The cockroach under the refrigerator: scandal and malpractice in philanthropy
Ever since I worked with Laura Tan on editing her recent blog post, I have been thinking about the unintended effects that volunteer service can have. So, I was immediately interested when a link to an article titled "Good Intentions vs. Good Results" popped up on my Twitter feed. The article is actually a blog post published last week on Sean Stannard-Stockton's Tactical Philanthropy Blog. It's a fascinating read, and I highly recommend it.
Stannard-Stockton referenced a video produced by "Good Intentions Are Not Enough," an online service of The Charity Rater, LLC. It is a provocative piece that really made me re-evaluate how I view disaster and humanitarian giving. I am including it here, because I felt that it was a great springboard for this post.
I don't think it's possible to watch this video without feeling a strong mixture of emotions. One can't help asking whether the charitable gifts one has given are fundamentally flawed, and are actually having little or no positive impact. It's horrifying to think that something so well-intentioned as charitable shoe/clothing donations could actually cause more harm than good.
This phenomenon isn't limited just to disaster relief, humanitarian aid, and volunteerism, though. It can be seen in almost every aspect of philanthropy. It's easy to find news articles that expose fraud, scandal, and dishonesty in the philanthropic and nonprofit sector. Such stories are often treated like the discovery of cockroaches in the kitchen. We react with immediate revulsion, and often feel sullied and betrayed. "I keep a clean home! I do the dishes and mop the floor. Why do I have cockroaches?" What's worse, we all know the conventional wisdom, claiming that "for every cockroach you find, there are hundreds that you never see." This aphorism actually brings us back to my original point: it's easy to become disenchanted and even cynical when you discover your favorite charity isn't as perfect as you wish it were. It's easy to extrapolate from one bad experience/example and assume that corruption is rife throughout the sector, figuratively hiding in the kitchen cabinets, under the refrigerator, and even in the walls themselves.
In a 2006 article on msnbc.com, Sharon Harmon describes "a crisis of trust born from public disenchantment with a philanthropic system that many consider disorganized, under-regulated and tainted by scandal." She goes on to cite a poll by Harris Interactive which found "only one in 10 Americans strongly believes charities are 'honest and ethical' in their use of donated funds." That's a pretty disturbing statistic! Numbers from more recent studies, like the 2008 Report on Charitable Confidence by the Brookings Institution, show that public confidence in the sector has risen somewhat since then, but is still disturbingly low—and projected to stay that way.
But, is this negative public sentiment warranted? Sometimes a cockroach is just a cockroach, and there really aren't hundreds lurking in the shadows. I think it's important for us to control our knee-jerk reactions to news of corruption, questions of effectiveness, or accusations of misconduct, and deal with the problems we can see in front of us. We can lobby for stricter legislation governing transparency, and make sure that we do our homework before we give to an organization, so that we minimize the risk that our money or time is not being used in a way we might disagree with.
Sean Stannard-Stockton astutely observes:
I think though that it is critical that those of us who seek to encourage a focus on good results do so in a way that does not undermine people’s good intentions. . . . The Good Results shift in philanthropy is not going to really take off until the effective philanthropy movement figures out how to appreciate people’s good intentions while simultaneously working to channel intentions that do not produce results into more productive efforts.
This is key. We must keep our focus on the good, and deal with the bad as it comes. We can't live our lives in fear of how many cockroaches might be living in the walls. We should never allow fear of scandal, dishonesty, or incompetence to dissuade us from trying to help, to give, and to serve. We just need to make sure we do what we can to be conscientious and thorough in our pre-giving/pre-serving research, by using sites like http://goodintents.org, and employing a much more careful and deliberate approach in our future giving/volunteering efforts. We can still do much good in the world, and if we are careful about it, our efforts will be more effective than ever.