I grew up loving baseball. A bit odd for a Canadian kid to idolize Griffey and not Gretzky but I was drawn to baseball in large part because of my fascination with numbers. And baseball was chock full of them.
As I grew up and continued playing baseball through high school and then eventually in college, my love for baseball and fascination with numbers remained. Only the stats I cared about as a kid were not as relevant when you were trying to play at the next level. Batting average isn't the only way to measure good hitters (hello On Base Percentage). Striking out isn't really that bad if you also hit for more power (which I did not). And that having high MPH's on the radar gun was more important than having a low ERA on the stat sheet (so I'm told as I had neither...).
The beautifully frustrating thing about numbers is that they can be interpreted in different ways to mean different things at different times to different people. And their significance and meaning can change over time.
I had a similar realization with numbers shortly after I got out of grad school. I studied Nonprofit Administration with a focus on fundraising and thought I knew the sector pretty well. But the more I was exposed to the way donors were evaluating charities, largely based on their spending, I quickly saw how flawed this was. Donors were looking at numbers, financial and accounting numbers, and thinking they were impact and efficiency numbers. But they weren't. And aren't.
Donors wanted to do more research and were looking at numbers to justify their gifts, instil trust and compare charities. Those are great things but telling them how funds were spent according to three arbitrary "buckets" (fundraising, administration and programs) was all organizations had to offer. So donors went with it. Watchdog groups were born. Seals of efficiency were created. Even "top charity" lists were built off those premises (I'm looking at you MoneySense...).
And all this thinking, while good intentioned, is dead wrong.
As donors, almost universally, we want three things when we give.
1. To trust that the funds we give are going to be used for a good purpose.
2. To see the impact we are having by giving.
3. To feel good about the donation we are making.
But the numbers we typically use don't give us that. Not on their own that's for sure. So it's time for us as donors to grow up, understand the real value and meaning of those numbers and start changing the way we give. There are some simple ways you can avoid mistakes when evaluating a charity but since it's the giving season here's three things you can do right now in December to give differently (and hopefully better). And you won't have to rely on bogus financial numbers (that really don't tell you what you want anyways).
3 Ways You Can Give Differently (And Possibly Better) This December
1. Give to a friend's cause for trust.
You may have a friend who is very passionate about a cause or a charity or perhaps they volunteer with one or sit on a board. Ask them what charity they support and why. If you like what you hear, why not support a friend AND a charity. Or better yet, find a friend who has their own fundraising page with an organization like charity: water or One Day's Wages or on a platform like CrowdRise or Rally, read or watch to understand why they are fundraising and then give to them. Then see how the charity reports back to you in the new year.
2. Give to the best offer for impact.
You may not consider charities having "offers" but they very much do (even if they don't know it). When they are asking you to fund a project, a person or a program that is an offer. By adding things like matching funds, time sensitive end dates and telling stories of their work, they are intentionally doing that to make their offer more appealing and make you feel more compelled to take action.
What if instead of deleting that nonprofit's email or throwing that charity's mailer away as soon as it comes in -- here's an interesting thought: Keep them. Create a special folder for them in your inbox. Put them in a neat pile on your desk at home. And when it comes time to decide where to give, open them up one by one and look for offers that give you the best sense of the impact your donation will make. Give to them. Then see how the charity reports back to you in the new year.
3. Give to the best story to feel good.
As much as we may want to be rational, thoughtful and impact-focused donors we are also irrational and emotionally driven humans. This isn't necessarily a bad thing and in fact recognizing this can make you a great donor. Great donors to organizations are those who are passionately committed to the cause. And numbers, no matter how "good" they may be, will never inspire the type of passion and commitment that organizations need.
Passionate and committed donors are the ones who give to things others don't. They are the ones who invite friends to events to get exposed to their cause. They are the ones who will volunteer, sit on boards and fundraise. In short, passionate and committed donors are the ones that can transform organizations and you'll only be one of those donors if you are inspired and moved. So if you want to be a great, passionate and committed donor look for a great story that fires you up and give to that organization. Then see how the charity reports back to you in the new year.
Numbers aren't a bad thing and in fact should be a good thing. They should represent the number of children the organization you fund is caring for. They should represent the growth you are fueling for the organization you are giving to. They should represent the impact that you, the donor, are having through the organization of your choice. They should not be about where charities spend their money but how they have used that money, your money, to make an impact.
So this December consider giving differently and avoiding the financial numbers evaluation trap altogether. By doing this, you'll be giving charities a gift, in the form of a donation, and the sector a gift by not relying on those irrelevant to impact numbers.