Last month I stopped donating to Compassion, International.
For a little preamble, I work for a nonprofit. I feel passionately about the value of nonprofit organizations, about the work nonprofit folks do for their communities and the world, and I am committed to making a good career out of nonprofit work as long as I can. I think nonprofits don’t get nearly the funding they need or deserve and I wish more people gave more to make up for where our governments fail us (or where their mission ends). I’m also super excited for the time of my life when I can “graduate” from being an annual donor to being a major donor, to the causes I care about, and I hope that I’ll be a kind, understanding, curious donor when working with over-burdened nonprofit staff.
So when I recently decided to stop donating to a nonprofit I had supported for over 15 years, I knew something significant had shifted.
Through my work in fundraising, I became more informed about the world of nonprofits: what goes on behind the scenes and where the ethical difficulties lie. I started to evaluate Compassion with new eyes, and grew increasingly uncomfortable with my monthly donation supporting the organization, with what essentially amounted to my commitment to the values and mission of the organization. In the end, my decision to stop my monthly donation came down to three concerns: 1). Fiscal transparency. 2). Fit for my values. 3). Ethical “ickiness”.
Over the past 10 years of me working for nonprofit organizations, I started to ask more and better high-level questions, beyond the simple question of what an organization does. I started to ask myself: What makes for a good nonprofit organization, as distinct from what makes for a good nonprofit cause? How do we make sure our giving is ethical, relatively self-aware, and doing a good in one area without perpetuating harms in another? What are the social and systemic implications of how I give and to what causes?
As I read and thought and explored, two influences became the voices in my head: the work of Peter Singer (particularly his book The Most Good You Can Do) and the website GiveWell.org. Singer argues that no one life is more important than another (including our own), and he and GiveWell examine the way to get the most impact out of every dollar we give, and highlight the charities making the biggest impact according to their metrics.
(Now, I do think that there are two additional considerations that I would add to Singer’s analysis and that I think he and GiveWell don’t rate as highly as I think necessary. While I agree that no one life is more important than another, I think we as individuals have a special responsibility to the immediate people around us. If we are donating to the Against Malaria Foundation, but not voting for elected officials who fight to protect the voting rights and healthcare access of people in their own country, I think our overall “ethical impact” is either neutral or negative. We can’t be said to truly be doing “good” in the broad sense. In a way, it is easy to want to save the life of a caricature, of a no-name foreigner whom we don’t know, whose complexities, weaknesses, and differences from us are not known to us and thus don’t intrude on our good will towards them. It can be much harder to fight to improve the lives of people we live in community with, because those are the people we know and as such, are the people we sometimes struggle with in our efforts to build a larger community that reflects our values, when “collective” values can be highly contentious and conflicting. We cannot and will not agree with everyone, and this intrudes on the ease with which we feel compassion for others and the ease with which we donate to support their wellbeing and their freedom to make the decisions that are right for them, even if those choices are ones we find valuationally problematic. All that to say, I’m not sold on the idea that “impact” is always best assessed by number of lives directly benefitting from a donation.
(Secondly, I don’t see any environmental/conservation/climate change orgs on these lists. This is such a huge problem, as climate change is going to impact the future wellbeing of millions, if not billions, of people in the world. It’s ludicrous this cause is never mentioned. I realize that it is really hard to determine impact for some of these massive, systemic issues with future impacts we cannot determine for certain [beyond broad generalities of “this will happen to certain segments of the world population”], so I sympathize with the difficulty of determining and assessing appropriate metrics for comparison and analysis. Nonetheless, conservation and climate change absolutely need to be part of the conversation.)
BUT I DIGRESS.
Back to my Compassion, International story. As I was evaluating the kinds of causes I would donate to in terms of impact and financial transparency, I was also evaluating what kind of values I wanted my philanthropy to support. What values was I using to evaluate the goods, harms, and work needed in the world? What do I think is important for peoples’ wellbeing? What “good” am I not able to offer to others such that making a donation to that kind of work would make me a person who still advances that good even if direct impact is beyond my ability?
This is where I changed the most in the 15 years since I started donating to Compassion, International. In my previous mindset, nothing mattered more than spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I thought that donating to organizations providing aid to impoverished children was important, but it was even better if that support was given in a Christian setting with Christian messages and Christian teachings.
I no longer believe that. In fact, I now believe that the Bible and lots of Christian teachings are more harmful in a deep, psychological way than they are good. I have gone from believing that those teachings were the path to wellbeing to believing that those teachings were actively harming the full wellbeing of individuals and communities.
I started to get uncomfortable with my monthly donation to Compassion. So I started to look into their financials, to see if I could find a way to feel good about my donation. Where was my money going? How much of each gift went to supplies for the child I was paired with, and how much went to overhead or executive compensation? Now, I am not saying I would like none of my donation to go to compensation. It’s impossible to do good work without paying people to do that good work (because who else does the work than people?!), and I want to make sure the people doing the work are paid a healthy, livable, comfortable salary with robust health benefits because they are people and deserve those things by virtue of being people. However, there is a line, however gray, where the balance between the two becomes unappealing to me as a donor. I wasn’t clear on where that line was with Compassion, but I was committed to doing the research to find it out.
