My daughter thinks ducks are cool. You know how kids are. Now, there's no way I'm getting her a pet duck. But I can "buy" a duck for someone who could really benefit from owning a duck and have a card sent to my daughter saying so. That's almost as good as a pet duck in her eyes -- and way better than one in mine.
Gift catalogs that let donors do that kind of thing have exploded in the past few years. No wonder: They're fun, useful, and donor centered. They let donors give very narrowly to fund things they like for whatever reasons of their own.
Or do they?
A quick look at some of the leading catalogs shows that most have disclaimers about what donors' gifts actually do. Read these:
The prices in this catalog represent the complete livestock gift of a quality animal, technical assistance and training. Each purchase is symbolic and represents a contribution to the entire mission of Heifer International. Donations will be used where needed most to help struggling people. (From the online gift catalog)
Oxfam America works in 26 countries around the world. This catalog contains gift items that symbolically represent our work. The items selected represent project goals from grants disbursed by our seven offices around the world. The purchase of each gift item is a contribution toward Oxfam America's many programs, not a donation to a specific project or goal. Your donation will be used where it is needed the most--to help people living in poverty throughout the world. (From the online gift catalog)
Items shown in this catalog illustrate World Concern's comprehensive ministry to provide help, hope and healing to people in need. Each purchase from this catalog is symbolic and represents a contribution to the entire mission of World Concern. (From the online gift catalog)
In other words, if I buy a duck from one of these catalogs, I'm not buying a duck. I guess I'm okay with that. But I wonder how other donors feel. Apparently -- given the runaway growth of these (and many other) catalogs, they're okay with it too. Or they haven't read the disclaimer. (If you've ever done response testing on minor copy details like this, you get the distinct feeling nobody reads it; hardly anything you do in small print budges the needle in any direction.)
One blogger, on noticing that a duck from Heifer isn't a duck, called it "the crummiest possible Christmas present."
There's another type of disclaimer that handles the issue differently. Like these two:
Items shown in this catalog are for the sole purpose of illustrating goods and services used in ministry programs. All contributions designated for specific projects will be applied to those projects, and up to 10 percent may be used for administering the gift. When we receive more contributions for a given project than can wisely be applied to that project, we use those funds to meet a similar pressing need. Contributions are solicited with the understanding that Samaritan's Purse has complete control over the use of all donated funds. (From the 2006 Christmas gift print catalog)
World Vision considers every gift a sacred trust and promises to use your donation in the most effective way possible. The item costs in this catalog reflect the average cost and need of items in World Vision projects at the time of writing, but these costs and needs can change over time. And sometimes we receive more money than is necessary for a particular item. If the ministry need or situation has changed, World Vision promises you that we will honor your generosity and fund a project that is in the same gift category. (From the 2006 Holiday print catalog)
If I'm reading them right, these two are telling me if I buy a duck, I might be buying a duck, unless too many other people already bought ducks. That feels a little better, doesn't it?
If you're going to launch a giving program like this -- and it's worth at least considering -- you should ask yourself these questions about what you offer and how you offer it:
- Is it scrupulously true?
- Does it honor our donors' wishes?
- Are you prepared for "too much" success?
- Can you proudly explain it to you mom?
Done right, these catalogs are donor-powered dynamos. Done wrong, they're trouble waiting to happen.
(Thanks to my Merkle|Domain colleague, Curt Weigel, for help researching this.)
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