the street. What if they couldn’t understand me? What if they thought I was bad at Chinese? What if, heaven forbid, they laughed at me? Then the exchange office would be right in saying I wasn’t ready, wouldn’t they?

Well, guess what? I was bad at Chinese! And I soon realized that angst and academic study weren’t going to get me better in a hurry. Why was I in China if the only Mandarin I was going to learn outside of class were the names of dishes and how to ask for the bill? It definitely wasn’t easy at first, but by the time I left I was shooting the breeze with my banana lady, telling street salesmen that if I paid what they asked “my children would starve,” and how could I possibly spend twenty extra cents when the boxers didn’t even match my eyes. I may have gone too far; what little shame I have completely disappears when I start mumbling in Mandarin.

Though I'm far from fluent in Chinese, by the time I left I think I had learned more than anyone else on my program, and I certainly didn’t have anymore problems with taking myself too seriously.

It was awkward and uncomfortable at first, but I learned it is during times like these that we are given a rare and fleeting opportunity to knowingly reinvent ourselves. Fleeting in the sense that our incredible adaptability quickly makes these choices habit and, as such, much more difficult to change.

“Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of great men, but rather seek what they sought.” -Matsuo Basho

The mindset that this displacement puts us in can also, if we let it, overflow our new reality and start to mix with the old. It puts our past in a perspective that, barring a traumatic event, is very difficult to otherwise get. All the background noise starts to fade away as the distance allows us to start seeing our life from a broader angle. One which we were previously too close to see. Without stepping out of our comfort zone, trying to understand life is like trying to see the shape of a whole building by just standing in one room. Sure, you can hear all about it from other people, but the only way to really understand it is to experience it; and to do that you need to step outside.

And what do we get from this new perspective? For me, the biggest thing is a new found appreciation for the stuff that I took for granted. Stuff that is so basic you don’t even think about what life would be like without it. Yes, that can include burgers, hot showers and English, but much more so it’s the people that you leave behind. Their conversation, their ridiculous- and at times infuriating- idiosyncrasies, everything that makes them them. Not in the depressive, you-wish-you-had-never-left sense, but in the sense that you start to really appreciate the time that you had with them and what you learned. Of course, you do meet new and amazing people everywhere you go. People that enrich your life in ways you never expected and give it new meaning, but they are additions, not replacements.

Though many things, including perspective, are changed by distance, real, genuine affection is not. Too often it’s only after someone is gone that we can see just how big a space they filled. At the end of the day, I believe it is the love and people that fill those spaces that, more than any other single factor, have the greatest and most lasting impact on the people we become.

When it comes to travel, to paraphrase Henry Miller’s famous quote, perhaps one’s destination shouldn’t be a place, but a new way of seeing things.