Synchronicity in the nonprofit corner of the blog world. In the past few weeks there have been many, many posts on the topic of the charitable gift catalogs.
But most of the buzz has had a decidedly more grumpy flavor. In fact, it's been virtually a backlash against Heifer International over the disclaimer in their catalog that says, in part, Each purchase is symbolic and represents a contribution to the entire mission of Heifer International. (Many gift catalog charities have a similar disclaimer, but not all of them.)
It seems to have started on Philip Greenspun's Weblog, in a short post titled Water buffalo: Worst possible Christmas present? --
. . . 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.
This post was answered by Robert Thompson, an American musician who lives in China, who actually went out and bought a water buffalo and presented it to a poor family in China. He documented it on film, which you can see: The Water Buffalo Movie. This short piece is a must-see if you want to get a sense for the kind of power we need to be creating for donors.
Much of the commentary focused on the lack of literal truth in gift catalogs:
- A Whole Lotta Nothing said, "It's not entirely dishonest but it sure feels like something different than what their site describes when you give money."
- Philanthromedia, in Do Donor Shopping Guides Really Give a Cow?, said, "When you make a contribution, you want it to be used exactly as you were told it would be. That's accountability."
- NFP 2.0, in More than just the bacon, said, "OK, so it's there in the small print, but try explaining that to your five-year old daughter."
- The $5 philanthropist, in Ethical Gifts Are Unethical?!?, said, "At the best case, this is just lazy and unimaginative and at the worst case . . . isn't it some relatively dark shade of outright dishonesty?"
- Don't Tell the Donor was more tolerant in A load of buffalo?: "I personally have no problem with the type of campaign Heifer is running. . . . if a symbolic item helps provide a visual reminder of an intangible fundraising campaign - more power to them."
- My post on this topic, It walks and quacks like a duck -- but what is it really? looked at the various disclaimers found in different gift catalogs.
If you search Heifer International at Technorati, the overwhelming majority of posts are people either raising money for Heifer or raving about the gifts they got through them.
What do we learn from all this? Seems to me the Heifer approach, where they offer something specific but your gift is pretty much unrestricted, is not well liked (when it's noted at all). It just feels too much like not telling the truth. Put yourself in a donor's shoes: How does it feel?