Charitable giving: It’s hard to do good

I feel ripped off, but in retrospect I saw it coming. My daughter and I had been gifted with the audio recording of Three Cups of Tea by a friend who had been inspired by Greg Mortenson and his tale of working to develop the Central Asia Institute, to bring education to the children of Pakistan and Afghanistan. It particularly touched our hearts because he focused on the most underserved—girls in these societies.

But, even when tears rolled down our cheeks, I heard a little voice inside me. Having worked in social services for a number of years, I’m always a little wary of selfless heroes with passionate obsessions. I’ve sometimes found, in the words of an old musical, that they care more about the bleeding crowd than about a needy friend. A person who appears to be immune to the creature comforts and needs that most of us have can also have an ego immune to criticism or input, and little sensitivity or tolerance for others’ human foibles. Also, such leaders (in my experience) give little attention to the daily requirements of running a responsible organization. Actually, Mr. Mortenson didn’t seem particularly sensitive, even in the book, to the needs of the women in his own life, and this nagged at me.

In my days in Washington I saw plenty of charismatic leaders who played fast and loose with the bookkeeping, not for personal profit, but because they had no training in accounting and because they were far too busy trying to promote and do good and there are only so many hours in a day. The best of them realized they couldn’t do everything and hired staff that could pick up those tasks. But with celebrity, often the money comes in so fast that there’s no time to get organized. Once, an organization in which I was working was featured in Parade magazine. We got thousands of dollars in donations from people who thought we would put them to use for children. Unfortunately, we were really an umbrella organization for local groups—essentially their advocacy group in D.C. And we had no staff to answer the thousands of letters. We detailed one already-very-busy person to it, but by the time he wrote all those letters, the donations about equaled his salary for the time. Really, none of the sincere donations did any good whatsoever.

So, what’s the point here—don’t give money to charity? Well, as the old newsman’s saying goes, if your mother tells you something, check it out. The problem here is that I DID check it out. The Central Asia Institute got a stellar rating from Charity Navigator, Mortenson’s salary was reasonable, and everything looked good. In fact, a respected journalist, Jon Krakauer, had donated a respectable chunk of change to CAI also. And he’s plenty mad about it, too. It’s also still important to remember that all the facts are not yet in, but really, it doesn’t look good and I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s thinking maybe there are other places to put money. The point is, no matter what investment you make (and charity is an investment), there’s always risk. You check it out the best you can, think about why you’re investing, and recognize that in some (hopefully few) instances, it’s not going to work out as well as you’d hoped. But you have to keep trying.