By Guest Blogger, Anna Sidana
Founder and CEO, One Million Lights
I usually wake up at 6:00 am to my favorite music. Before making myself a cup of tea, I catch up on world news and check in on the financial markets. Fast forward to the evening….as soon as I come home, I turn on the lights, check the refrigerator and settle into making dinner. After dinner, the kids and I watch some TV, or listen to some music and do homework. We all read before turning off the lights for the day.
Of course, we live with electricity and don’t have to think about any of these mundane things too much. We enjoy electricity and energy in every aspect of our lives. In fact, our quality of life is unparalleled, and we take it all for granted.
For a moment, close your eyes and imagine life without all that. Imagine a child growing up in a rural village where the families live at subsistence level without any clean source of light. The children wake up at the crack of dawn to study and then walk several miles to get to school. The school day is rigorous and grueling. After school, the children work in the fields to earn money to pay for kerosene that will light their tin lamps in the evening.
Burning kerosene is toxic to respiratory systems and causes injuries from burns in homes where it is used for cooking and light. It is also a key source of carbon in our environment. One Million Lights is a two- year-old nonprofit with the goal of replacing one million kerosene lamps with clean healthy solar alternatives for lighting. Solar powered light is such a natural choice and so multifaceted. It is clean and healthy, renewable and environmentally friendly. Solar energy is abundant, and every day enough solar energy strikes the US that it could meet our energy needs for a year and a half.
A critical problem that is holding up global development is poverty. Poverty stands in the way of education, health, hygiene, and economic development.
Light helps on all those fronts. At first, it provides hope, then it changes outcomes. Like the young 10th grader in Rajasthan India who found that her burden was heavy with housework, fieldwork and taking care of her younger siblings. There was pressure to get married. She wrote me a letter. If it had not been for the lights that allowed her to study after chores, she would have had to give up her education, the key to a more independent and prosperous future.
One Million Lights sources solar re-chargeable flashlights from many vendors. These lights are then distributed in over 20 countries around the world through our ambassador and partner programs. The lights are used by children to study at night and by adults to increase their meager income levels. Clean, healthy solar light also reduces the hazards associated with kerosene accidents and smoke while eliminating carbon from our atmosphere.
Here in the U.S., we engage with our own youth in schools and enable them to think solar and clean-tech. We make it possible for them to experience the monumental difference they can make to someone’s life with something that costs as little as a few lattes.
One Million Lights is changing lives one by one, and so can you by donating a solar light today at http://.onemillionlights.org.
Hey! Don’t feel like a dummy if you donated money to the Central Asia Institute after reading Three Cups of Tea! You’re in good company as tens of millions of dollars came in from readers, including $100,000 from Barack Obama who donated part of his Nobel Peace Prize award (Mortenson was a runner-up, so again, good company along with the Nobel Prize Committee).
What happened in the case of Mortenson and the CAI is incredibly unique and not in any way representative of the million+ charities operating in the U.S.
Mortenson was doing a good job building schools and providing an education to children in Afghanistan and Pakistan before Three Cups of Tea was published. However, the confluence of a good story (perhaps buffeted with some tall tales) and even better mission (to bring peace through education) brought Mortenson face-to-face with the Peter Principle, which states: “‘In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence,’ meaning that employees tend to be promoted until they reach a position at which they cannot work competently.” (source: Wikipedia)
Nobody anticipated how wildly successful the book would be and how much money would rush in to the CAI as a result. Mortenson lacked both the inclination and the business acumen to grow CAI in pace with its massive rise in revenues. Founder’s Syndrome kicked in, and he balked at growing his staff and board of directors to effectively put the money to use. Founders of organizations often don’t like to give away or even share control of their babies. I am sympathetic! At the same time, as a steward of donors’ trust and contributions, founders-in-chief must gird themselves and their babies with good oversight from a competent board of directors and enough boots on the ground (staff) to make the work happen.
Though we are unlikely to see another Greg Mortenson-type tale again soon, here are some good criteria to help you decide if a charity is likely to use your donation as you intend.
#1. Yes, you can still look at CharityNavigator, Guidestar and the Better Business Bureau’s nonprofit list. These watchdog groups are a very good place to start your due diligence. Here’s a caveat: if a nonprofit is not conducting external audits, skip it unless you feel very confident in other indicators.
#2. How many directors sit on the board? I propose the following as a rule of thumb; however, you’ll find many nonprofit do not meet these numbers. It is hard to recruit board members today! So, again, you’ll have to look at this factor along with the other criteria in this post.
organizations with revenues up to $250K: at least 4
organizations with revenues up to $500K: at least 6
organizations with revenues up to $2 million: at least 8 active board members
organizations with revenues above $2 million: at least 10 very active board members plus additional committee members who do not need to sit on the board.
#3. The Common Sense Factor
This is the gut feeling you get by looking at the charity’s website, annual reports and other informational materials. The Common Sense Factor answers the questions
Does the model seem logical? No, you don’t need to be an expert in the field to judge this.
Are there enough staff members to conduct the work?
How does the organization evaluate its effectiveness? Does it tell you how it does?
