The inadequacies of donating to charities
// Evelyn Cranston

Capitalism encourages us to acquire as much as possible, and if we were a colony of robots, this wouldn’t be a problem. As humans, however, examining global disparity leaves us with a moral imperative to act for the good of others.

Because we in the privileged West have so much and others in the world seem to have so little, it may appear that sending our material excesses overseas to the poverty-stricken is a win-win situation. We feel good about minimizing our possessions, while the “poor others” get the items they need.

Reality differs slightly, however; the recipients of our well-intentioned donations often do not receive neither what they need nor want, but rather what we perceive will materialistically better their lives. We are thus using foreign countries and their citizens as outlets to unload our guilt and dump off what we no longer want, leaving us turning a blind eye to the consequences.

This process is known as "dumping", and although not every charitable organization is guilty of this, the ones that are may be doing more harm than good.

Dambisa Moyo, PhD in economics and author of Dead Aid, explains, “The aid model is couched in the sense that Africans are not capable of doing it themselves.” As a Zambian, she understands firsthand the damage that well-intentioned aid can do to a country.

Dead Aid focuses mainly on analyses of largescale international government aid programs, but Moyo advises a critical approach to aid of any sort. She directly links overseas humanitarian aid to rising rates of poverty, showing that aid fosters dependence from the receiving country to the one that is giving, thus perpetuating the cycle of poverty instead of solving the problems at their root. She continues, “The American society does not operate by sitting around and waiting for handouts, why should we as Africans?”


Saundra Schimmelpfennig is the author a blog called Good Intentions Are Not Enough who worked in a non-governmental organization (NGO) co-ordinating office in Thailand after the 2004 tsunami. She states, “What we saw was a lot of aid that left people no better off than if they hadn’t received it, or sometimes even worse off … I’m positive that nobody set out to make things worse, but good intentions are not enough, it takes more than that.”

To ensure donors were making wise choices, she developed a current events blog and an educational Charity Rater tool. The first dimension of the Charity Rater examines the finances of an NGO. Schimmelpfennig says, “I try to immediately dispel the myth that administrative costs are what you should be looking for.” She explains that when choosing a project or group to donate to, many look at the administrative costs and judge that the higher the proportion, the less effective their donation will be: “Low admin cost is absolutely zero indicator of how effective a non-profit is … Non-profits have learned to manipulate it.”

High administration costs can also be linked to fair staff wages, a positive aspect of an NGO, especially if the positions are creating jobs for the local economy.

With the holidays around the corner, many thoughtfully see sponsoring a child in another country as a conscious alternative to a physical present. The administrative costs of these programs are exceptionally low, making them look cost-effective, and because getting matched up with a sponsor child is quick and easy, fulfillment comes fast.

In most cases, the company will provide the donor with a photo and small write-up of the sponsored child, creating the impression of a personal connection. However, Schimmelpfennig points out a major possible flaw with these programs – when someone sponsors a child, an inexpensive money wiring and bank transfer program is set up to that child, but what has happened in the past is that “the less honest principals [of the child’s school] would either get the child’s bank account set up to their name, and get the money transferred to the school or himself instead of the child, or they’d open up bank accounts in multiple banks, taking each non-profit to a new bank and the bank wouldn’t tip the nonprofit off that the kid had already got a sponsorship somewhere else,” she explains.

What could end up happening is one child getting five or six sponsorships, principals receiving misdirected money, and the neediest children getting overlooked.

When choosing an NGO to donate to, another aspect to consider is their financial processes and internal structure. Schimmelpfennig says, “There’s a lot of embezzling that can happen if there are not the same checks and balances that a company might have in place.”

NGOs should have annual audit reports available to the public, to ensure accountability. As well, she advises that the governing board should be made up of at least five members who all come from a diverse background, and are not closely related to the senior management.

Greg Mortenson, founder of the Central Asia Institute and author of Three Cups of Tea, has recently come under fire for accusations of fraud. The book had gained enormous popularity, with millions of well-meaning dollars funnelled into the Institute; books went flying off the shelves as Christmas presents. When put in the spotlight, however, the Institute was exposed to show very little accomplishments, and the book proved to have fabricated elements.

These issues could have been predicted, according to Schimmelpfennig: “The governing board only had three people on it, and one of those three people was Greg Mortenson (also senior director and founder). There was no separation of power, and not enough other voices to counter balance or outvote him.” Saundra also highlights the irony of “having a governing board of all wealthy white males in the US, doing activities for poor females of a minority population in a developing country.”


