by Nick Cooney
John Wiley & Sons
(111 River Street, Hoboken, NJ 07030), 2015.
192 pages, hardcover. $26.00.
or “Why I Bagged the Watchdog Report on Animal Charities after 25 years of number-crunching & program and policy verification”
Reviewed by Merritt Clifton
From the perspective of more than 40 years of accountability reporting about charities, in a range of fields including animals, the environment, the arts, and public health, the only significant argument I can find with Nick Cooney’s book How to be Great at Doing Good is that the people who most need to read it, and guide their charitable giving by it, are the least likely to do so.
Cooney himself understands why, as director of education for Mercy for Animals and founder of The Humane League, and lucidly explains why.
His first eight chapter headings tell the story: Why Charity?, Doing Good or Doing Great, Facing the “Brutal Facts” on How Much Good We Are Accomplishing, Chasing the Bottom Line: How to Do More Good for Less Money, Why Efficiency Means Everything for Donors (and Charities, Too), How We Can Drive Our Favorite Charities to Succeed, Our Brains Don’t Want Us to Be Great at Doing Good, But We Can Outsmart Them, and The Advice We Are Given About Charity is Wrong––Here’s the Truth.
The remaining chapters are good advice, but unfortunately are also wishful thinking: Moving Forward with Humility: Admitting What We Don’t Know, Nine Steps to Greatness, and The Joy of Great Charity.
Nine Steps to Greatness
Cooney does an excellent job of breaking down the process of charitable giving and analysis into simple, easily remembered parts. His Nine Steps to Greatness are:
- Get Serious
- Never Forget the Goal of Charity
- Shun Fuzzy Thinking and Feel-Good Rhetoric––They Are Self-Centered
- Be Aware of the Psychological Biases We All Have
- Be Willing to Face the Hard Facts
- Define and Make Decisions Around a Bottom Line
- Measure, Measure, Measure
- Give Non-Profits the Incentive to Be Great
- And Remember: Never Forget the Goal of Charity
Cooney concludes, “There is an unfathomable amount of very real misery and suffering going on just outside the borders of our comfortable lives. Every charitable decision we make should be based on one question and one question only: Which choice will reduce as much of that suffering as possible?”
Giving money vs. giving time
Cooney’s bottom line criterion applies more to giving money than to donating time, since a volunteer is most effective if doing work that he/she understands, can do well, and is motivated to do. A retired aviation mechanic, for example, might more usefully help an aviation museum, which otherwise might have to hire someone to do the work of maintaining exhibits, than walk dogs for the local humane society––unless the retired aviation mechanic would rather walk dogs.
Nonetheless, Cooney’s general principles are sound. Moreover, they are the same general principles that most donors to animal charities have vaguely in mind when they ask of other people presumed to be knowledgeable, “Is this a good charity to donate to?”
Unfortunately, as the fundraising industry well knows and exploits, the overwhelming majority of donors do not proceed from asking that question to doing any actual independent research. Their consideration of a fundraising appeal goes no further than maybe reading and re-reading the appeal itself, by which time, on average, they have already decided to make a donation.
Donor recognition & response
The fundraising industry knows that most donors decide whether to donate to a direct mail appeal even before opening it. The strength of the begging letter inside the appeal mailing matters most in persuading donors to increase the sum they might plan to give.
The decision to give is triggered chiefly by donor recognition and response to whatever the donor sees first. Thus donors often continue to give generously to organizations and causes which long since ceased to have much relevance to present conditions, while new and dynamic charities addressing the issues of today are left to starve.
The behavioral patterns associated with online donating are as yet less studied and less well understood, but one verity that has carried over from the direct mail era to the online era is that once a donor has established a pattern of response, it seldom changes.
Thus, if a donor decides that a charity is “good” or “bad” before making a first donation, the donor may form a different impression of the charity later. Rarely, however, will a donor change opinions of a charity after beginning to give to it, even if the charity is embroiled in scandals of a major magnitude.
Also, reversals of opinions about charities tend to be linked to scale. Donors change their minds much more easily about small and specialized organizations, such as local dog rescues, than about organizations that are large and diverse, able to bury catastrophic management mistakes beneath a blizzard of appeals about different things they are doing––or claiming to do.
Who Gets The Money?