I found nothing. I found high-level financial reports, but no breakdowns that gave me the information I was looking for. I emailed asking to talk to someone or receive more information, and got no response. My unease grew, as did my confusion. Was I supporting more of an evangelistic, missionary effort that fundamental conflicted with my deep values (born out of my own pain and trauma and healing), or was I supporting efforts that fundamentally fit with my deep values (born out of my pain and trauma and healing)? Compassion, it seemed, was doing both, but I couldn’t find answers as to how much of each my dollars were supporting.
Finally, the straw that broke the camel’s back, as it were, was my continuing education into White Saviorism. I started to be uncomfortable with how Compassion was using children to cajole or even manipulate people into donating. On one hand, this strategy for the organization is rather authentic and is smart from a marketing and psychological standpoint. These are the individuals Compassion was connecting with, and people feel connection with individuals; our empathy has a limit. Further, we don’t want to erase the very people we are trying to help, the very people who need help. On the other, was this marketing strategy perpetuating harmful stereotypes? Was it building up a White Savior complex in its white donors?
Though I still don’t have great answers to these questions (nor do I think that any organization is able to be perfectly ethical in them to be worth supporting), I came to believe that it comes down to the history and mission of the organization, and how that organization and its general demographic has responded to the current racial and systemic issues facing our country (America) and the inequalities in the world at large. Frankly, being an organization primarily attracting white evangelical Christians, I do not like where Compassion sits in that regard.
It took a couple months of wrestling with the decision (was I abandoning the young child I was paired with?), but I finally called Compassion to cancel my monthly donation. And my interaction with the representative made the rightness of my decision so, so clear. The lady I spoke to got really snippy with me. She asked why I was canceling, and I shared that I wanted to support organizations who are more transparent about their financials, and that since I was no longer a Christian, the values of Compassion no longer aligned with my own. I wanted my philanthropy to support organizations and missions that were a better fit.
Now, if I heard that from one of the donors to my nonprofit, I would use that opening to ask what their values are, how we do not fit with them, and what they’d like their impact on the world to be. This would not be in an attempt to convince them that our values align, but would be an attempt to get to know them better as people, to appreciate the diverse good people want to bring to this world, and sure, to see if there are areas for deepening their understanding of our organization and our work over the next few years, if I found there were ways our work did align with their values in ways they didn’t see. But in that particular call or meeting, I would listen, express understanding for their decision, and wish them well in figuring out their personal philanthropic mission, thanking them for being committed to making a difference in this world even if it wasn’t through our organization.
I got none of that (not that I expected that level of conversation for merely a monthly donation, but I hoped for a little!). The woman said to me in a deeply judgmental and critical tone: “I hope you will write a letter to your child letting them know this wasn’t their fault. They often think it’s their fault.”
Ok. Several things wrong with this. 1). It is NOT my job as a donor to communicate difficult messages with the people the organization serves. That is COMPASSION’S job. The children are under Compassion’s direct care; that message and an assurance of a decision to cease support being about the donor, not the child, needs to be part of Compassion’s care for the children, not the responsibility of the donor.
2). It was a clear guilt-trip and shaming of my decision to support organizations that I feel are doing the most good. It is incredibly bad form to make your donors feel guilty for not giving anymore, especially when the donor made clear it was because the organization no longer aligns with their values. That amounts to shaming the donor for being someone the organization thinks they shouldn’t be. And I refuse to accept any more shame from the Christian community for my values, for my hard-won, deeply-analyzed beliefs, and for trying to do actual good in the world.
Today, even as I write this weeks later, I still have twinges of guilt thinking of the child I was supporting and what they are going through — both as a result of me stopping my donation, and the reality of their sufferings in their part of the world. But the fact is, I also felt guilty about perpetuating a system where they receive necessary aid but on the condition that they are exposed to and required to participate in an ideology that I have since found to have been incredibly harmful to my own intellectual and emotional well-being.
It was all complicated and a struggle to figure out what to do. In the end, I believe there was no wholly good thing I could do here, but I believe my decision to stop donating to Compassion, International was the best decision I could make in the circumstances.
I share this (long) story because I think my story is the story of donors in general, especially donors my age (late 30s, early 40s) who are realizing and settling into our sense of self and what values we actually hold. Someone’s decision to donate to an organization is not just about the organization, it’s about the donor. In this case, Compassion didn’t change; I changed. My beliefs changed. My values changed. My beliefs about the value of the work they’re offering and doing changed. And as I changed, as my values shifted, it just happened to be in a direction away from the values of Compassion.
While I have strong opinions about what nonprofits should do and what constitutes a “good” nonprofit, in a way this wasn’t about the goodness or badness of Compassion as an organization. It was simply about fit. Compassion just doesn’t fit with my values anymore. I realized my values both for what nonprofits do financially (transparency) and what nonprofits do “in the field” (no requirements for religion for services needed) no longer aligned with what I believe is important, and with the impact I want my life and my philanthropy to have on the world and people around me.
Because in reality nonprofits and donors are partnering to make a difference in the ways they both want to see in the world. I can’t physically protect all the endemic species I love. I can’t teach children math, music, science, and literature. I can’t take in all the children who need homes. So I partner with nonprofits to make an impact in those areas.
So I’m looking forward to putting the monthly donation I was sending to Compassion to a cause that aligns with my current values. I know what causes mean the most to me (conservation/climate change, foster care, education, systemic racism, issues that arise from systemic domestic or international income inequality) so now I have more financial flexibility to donate to causes nearer and dearer to my heart, and thus to feel proud about my philanthropy, however meager it is at this point in my life.