Tag Archives: philanthropy

Who you shouldn’t be giving to on Giving Tuesday

It’s Giving Tuesday, and that means you’ll be getting a lot of emails today. You might even get to use the hashtag! (#GivingTuesday)

But there’s also a story in the nonprofit world that you probably won’t hear today—a lot of us are pretty terrible. From the shrieking headlines of the Daily Mail to the never-ending sins of TOMS Shoes, there are certainly times when we don’t have a lot to show for the effort we put in.

You might’ve even heard of some of us that are damn despicable.

Homeopaths Without Borders offers humanitarian treatment to individuals in the form of what is entirely bogus medicine. (Do I really have to prove this to anyone? Here, here, and here. Let’s add Wikipedia just to be sure.)

Working in several Central American and Caribbean nations, Homeopaths Without Borders provided emergency aid in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake. Beyond simply wasting resources in the name of pseudo-science, Homeopaths Without Borders is immensely cruel, offering false hope to the poor with every “treatment.” They also recently toasted graduates of their alternative healthcare education program in Haiti.

But we should remember that the vast majority of nonprofits are not like this. And this Giving Tuesday, I think we can be grateful for the work that charity evaluators like GiveWell and Giving What We Can do to recommend charities that are having a high impact. These recommended charities have been vetted for what your dollar can accomplish.


GiveDirectly is one such charity, receiving attention and praise from The Economist, The Atlantic, and NPR. GiveDirectly’s work is so simple that it’s pretty incredible no one has tried it before—give money to the poor, with no intention of guiding how it’s spent.

The latest study of GiveDirectly’s approach has shown that recipients do not spend more money on vices like alcohol or tobacco, and more importantly, seem to be much happier with their cash. Self-reported happiness and well-being shot up among those receiving the cash, and even had positive spillover effects on their neighbors’ happiness. When GiveDirectly increased the size of the cash transfer, blood measurements of the stress hormone cortisol decreased significantly.

And of course, I should mention that this approach has substantial positive impacts on income, hunger, and even female empowerment.

What makes GiveDirectly’s work so interesting, though, is that it operates off a principle not found anywhere else in development work—that individuals are the best creators of their own future. GiveDirectly trusts that individuals know the fine grain details of their lives that matter, and steps back.

Today, you will probably receive charity appeals from every corner, and most of them will have some legitimacy. (That is, unless you’re on a homeopathic mailing list.)

But let’s consider what happens when we donate to one of the most effective charities we have. Let’s consider what happens when we trust what individuals have to say for their own lives. Donate now.

Give people what they want, not what the corporation wants.

“You have to give the people what they want. Otherwise, there is no point at all”.

The Cambodian man, in his 50s, looked at me with tired eyes. He had worked in the disability sector for more than a decade, often with high-level government officials. We were talking about working on some projects together, and during the discussion he was animated and passionate. Even though his enthusiasm was obvious, his weathered exterior told the tale of a tired soul. It was like he had said the above sentence so often that it had drawn youthful vigour out of him, like fuel siphoned from a car. To him, it was just common sense.

Just last week, I received an email from Jetstar Australia, an airline, announcing the winner of their Jetstar Flying Start grant. The organisation that had been selected for the prize of $15,000 cash and $15,000 worth of flights was “Shoes for Planet Earth”. In essence, this organisation takes unwanted second hand running shoes from people in Australia, puts them through a washing process, and ships them off to countries around the world, and poor locations domestically. Since launching in 2009, the organisation has delivered over 14,000 pairs of shoes through partner organisations.

Instantly, alarm bells started to ring. Without rehashing tried and tested arguments, we know that there is so much evidence about the negative impact of used clothing donations in poor countries. In fact, as we’ve previously stated on WhyDev:

Used-clothing imports are found to have a negative impact on apparel production in Africa, explaining roughly 40% of the decline in production and 50% of the decline in employment over the period 1981-2000.

So why would Jetstar choose to support an organisation that potentially could be doing more harm than good? The non-cynical part of me wanted to believe that it was all a big mistake, that Jetstar surely didn’t value attention grabbing ideas for PR more than positively affecting people’s lives. Surely.

Jetstar is exhibiting what Emily D’Ath has termed “community investment” – a “sophisticated and structured type of philanthropy”. It is also a form of corporate power.

Today more than ever, we see the influential power of corporations expanding, in shaping public perception of problems and redefining issues. Community investment and philanthropy more broadly are one way that this occurs. By selecting social issues worthy of support, and ignoring others, corporations dictate what society should see as important and pressing. In academic speak, this is known as “discursive power”: the influence of “norms, ideas and societal institutions”.

One of the most important factors in whether or not a corporation can exert discursive power is through legitimacy. If the corporation is seen to be legitimate, then their ability to wield power is increased. One way that they can do this is through partnerships with legitimate organisations. StarKids, a partnership with World Vision Australia, is one way that Jetstar have tried to achieve this.

But what about with Flying Start? Where does their legitimacy lie? I did a bit of digging to see who is responsible for selecting programs that these grants support. The answer is a panel of four individuals.

This is where you would hope that these are knowledgeable, Tim Costello-like types right? Wrong.

The panel consists of: The CEO of Jetstar Australia/New Zealand, a pilot, a TV and radio presenter, and another TV presenter.


Without being too presumptuous about the backgrounds of the panel, one could probably suggest that their expertise in development is pretty limited. This is where the system has failed. The panel for selecting programs aimed at improving the lives of poor people has little to no legitimacy. This would be akin to someone who has worked primarily in development approving standards in flying safety regulations.

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Clearly, the power of corporations to set the agenda for social issues is huge, and extremely worrying where they lack the expertise to decide how to best these problems. Going one step further, it has been argued, very convincingly might I add, that this exertion of corporate power is a form of hegemony, the dominance of one group in society over another. Under this system, for society to acquire the help of the corporation, they need to alter their views and norms to fit in with those of the corporation.

Perhaps this is where the whole notion of corporate power, or corporate social responsibility, sits so uneasily with me. This model suggests that those who sit on boardrooms dictate what is needed in poor communities. This brings up another interesting discussion. Who represents the poor? Jetstar, Shoes for Planet Earth, or even the organisations that Shoes for Planet Earth work with? Where along the line did the request for second hand shoes come from?

Ultimately, I don’t think we will even know the true answer to this question, except to say that I don’t have much confidence in the legitimacy of Jetstar’s panel to ascertain what is really needed in the communities where shoes are headed.

This brings us back to where we started, and what the weary-eyed Cambodian man was so desperate to convey.

“You have to give the people what they want. Otherwise, there is no point at all”.

Give the people what they want, not what the corporation wants.

Addendum: To Jetstar’s defence, I tweeted and emailed them my concerns over their choice of program to support. They haven’t yet replied to my email. You can read the conversation over Twitter, which ended abruptly, here. I will keep updating this post as I hear from them. I am looking forward to hearing their response.