How either an NGO or an individual chooses to donate is extremely important. There’s evidence that donating physical goods to developing countries is not only ineffectual and essentially useless, but actually detrimental to the well-being of local economies, and undermines efforts of cultural preservation.

Charitable marketing is a tool employed by Ethos water at Starbucks, Pink Ribbon products, TOMS Shoes or The Gap’s product (RED) line, among many others. The idea is that people will buy bottled water, socks, shoes, and t-shirts anyway, so with the money spent going towards a “good cause”, these purchases will increase the total amount of funds raised for that cause.

It is also believed that this model alleviates the consumer’s feelings of personal guilt and responsibility that may arise when shopping. While gift shopping, it can be tempting to purchase items that have the added bonus of “giving back”.

Aradhna Krishna of the University of Michigan published a study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology that challenged assumptions surrounding charitable marketing. She found that this buying pattern decreases total donations, because people substitute charitable consumption for direct donations.

Sending physical goods overseas can also harm industries in recipient countries. Garth Frazer published in the Economic Journal that, as reported in Foreign Policy Magazine, used clothing donations cut employment in the apparel industry in Africa by half from 1981 to 2000. Schimmelpfennig states that because of job loss, “you’re actually increasing the number of people who need assistance, rather than decreasing it.”

Phil from the blog Phil in the Blank states, “Our flawed perception of Africa has done such a good job stripping Africans of agency that we find it hard to believe that Africans can start and run their own enterprises.”

Children overseas sport Tim Hortons' summer camp shirts and tattered ADIDAS shorts, while local textile industries flounder and fail. Ironically, many of these donated garments were originally produced within that country, so the products are coming full circle. When donating excess or used clothing, local merchants who produce authentic, symbolic, and cultural garments, often using locally sourced fabrics and dyes, lose their economic stability.

Instead of prosperous artists and workers expressing culture through clothing, what’s left is a failing local economy and residents bearing the products and brands of Western culture. In addition, the costs of collecting, shipping, and distributing donations to remote areas far outweigh the cost of buying the same product within a community.

Schimmelpfennig recalls a story about working in post-disaster Thailand, saying, “Far more clothing was donated than was wanted. Clothes would become these enormous heaps in the middle of the temporary camps … Children were playing on them, they were attempting to burn the clothing for fuel. Suddenly, the temporary camps couldn’t take any more clothing. So when these truckloads of clothing would show up, they’d turn them away. The trucks would go from camp to camp and no one would accept more clothing. The truck drivers however, were paid to deliver the goods. They got to the point where they were dumping the clothing beside the road, so they could return with an empty truck. What would happen was that the livestock that were out grazing were getting into the clothing and choking on it. Some people had to stop the relief effort to clean up the clothing so people weren’t losing their livelihoods.”

She visited an NGO office one year after the disaster to find a seven-car parking lot filled with head-height crates storing excess clothing donations.

Where does our desire to throw our castoff clothing at other people come from? Schimmelpfennig’s theory is that it is partly related to the environmental movement: we’ve become more aware of the trash we produce and the consequences it has on ecosystems. However, she explains, “We don’t realize that very often, it just becomes trash in another country. We’re sending a mass amount of unusable goods to someone else’s garbage dump.”

World Vision recently accepted over 100,000 pre-printed NFL Super Bowl loser team products. World Vision states, “[We] identify countries and communities in need overseas who will benefit from the gear. This year’s unused Super Bowl merchandise will make its way to Zambia, Armenia, Nicaragua, and Romania in the months to come. On average, this equates to … $2 million worth of product that, instead of being destroyed, will help children and adults in need.”

Are children and adults in developing countries really in need of t-shirts when, according to UNICEF, preventable diseases claim an average of 21 children per minute? World Vision and the NFL are constructing positive reputations, rather than providing essential products. They’re using recipient countries as self-serving, romanticized, glorified landfills.

The blog Tales from the Hood covers “rants, raves, and a few confessions about humanitarian aid work.” In early 2010, they produced the SWEDOW (Stuff We Don’t Want) award list. Knickers 4 Africa, now non-operational, took first place. Their mission was to donate, according to the blog, “gently used knickers [underwear] … to a knicker-less woman in the country of ‘Africa’.” Runners-up included Little Dresses for Africa (donating dresses sewn from pillowcases) and Soles 4 Souls (distributing plastic sandals).

TOMS Shoes, ubiquitous on campus and overseas, follows a model that for every pair of shoes bought, the company donates one pair to “children in need”, as per their website. As of September 2010, one million pairs had been distributed. Their motivation is the prevalence of diseases transmitted by soil, through open wounds on bare feet, as well as rounding off the necessary uniform requirements for a child to attend school.

