Saturday, 15 June 2013

Dan Pallotta: The way we think about charity is dead wrong

Activist and fundraiser Dan Pallotta calls out the double standard that drives our broken relationship to charities. Too many nonprofits, he says, are rewarded for how little they spend -- not for what they get done. Instead of equating frugality with morality, he asks us to start rewarding charities for their big goals and big accomplishments (even if that comes with big expenses). In this bold talk, he says: Let's change the way we think about changing the world.
Everything the donating public has been taught about giving is dysfunctional, says AIDS Ride founder Dan Pallotta. He aims to transform the way society thinks about charity and giving and change.
My thoughts:
Everyone wants to own their own home, have their own car, support their family and be able to afford all the nice perks of life that would make living a little more enjoyable - a luxury sedan, an expensive watch, some designer goodies, a trip to Paris, a night out with friends at Nobu.  It's why people work so damn hard.  And I'm assuming that most of us have similar material aspirations.  If we earn enough money, why not lavish ourselves once in a while?  
But what if you're someone who's also really passionate about charity; someone smart and innovative and able to provide appropriate technical advice on projects?  What if you want to work for an institution like WWF, World Vision (or a smaller institution) and want to take a direct part in project development and research?
Well, forget about that European sports car with the orgasmic obsidian paint you've been saving up for.  Working for a NPO may be morally rewarding but it means you will face a lifetime of socio-economic limitations - what you can do with the money you earn is strictly governed by moral standards attributed by society to those working in the non-profit sector.  And if you breach those standards for even the tiniest exhibition of using your own finances for personal pleasure (and not for saving African kids), then you're an uber demonic capitalist/satan/father of all lies.

You want to drive a luxury Audi A8 instead of a fugly green Toyota Prius?  Well NO.  Because everyone will be like "you could have given that money to starving Ethiopian families man."

You want a nice Hugo Boss suit tailored to fit your absolutely ripped body instead of a Target t-shirt and op shop jeans?  Well NO.  Could've sponsored a hundred kids from World Vision.

You want the newest generation iPod?  Well NO.  Could've fed a bunch of homeless people for a week.

You see the problem here?  Where does it stop?  What extent of frugality must we exhibit to show that we are dedicated to our charitable cause?  
So I guess, either you work for a NP organisation and sacrifice all the nice perks you would and could have bought (remember that it is NORMAL to want these things), or live like an ascetic so you don't face the backlash that comes with working for a NPO but also wanting to buy the newest LV bag/Louboutin shoes.
I know there are people who would be outraged at this idea - "if you're TRULY passionate about helping people and working for charity, then you shouldn't give a shit about money and material things because that's not what's important.  Saving lives is more important.  Feeding hungry mouths is more important.  Fuck your Audi."
But if you REALLY think about it, why is that so wrong?  What in the world is so wrong with wanting to enjoy your own life while helping the needy at the same time?  I don't see how a love for fast cars or high tier fashion should be considered mutually exclusive to a love for helping those in need.  
As long as you're making a difference and doing so effectively - fulfilling your personal material aspirations with the money that you earn (legitimately) should be none of anyone else's freakin' business.  So please shut up, purist sanctimonious vegan dread-locked hippies.  I mean, I don't see you guys giving upper east side philanthropists shit for driving around in Aston Martins.  Ya know why?  Cos these people (and yes, they are people) are some of the most important agents of change in the NP sector as well as the profit sector.  Sure, they buy lots of things they don't really need but if they've worked hard for the money, why shouldn't they?  They're still giving a fairly big amount of money back to charity and that's what counts.  They're making a bigger difference than most people.  
Obviously, I'm not going to extremes and saying that Tim Costello (CEO of World Vision) should be buying three Maseratis if he really wanted to.  But (I'm going to segue into a second point now) it's just this screwed up notion that NP workers should be receiving the barest minimum in pay since anything above that is considered a gross perversion of their job, is something that really irks me.  It also makes a lot of young people second question their ability to make a decent living out of the NP sector.  This isn't selfishness or some sort of fucked up Gen Y/Gen Z characteristic, it's realism.  It's pragmatism.  It's not wanting to be underpaid for overtime.  It's whether we can get what we deserve for the effort we put in.  Whether we have agency to exert personal freedom in the structure we've been confined to.

