The Changing Nature of Charity


In light of The Nonprofit Times’ annual ‘Best Nonprofits to work for 2013’, I figured it best to dust the cobwebs off of this blog and reflect on the changing nature of charity. Charity has always been a pretty boring aspect of our lives. We all know we should give generously to charity so that nonprofit organizations can put our money to good use and help the less fortunate. But that doesn’t make parting ways with our hard earned cash any easier. Why? Because blindly giving away money is about as satisfying as pouring off milk into the last of your cheerios.

The problem with charities is that there is rarely anything to show for your donation. This is why traditional nonprofits struggle to compete with for-profit companies who offer their customers tangible value through a good or service. Look at it this way; if you pay twenty dollars for a haircut, you get a haircut. On the flipside, if you give that twenty dollars to charity, you get a pat on the back and you’re out twenty dollars. You have no idea where your money goes and your hair still looks like a dead cat. This is why charity is in dire need of a change.

At the end of the day, people will always have that underlying desire for some kind of value. For nonprofits to believe that their donors subscribe to some higher moral standard will only hurt them in the long run. Therefore, it is in the best interest of these nonprofits to start thinking like for-profit companies and start to create some genuine value for their donors. This can be done by creating a strong brand identity, targeting niche markets, and producing an end product. Charity has been missing some much needed inspiration. And inspiration can only been achieved by making donors feel as if they have made a real difference. For years, World Vision has been teetering on inspiration by allowing donors to sponsor a child and have regular updates on how they are progressing. In this case, the end product comes as you see the change you’re making in a person’s life.

New York based charity, charity: water, is on the forefront of a new movement in the nonprofit sector that focuses on two main ideals; transparency and a donor model they call the ‘100% model’. charity: water was founded in 2006 by former New York nightclub promoter Scott Harrison and has revamped an aged charity model into one that is inspirational, effective, and transparent. The ‘100% model’ guarantees that all public donations go directly to water projects in developing countries while private donors cover operational costs. This empowers donors as they know even the smallest donation will ultimately go where it is needed most. charity: water inspire their donors by tracking their donations around the world and providing them with a report full of GPS locations and images of the water projects that their donations helped create (See an example here). Since their foundation, charity: water have completed over eight thousand projects and provided over three million people with sustainable access to clean water.

This focus on entrepreneurial innovation in the nonprofit sector has seen organizations grow using new, imaginative ways of generating revenue. Not For Sale, a nonprofit out of Half Moon Bay in California, is doing just that. In order to help end human trafficking and slavery around the world, Not For Sale have recently incubated and launched REBBL, a socially responsible beverage company that will employ freed slaves in the Amazon, and reinvest proceeds into projects that combat human trafficking. Founded by University of San Francisco’s Dave Batstone, Not For Sale are demonstrating that there is in fact a grey line between the nonprofit and for-profit sectors. By ethically generating revenue in accordance with their mission, Not For Sale have paved the way forward for other nonprofits to follow suit. Although Not For Sale’s revenue from REBBL may only account for a fraction of their operating budget, it shows that there are unique avenues for nonprofits to explore in order to secure more revenue. Coupled with an interactive infographic donor reporting model, Not For Sale are pioneering positive change to end human trafficking and also to improve the way nonprofits are operating around the world.

The Nonprofit Times’ annual report shows that not only are charities changing the way they present themselves, they are changing the way they work from within. Organizations such as the Wounded Warrior Project have recognized the importance of a mission driven workforce and work hard to inspire their staff to share the goals and ambitions of the organization. The WWP have been voted the best nonprofit to work for in the United States for three years in a row as a result of their awesome company culture. Establishing an organizational culture that mirrors that of a Silicon Valley startup will encourage employees to work harder, leaner, and with a stronger underlying mission.

At the end of the day, people will always want to donate to charity. The good news is that donating to a charity can now be a fulfilling and rewarding experience that keeps us coming back. Whether it be by showing you where your money goes with satellite imagery, or creating a desirable brand name that donors are proud to support, the new age of charity is surely here to stay. So get out there and give away all your money. God knows your hair will look horrible anyway.