I will admit to chagrin, but not surprise, that Cooney never once mentions, nor even seems to be dimly aware of, my 25 years of actively advising animal protection donors as editor and compiler of projects entitled Who Gets The Money?, published from 1991 through 2006 in first the Animals’ Agenda magazine and then the Animal People newspaper, and The Watchdog Report on Animal Charities, a handbook published from 1999 through 2013. The latter comprehensively reviewed more than 150 leading animal and habitat protection charities per year, about 100 of them in the U.S., the other 50 abroad.
Who Gets The Money? debuted as a simple resume of the income, operating budgets, assets, and top salaries paid by the animal and habitat protection charities doing the most direct mail fundraising within the U.S.
Drawing the data from IRS Form 990 filings, the first two editions of Who Gets The Money? presented abstracts similar to those offered more recently by Charity Navigator, but with the difference that I verified the data by doing line-by-line comparison of the Form 990 numbers to ensure that fundraising expenses were not declared to be program expense in the name of public education.
Eventually the IRS itself cracked down somewhat on this practice, requiring charities to disclose in a checkbox whether declared fundraising and program expense are mingled. Yet the IRS failed to crack down on cheats who neglected to check the box when they should have––much to the advantage of direct mail fundraisers, some of whom actually hosted seminars in how to game their IRS Form 990 filings.
By the third edition of Who Gets The Money?, I had begun six years of individually reviewing several dozen volunteer donors’ giving lists. Their incentive was to receive more specific advice; mine was to see what else I needed to be doing to make more Who Gets The Money? effective.
What I found, first of all, was that all of my laborious statistical analysis did little more for individual donors than to reassure them that I knew what I was talking about. Though the statistical lines for each charity were no more hard to read than a ballplayer’s statistics, they made much less impression on donor behavior than the donors’ immediate emotional response to the outside of an appeal envelope.
Though disappointing, this did not surprise me. I had already learned, decades earlier, as author of the pioneering statistical study Relative Baseball (1972, 1978, 1979) that even the most dedicated baseball fans respond less to statistical reality than to their rush of excitement at witnessing a dramatic play, however meaningless in the larger context of winning ballgames.
I left the work of better educating baseball fans to the handful of Relative Baseball readers, including Pete Palmer, John Thorn, Bill James, and a small pantheon of other then young men who went on to revolutionize baseball record-keeping. (For an entertaining resumé of their achievements, starring Brad Pitt, see Moneyball.)
On the charitable front, my two-pronged response was to begin doing more and more program verification, comparison of donor expectations to actual organizational policies, and donor education about how fundraising is done.
The Watchdog Report on Animal Charities
Many articles about the latter eventually came together as a handbook entitled Fundraising & Accountibility, used almost entirely to help start-up charities (especially abroad) to develop their fundraising campaigns.
Some of the program and policy research appears to have been used by some donors, mostly in estate planning. All of it informed The Watchdog Report on Animal Charities, produced each year after a grueling 10-week slog to distill all of the major financial, program, and policy particulars of each listed charity into just a few paragraphs meant to enable donors to make their own decisions, using their own criteria, about whether or not a given charity belonged among their priorities for giving.
Unfortunately, though more than 30 million U.S. households give to animal charities, The Watchdog Report on Animal Charities never built a readership of more than a few hundred.
From those readers, I heard two consistent complaints: that I did not give charities a simple “thumbs up” or “thumbs down,” to enable them to make decisions without having to think, and that at $25 a year, about 17¢ per charity listed, it cost too much of the money that purchasers preferred to give directly “to the animals.”
Two people were interested
Upon launching ANIMALS 24-7, in April 2014, I initially had the hope of continuing The Watchdog Report on Animal Charities in an online format, and advertised it for four months, while discovering that keeping up with a 24-7 news cycle did not allow time for doing anything else as time-consuming (and non-lucrative) as The Watchdog Report on Animal Charities had been.
In those two months, only two donors––two!––asked when the electronic edition would become available. Only two more people asked about it after I reluctantly pulled the plug on it.
Nick Cooney, a generation younger than I am, is taking an entirely different approach to donor education than mine. Instead of beginning with the numbers, Cooney is beginning with donor education in the abstract.
Cooney will probably be most successful with the youngest set of donors, who may be the most likely to read How to be Great at Doing Good before reaching their prime giving years and beginning to most avidly throw good money after bad in solving the world’s many problems. If this is the case, we will begin to see the influence of How to be Great at Doing Good in another 10 years or so, as the donor generation who came of age with direct mail passes on, succeeded by the first donors raised in the online information era.