These are indeed problems, but donating TOMS Shoes is not a viable and effective means of ending them. Their website states, “Giving is what fuels us, giving is our future.” Giving is the operational word that the company is founded upon, but giving is the root problem. The company has created the misconception that there are no shoes available in the countries they donate to, when in fact there is no shortage of shoes, people willing to make shoes, or materials to construct them.

The shoes donated by Tom’s are expected to last approximately one year, likely less with heavy usage, before they wear out. This is a feel good, pseudo-development initiative, aimed at improving the lives of consumers, rather than recipients. If someone was truly concerned about soil-transmitted diseases, or a child not being able to attend school because they don’t have shoes, they could donate money to fund sustainable, local initiatives that would ensure the children’s families make enough to pay for locally-produced and lasting footwear.

Food is another arena of inappropriate giving. Economist Amartya Sen, in her book Poverty and Famines, shows conclusive proof that people do not die of starvation because there is no food available in their country; people starve to death because they can’t afford to buy food. Food may be plentiful, but is unequally distributed.

Even during crises, such as drought, Charles Kenny, a senior Fellow at the Center for Global Development, writes in an article for Foreign Policy Magazine, “Shipping US food abroad in response to humanitarian disasters is so cumbersome it takes four to six months to get there after the crisis begins. Buying food locally, the US Government Accountability Office has found, would be 25 per cent cheaper and considerably faster, too.”

It’s true that richer countries have a responsibility to assist other countries, but critical analysis is required to determine if development actions are supportive, or detrimental to progress.

LeSEA Global Feed the Hungry is a registered charity based around preventing death due to malnutrition. One program initiative aims to “supply nutritious, daily meals to vulnerable children living in the world's least developed nations. Our goal is for 100,000 children to have their physical and spiritual needs met by (one of our) programs.”

Feed the Hungry distributes food bought with donation dollars, with a side serving of faith. The Canadian branch website states, “With each distribution we ensure that people have the opportunity to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ. While physical food will only last for a short time, the people are also given the Bread of Life that will last for eternity.”

The faith aspect of Feed the Hungry is not unique, but is unfortunately reminiscent of widespread Christianization in Africa during the colonial period. Feed the Hungry is built on a foundation of giving, again ignoring that cyclic poverty, not scarcity, leaves empty bellies. Not only does their organizational framework hold food hostage for acceptance of bible literalism, it fails to grasp a basic understanding of sustainable development.

Engineers without Borders – University of Calgary Branch founder David Damberger believes that we need to embrace and accept development failure. At a Tedx event, he discussed a clean water project where eager engineering students constructed gravity fed water systems in Malawi.

Returning to the project site one year later, they found that 80 per cent of the taps were broken and unusable. As well, they noticed defunct taps from a previous NGO undertaking. He states, “Even though the infrastructure was built, there was no thinking about who was going to maintain the system.”

Building empty projects that lack a structure for sustainability is a pattern we avert our eyes to in development.

Damberger says, “It feels a lot better when your money goes to something tangible, like a well, or a school, or giving a family a goat. It’s not as sexy or easy to tell your friends that you helped fund a water committee or paid for teacher’s salaries.” Ignoring failures in development leaves us in a predictable routine of constructing short term projects, watching them fail, and then rebuilding.


This season is the time of giving, but it’s clear that donations of physical goods, food, or projects are not effective means of development. What’s a well-meaning well off individual to do? Schimmelpfennig advises, “Money. Always donate money instead. Even locally, money is a better donation.”

She notes that many people feel like giving money is crass, whereas the physical acts of gathering, packaging, and shipping donated goods show more consideration and care. However, money presents a choice – and as she puts it, “there’s dignity in choice.”

As research done at the University of Oslo states, “Poverty does not only entail material hardship, but [it] also humiliates. Poverty wreaks psychological havoc, in addition to and connected with material misery.”

Asking for help, aid or assistance can be a humiliating process and dignity is not a small matter. Stripping dignity from someone by dumping unneeded products into their country or cornering them into situations without choices is the last thing a person in dire straits needs.

When choosing an organization to donate to, or participating in charitable consumption, it’s to everyone’s benefit to analyze the situation wholly. Ask yourself if the donation will maintain the dignity of the recipient people and if it will be effective and sustainable. With careful, considerate actions, everyone can enjoy the season of giving.

//Evelyn Cranston, Staff Writer
//Illustrations by Kira Campbell

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© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: editor@capilanocourier.com