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Tips & Advice

Teaching people to "fish"

Ryan Jones September 11, 2012

We use the cliché about giving a man a fish a lot in charity circles. Typically it's used in the context of hand outs vs. hand ups, and the discussion often centres around the need for one-off relief versus the benefit of educating and equipping people for future success.

While the charity world is notorious for taking the (somewhat pious) “we don't do handouts” approach in the services they offer (relief specifically), they will accept any “handouts” their donors will provide.

But who can blame them, right? They need cash today to continue the good work tomorrow is a good reason. They cannot afford to educate and equip on the broader understanding of giving or philanthropy because their immediate need for money is so high. So the charity becomes much like the client it serves – unable or unwilling to “go long.” There's no opportunity to teach donors about fishing and instead just ask for the fish itself  (to steal the analogy). The fish feed the immediate need, while teaching to fish is … a gamble, and donors punish charities who gamble.

Two questions from this scenario seem to arise:
1. Is this a problem? Is this a cycle even worth breaking?
2. How do we break that cycle?

Many may feel there’s no actual problem to be solved. If the fish keep biting (donors keep donating) when charities ask, where is the problem? Ask and receive, it seems simple enough.

But who restocks the pond?

If we look five years out and see a donor pool that’s weary of repeated asks, is tired of the "a-thons,” and doesn't want to hear what they can do with “just $1 a day,” then we have a problem.

It’s giving based solely on asking and drawing money from the same sources, over and over. The problem comes from donating in reaction to something, rather than being charitable in a proactive sense. If someone needs to be asked in order to give, they’ll always need to be asked – and they’ll grow tired of it. But if they give because they see a need and choose to help, they’ll be more inclined to continue giving on their own.

It's not an easy problem to solve, but it's one worth chimping away at (see what I did there?!). The solution requires the active involvement and partnerships of people across the board – donors, charities, businesses.

It’s a big problem, but one worth solving. One the Charitable Impact Foundation is tackling, and one I’d love to hear your thoughts on. I’ll also follow up with some suggestions of my own for donors, charities and businesses in future posts.

– Jeffrey Golby, Charitable Impact Foundation

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