61 thoughts on “The Changing Nature of Charity

    1. There are over 1.1 million registered nonprofits in the United States alone which suggests there is certainly a market for charity. It’s interesting that Lithuania operate in a society where giving is not considered nor encouraged part of a thriving economy. In Australia and certainly the United States, charity is a booming industry that is being propped up by regular donors nationwide.

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful analysis. The example here from the Charity: Water project shows not only the specific projects but also a list of donors and amounts. I think such a list is a good idea and should be tried by more charities. Even if the lists are long, most people would probably like to see their names on them, especially on the Internet. (There could be options to hide the amount and to give anonymously.) Donor lists might help counter one difficulty with fund-raising overseas: anonymity.

    1. Agreed. People love to feel like they are helping out but also like to be recognized for their work/donation. In a sense, the acknowledgment is part of the end product and the overall value in donating to charity.

  2. Interesting post. I don’t think giving to charity should have some sort of reward or value for money, that should come from the warm fuzzy feeling of donating. I think there’s a lot of skepticism on where the money goes once you donate and that’s why people will run a mile or keep their head down when stopped in the street. A friend of mine used to go so far as screaming loudly and spinning away (bit harsh).

    Those charities you mentioned are a great example of how it can be done right and people should feel far more comfortable donating to charities such as those, knowing they actually are making a difference and not just paying for all that fancy paperwork, media and uniforms the larger charities must spend a fortune on.

    Charity shouldn’t be a chore, it should be a rewarding experience and hopefully these charities will go some way towards that.

    1. The line between profit and nonprofit is inevitably being worn away by smarter nonprofit organizations. Nonprofits like the ones I mentioned are starting to recognize that charities do not live in a bubble and are finally operating in ways that excite people the same way Apple and Nike market their products. Hopefully good signs for the future! Thanks for your comment

      1. Should charities have to be dynamic and exciting though? Should they need a marketing team or some fancy campaign? I know i’m clutching at straws here in the hopes that humanity has the kindness to donate from their hearts without needing to be reminded but I guess the sad reality is charities have to advertise and keep people’s attention spans. Something that’s getting harder and harder with the so called “twitter generation”.

      2. It all boils down to the old ‘adapt or die’ mentality. In the past, charities relied heavily on what you mentioned above. Unfortunately, people no longer want to donate just to say they did. It’s irresponsible for charities to continue to operate in that way. It seems like a lot, but a marketing team is just as much as part of a successful charity as the volunteers and the donors themselves.

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  4. Great article! Informative and entertaining. Thank you!

    I also find it interesting how a lot of charities are offering token gifts as a “thank you” for a donation. In our family, we make a lot of gift donations, and (for example) giving a child a small stuffed gorilla that comes with the “gorilla adoption,” is sometimes a good incentive. They may lose some money, but still come out on top.

    1. Good point Cathy. The service they offer may not be tangible so it’s important that NGOs and nonprofits come up with new ways to make the donor feel like they are making a difference. Thanks for your comment.

  5. My friends and I actually discussed ways to make some forms of charity different. Breaking it down a few ways, people put up their hard earned money to adopt a tiger in Sumatra and they also hand out money to a homeless person on the streets not knowing where or what they money will go to. So we thought of something aimed not towards a blank check to a needy family but something targeted to a specific few issues that could give a person a step up. Think of how many people struggle because they have something that keeps them from living pay check to pay check. Maybe they need to correct dental issues. A reliable used car. A wheel chair for a family member… With this method, people will feel a connection with a person or family they are helping out and will see specific results.

  6. An excellent article. India has a huge number of Non-Profits and have a workable model to keep donors informed of how the money is used. Many of them don’t owing to lack of resources needed to create and maintain them. I’m going to share this with as many Non-Profits as I can!

    1. Archie thanks for commenting. It’s easy to blame lack of funds for poor reporting but ultimately it boils down to company culture and the way they manage their donors. Donors are the lifeblood and should be treated as such. Good to see that in India there are working models to show it is possible.

  7. Pingback: Philanthropic wastage and charitable scams | The Happy Lifeaholic

  8. I found this really interesting as I myself am volunteering for Oxfam for the next 7months, in the UK, and my team really wants to make donations seem more ‘meaningful’.