If not, people will start looking for different paths that are both personally rewarding AND helping starving kids is in developing countries.

And people wonder why there aren't more top graduates going to the NP sector instead of the profit sector/becoming investment bankers at Goldman Sachs lul.
As Dan Pallotta said, why not just go into the profit sector and earn tonnes of $$ and then give part of that back to charity?  Then I have some more leeway to buy all the crap I want while promoting a humanitarian agenda - WIN WIN.  I may even be able to make a greater contribution because I'm able to take more risks with my money and invest it in specific projects that no medical institution or government would sponsor, either because they have more pressing priorities or because they only want to work on issues that affect the majority and not the minority.    
Finally, that entrenched view that NP organisations should strip overhead to a minimum as well ....  ugh.  UGH.   Just watch the video and you'll get what I mean.

He's so right when he implies that we need to revolutionise the way we think about charities.  People need to STOP thinking that money spent on advertising, fundraising, campaigning and workers' salaries should be minimised as they don't contribute directly to donations and thus, the mission.  They are just as freaking important.
Watch the damn video.


  1. "But if you REALLY think about it, why is that so wrong? What in the
    world is so wrong with wanting to enjoy your own life while helping the
    needy at the same time? I don't see how a love for fast cars or high
    tier fashion should be considered mutually exclusive to a love for
    helping those in need. "

    Not-for-profit means exactly that, not for profit. If you start treating volunteers as employees, why, that would turn NGOs into corporations! And every good transnational knows that capitalism is a bad, bad thing. At a very core, fundamental level, those vegan dread-locked hippies (no matter the facade they put on the outside) reject the free market, corporations, sometimes even the "artificial concept" of money. Sure, rich folks are important contributors to their cause. But that's more a relationship born out of necessity rather than any common ideology or belief. Purists truly believe that living a simple fril-free life proves their solidarity with the poorer peoples of the world, as well as building their own moral superiority compared those wastrels chasing after material possessions. Nevermind the fact that improving the quality of life of the impoverished leads, ultimately, to new markets for material possessions of their own. This group doublethink is important to the identity of any transnational and attempting to interrupt that is never going to end well.

    But more to the point, as little as I do respect the international humanitarian economy (and, despite its rejection of capitalism, it's very much an industry in its own right), I would respect them far less if they were willing to engage in the kind of double standards which would justify them pursuing material possessions. The very idea of working for an NGO, that global suffering is the most important issue that we need to deal with in the world today (whatever form that suffering may be in), means that all other issues, like a new pair of shoes, or a nice car, come a very distant second. And that's because enjoying your own life is incompatible with wanting to help others, because every dollar or dime you spend elsewhere means another dollar or dime less for the poor starving children of the world. Going to work in the profit sector and earning heaps then getting the best of both worlds? Sure, you could do that. But you'd still need someone doing the hard yards in those charities you're donating to.

    At the same time, charities can't preach one message whilst performing another; they can't ask for people to give as much as they can, whilst their leaders lead "normal" lives. Asking people to donate what they can above their normal expenses is never going to work because, as you point out, there's always something you can save for in your day-to-day life, some future aspiration to work towards. Donating to charity means giving up that dream, in some small degree, so austerity and guilt-trips are key concepts.

    With regards to the quality of people entering the NGO sector; I know you do Arts/Law, have you done any international law? Human rights law? Politics units? Political philosophy? Human rights? The overwhelming majority of students in those disciplines, many of them very bright and intelligent indeed, are firm believers of everything I've just gone through, and they'll willing lead a lifetime of austerity in pursuit of that ideology. It's in, if not safe hands, at least fairly capable ones.

    Ultimately, it's about practicing what you preach, and adopting a complete life philosophy. The Pope doesn't tell people not to use condoms before going out to stripshows. Why would charities do any different?