    I’ve never heard of any of the charities you mentioned and am going to go google crazy now, their ideas are really exciting and causes admirable.

    Thank you.

  9. Good points. Compassion International is another group where you sponsor a child and then regularly receive letters from the child on their progress. The sponsor is also encouraged to send letters.

    Many non-profits I work with understand they need to show a ROI on donor money. Some host thank you receptions where donors and non-donors can meet the beneficiaries of their donation and hear their stories. Others hold annual meetings (like corporations) where they provide a financial overview and highlight the results of donor investment. They constantly communicate the value of what they are doing.

    Another aspect of the nonprofit sector is how they treat volunteers. The better managed groups treat them like employees, even though they do not get paid. They track volunteer time, provide regular work shifts, have an employee handbook, and regularly recognize volunteers for hours worked and years of service. They also continually profile volunteers in publications that go to their supporters.

    1. That’s a really good point. Volunteers are often undervalued as they are not considered employees in the same manner as the accountants or web designers. Without the volunteers much of the work at the grassroots level wouldn’t get done. A successful charity should follow similar guidelines to those you mentioned above. Thanks for commenting.

  10. yuif

    thing is we should be fully aware of where our money goes when we give something for a charity…
    but in my experience since I don’t really have a big amount of cash in my savings, I practice charity by simply giving FOOD instead of money to street people because in our country some are use by syndicates.

    1. That’s a great idea. By eliminating the money from the donation and offering food or other service, the satisfaction for both donor and the recipient is visible straight away.

  11. Great post – I’ve often shied away from donating to huge NGOs like UNICEF and WWF just because I feel like my contribution will just fall between the cracks. I’ve only recently discovered smaller charities and organizations like 88Bikes where contributions feel more personal and there’s a real person behind it – they sent me a postcard of the girl who received the bike I my donation paid for so it really feels like I made a difference. Thanks for providing more examples of worthy causes to support.

    1. At the end of the day, charities need donors to keep coming back. If they do a good job, you’re likely to spread the word and generate more donations from your friends and family. 88Bikes have obviously done a great job. They are definitely a charity I will be checking out.

  12. cerrosolo

    A year or two ago, I gave a small donation to the Yosemite Conservancy, a group connected to the National Park Foundation. I live on the east coast but had a very enjoyable trek up Half Dome, and thought giving a little money to help others enjoy the same experience would be worthwhile.

    Since that donation, I get a glossy, large mailer asking for additional money at least weekly, sometimes more. The money I hoped would go to trail upkeep or something has clearly gone into marketing. I really find it offensive and a gross misallocation of the limited resources of our park system. It has definitely stopped me from ever giving additional donations.

    It would be great if more charities could follow the charity:water model, but there are many causes for which there are not the same tangible and immediate impacts and benefits as building wells. I think the least many US charities should do is severely curtail their archaic direct mail strategies and move to more online strategies for donor engagement.

    1. If Yosemite National Park were to send you a picture of some trees they had planted thanks to your donation, I’m sure you reaction would be completely different. Poor marketing doesn’t just annoy people, it has turned you away from ever donating again. And now I am definitely not going to be donating to them anytime soon!

  13. Great post! The coffee station at my workplace is spattered with dozens of donate to this donate to that, usually Cancer Society, Red Cross, I always think where is my money really going. I think its time to consider smaller charitable organizations that aren’t necessarily inflating executives pockets.

  14. Reblogged this on Dumb and Genius and commented:
    Sadly, another changing nature of charity is that some are becoming literally for-profit organizations. Whatever one may say, some actually starts this non-profit organization because, unlike profit earning businesses, it is a nontaxable organization. That is also another reason why non-profit organizations are gradually growing everywhere except in Japan.

  15. i agree, there are times when i have wanted to sponsor a child’s education but the possibility of being caught in a sham as discouraged me often. but i also believe that there are several wonderful people doing tremendous good for others…and a sincere intent on our part often takes us to the right place. i did for me…

  16. Larger and more well-known charities have a marketing strategy to attract big donors. They already have proven work to show for their efforts and are easier to subscribe to. These charities, in my view, NEED to have money in their coffers to run fund-raising events; they then become more high-profile which comes hand in glove with being accredited for work they do. For example… Friends of the Earth……enormous success recently lobbying Parliament to protect bees. Social media keeps donors involved and up to date with every step. Charities are suffering because of the economic climate, but money is not the only way to be charitable. There is a deal of satisfaction from having a charitable attitude to the less fortunate on your doorstep. When children in waar-torn countries are all homes and fed and waterd, it may be that the elderly guy on your corner hasn’t had a hot meal for a week.

    1. Social media has definitely bridged the gap but a Facebook post or a tweet or blog is still not a personalized experience. It is hard to feel appreciated by the cause that you are supporting when they thank everyone at once.

  17. Great article! Charity, as practiced by giving to a Non-Profit Organization, has a certain disconnection that I think we need to solve or reconnect. When you pass by a homeless person on the street whom you genuinely see needs help and give them $10, you have the personal relationship involved in the charity process, which is the key ingredient missing by giving to a non-profit.

    Many non-profits, such as charity: water, are doing an excellent job of showing the impact that donations are having on the lives of people in need (see charity: water’s interactive map:, but we still have a ways to go for donors to truly feel that genuine connection to those they mean to help. Which, may not be a bad thing. If more people started helping others individually, we wouldn’t have the problems we certainly do as communities became filled with generosity and giving to one another – whoever is in lack of some vital resource.

    1. The uneven distribution of wealth and resources is making it difficult for people to help those who really need the support. More than often, those in need are on the other side of the world. This is why nonprofit and NGOs exist, so that they can bridge the gap between those in need and the resources required. The big issue then becomes, how can these companies recreate that personal relationship between the two parties, even though they are on opposite sides of the world?

  18. Really interesting conversation…

    I sit on the board of a charity that grants money, up to $4,000 within a week of getting an appeal, to non-fiction writers in dire financial straits. Our challenge is getting those we’ve helped to be more public as it’s considered embarrassing to admit (certainly here in the U.S.) you so badly needed help in the first place.

    It’s a cause I am passionate about, but wish my fellow board members were; a separate but important issue is how few people on a volunteer board (even those who are retired or not working) actually put in serious, useful time and effort. The rest of us burn out!

    1. Testimonials from those who have been supported are a great idea, but like you said, hard to come by. I’m sure this varies from industry to industry too, depending on the type of aid that was offered. Nonprofits and NGOs in that operate in socially sensitive industries need to get creative when trying to connect their donors to their beneficiaries. Great comment thanks for reading!

  19. That what and how many things can be on charity list is a question and the answer may be simple as well as tough. Once food, education, alms, dress and help free to those who are in need because they are ill, poor or have no home now once-free water is being given in charity. I am afraid a time will come when air or atmospheric or breathing space may be needed to be given in charity as the multinational or local corporates in countries are polluting and patenting everything. Even birth rights of the Rohingyas in Mymanmar is needed to be given in charity now-a-days. On top of all sermons or good words or dawah works should be given in charity only to one crore billionaires across the planet, thanks to the capitalism and Bretton-Woods Institutes including WB, IMF etc.Because poor people needs no sermon rather rich people need it as they can change their minds according to religious sermons. Read to know about charity further.

  20. Liked your article. Travelling in many 3rd world countries, I prefer to buy things/have things made rather than just donate money and turn people into beggars. Give them an occupation and let them feel worthwhile to make an income.

  21. A lot of what you say is valid- the way things are at the moment, charity does need to change. And I think you’re spot on when you identify this feeling of wanting something to show for having been charity is a reason for this need. It’s all, as I have said, valid, but a tiny voice in the back of my head is telling me that we should be striving to become the sort of people who don’t need that- the type who give just because it’s the right thing to do.

    Anyway- fantastic post- certainly more interesting than anything I could come up with!

  22. This is a crucial topic, and I think you’ve addressed it very well. There’s a great book on this topic called “Neoliberalism as Exception: Mutations in Citizenship and Sovereignty” –I’d recommend it, if you haven’t already read it!

  23. Great post! Completely agree on the changing nature of charity. You may want to look at as well – it is a charity where people donate ideas and opinions to help other people develop ideas or find inspiration. cheers!


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