  2. And yet everything you've just touched on about 'you could have given that money to
    starving kids' is the precise sort of antiquated moral philosophy that needs to
    take a 360 degree change in the NP sector. Using the examples of the sleek Audi
    and the LV bag are exaggerations on my part but charity shouldn't be centred on
    austerity and guilt-tripping as key concepts. It should be centred on
    innovation, actual accomplishments and creative enterprise. You don't want
    people donating money because they're made to feel bad about spending their
    (own) money on things they want, you want them donating money because they have a genuine motivation to help.

    The guilt-tripping concept may not be so much of a big deal for those who
    willingly choose a life of austerity in pursuit of their mission, but apart
    from the truly dedicated, I'm pretty sure the majority of the world's
    population would rather be able to help others without needing to suppress
    their own material longings. Talking about material desires seems like such an
    evil capitalist thing but people have to realise that it's a natural feeling to
    have and if we can balance that with our humanitarian ideals - why shouldn't we
    strive for that instead of perpetuating this gross, sneering mistrust of those
    who do? By far, Bill and Melinda Gates lead a much more fulfilling life than
    workers at Friends of the Earth International who have been known to work overtime
    for very little pay.

    You say that the overwhelming majority of students in international
    studies/politics/HR are dedicated young people who would readily lead a
    lifetime of austerity to pursue their ideals - LOL. Okay, I don't doubt that
    there a very large number of kids who are passionate about working for NGOs
    etc. But there are hundreds of thousands of kids who take those units at
    university and only a very tiny minority of them end up with successful careers
    in the NP sector. Most of them will probably use what they have learnt and
    apply that to their jobs in the profit sector instead. Or most frequently, give back a proportion of what they earn to charity.

    One reason why there are very few success stories in the NP sector (compared to
    the profit sector) goes back to the view that too much overhead is evil and
    everything should be spent on direct contribution to the mission - things like
    buying food for starving kids and putting that money directly into research.
    When NGOs spend too much money organising fundraising events (for said
    research) and advertising, they get shit for it even when statistics show that
    it helps.

    Most importantly, NGOs are then bound by social expectations to ‘play it safe’ and to show immediate returns on their projects. Anything that requires long term investment and involves more risk is automatically dismissed by the public. It’s much more appealing to see your donations go toward purchasing supplies than being invested in a 5 year project to build a dam, regardless that the latter project would be much more rewarding if successful.

    With the inability to exercise freedom within an NGO and outside an NGO, top
    graduates – however passionate they may be toward a humanitarian cause – are not
    going to be entering the NP sector when they can do the same and much more in
    the profit sector.

  3. "Sure, you want people to donate because they have a genuine motivation to do so. But those people are, by and large, extremely rare."


    "The overwhelming majority of students in those disciplines, many of them very bright and intelligent indeed, are firm believers of everything I've just gone through, and they'll willing lead a lifetime of austerity in pursuit of that ideology."


    Also, yes, I meant 180d lool

    To put simply:

    I agree that domestic and international politics are pretty much in the same boat as NGOs. That's why their policies are more or less shaped by public sentiment and why some (or a lot of) people working in those institutions, especially in politics, become disillusioned with the lack of real progress. Important social and environmental issues are politicised beyond belief. Everything is dictated by societal values - whether or not these are reasonable or practical. And if it weren't - if politicians and NGO workers were able to focus more on achieving goals effectively and less on satisfying the visceral expectations of the public, I think we would be achieving a lot more.

    And when I say 'rewarding', that's also what I mean (apart from the freedom to buy nice things for yourself with your own money, which I recognise is a less pressing issue here but nevertheless something I wanted to talk about because it's so taboo) - a sense of achievement, the ability to follow through with your ambitions, to put things into action. It sucks for NGOs to be given crap for long term policies/projects and greater overhead while private MNCs, which we are socially conditioned to view under a different light, are being applauded for theirs once they are able to make up for the initial losses, pay back the loans for their venture capital and profit big time (e.g. Starbucks, Apple, Dell). We don't need to abolish NP NGOs and transition them to the profit sector - we just need to transform the way people think about how NGOs/NPOs work. And I know that's really damn hard because of how entrenched our current views are.

    Just because it's labelled 'non-profit' doesn't mean it's fair for people to tell them not to take risks or invest in long term projects or pay its workers a bit more for their efforts.

    Also, LOL it's always lovely to hear good things about arts degrees/my potential future.