Does the info the charity provides on numbers of people served, health clinics built, food distributed, etc. seem feasible? How does the charity count/verify this information?
Here’s what tipped me off about the Central Asia Institute.
When I asked for information about the organization before making a donation, the materials they sent me were OVER THE TOP in their production quality and the sheer quantity of full-color postcards they sent in a glossy two-pocket folder was astounding.
Nonprofits must promote and market! They must produce professional-looking materials that grab attention and inform. They do not need multiple 4×6 frame-worthy heavy stock cards to illustrate their good work.
Right then, I knew CAI was allocating too much funding to promotion, AND it was unclear how much promotion was aimed at encouraging me to donate vs. buy Greg’s book.
Common Sense. It works. Trust yourself. Don’t be bought by a slick message or pretty materials. Don’t donate to a person; donate to the organization if you believe it’s doing its job.
I’m in a quandary about the use of celebrities to promote charitable causes through their public-relations-team-written statements of personal commitment and request for your support. Does the celebrity stamp of approval mean anything? Is it beneficial? Detrimental? Has anyone run the numbers on this? I mean, we market test everything now, so I assume someone’s checked out the benefits. But, I wonder how? Do they test the same message but delivered by different celebs? Same celebs, different messages? Celebs by gender, ethnicity, area of “celebrityhood”?
At this moment, I have back-to-back emails sent to me personally by celebrities Scarlett Johansson and Sarah Jessica Parker asking me personally to join them in supporting Oxfam America and UNICEF respectively. Both are gilded with the title “Ambassador,” so their messages seem especially full of good will, urgency and lack of self-interest. Right?
It takes much more than a famous face or best-selling book to ignite meaningful change.
Well, I’m jaded this week because 60 Minutes dethroned nonprofit rock star Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools and founder of the Central Asia Institute. Greg was an ordinary Joe doing good before the book about his work building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan vaulted him to the stratosphere of do-gooders that includes the likes of Bono and Angelina Jolie.
The first book came out full of riveting if not entirely truthful stories that crescendoed, proving his truly was “One Man’s Journey to Promote Peace.” Readers loved it! They read, and they gave. Greg himself became the celebrity spokesperson for his nonprofit CAI and got a little too big for his britches. Turns out he didn’t want to have to deal with all that auditing, donor stewardship or board development hokum.
So, dear reader, beware the cause that relies on a thriving cult of personality to sell its story. A mission to create real change is bigger, much bigger than any one person or personality – quirky and charming though it may be.
I’ll bet if we could ask Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa or Nelson Mandela what is required to create real change, they’d tell us to crowd that celebrity platform with as many worker bees as possible who share the message, the mission and the work. Greg Mortenson has a three-person board (himself counted as one) and one and one-half paid staff at CAI.
Maybe a charismatic and familiar face in the front ain’t so bad, but I better see (or at least hear about) all the average Joe’s who share the stage before I consider getting out the checkbook.
I often hear from folks that they are afraid to give to charities in response to natural disasters because they think it’s more likely their donations will be misused in these situations. Ok, reality check time.
Of course I advocate due diligence before donating, but there are many who will do that for you, including vetting bodies such as Charity Navigator and me!
Of course, there have been occasions when nonprofits, some huge some small, have not made the most efficient use of disaster-related funds or have put excess funds to use elsewhere without being completely upfront about that with their donors. There is also the rare true scammer asking you to text for good while lining his own pockets, HOWEVER, you should know that these are far and away the exceptions and not the rule!
Quite frankly, most of us are not giving huge amounts of money – we can’t afford to, which is OK for two reasons: First, whatever we can give will make a difference, and secondly, we aren’t giving so much away that IF our funds were somehow mishandled, we haven’t risked a huge investment.
This issue is a bit like people’s fear of flying. Truth is, you’re 1000s of times more likely to die in a car accident within a few miles of your home than in a catastrophic plane crash. Similarly, you’re much likelier to get ripped off by the cost of the fancy cup of coffee you buy every day than by the donation you make to charity.
Besides, in the end, isn’t it better to give to a recommended nonprofit and help provide rescue and relief to those who are suffering rather than withhold out of an irrational fear that your $50, which you’d probably blow on a dinner out anyway, might not go exactly where you hoped?
Have you heard the news? The Gates Foundation is going to save Africa! Yessss. In the meantime, Bradjolina, Madonna, Wyclef Jean, Mr. and Mrs. Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner, George Clooney, Sean Penn, Demi and Ashton and their many famous friends are taking care of the rest of the world’s social challenges!
Of course, I’m all for everyone doing good and doing what they can. Kudos to these folks for their efforts, but the comments above reflect the exaggerated notion we get from the media that only the wealthy and/or famous can create change.
The power of giving by everyday American households is equal to the power of giving by the wealthy.
In reality, JUST AS MUCH credit must go to the work-a-day citizens who see something in the mail, on tv, in an email, on facebook or twitter, in their families, their neighborhoods or their children’s schools that moves them to go to their computers or take out a checkbook and give.
In fact, individuals provide 75% of ALL giving in the U.S. every year. Only 5% comes from corporations and 15% from foundations. Affordable donations by everyday philanthropists sustain the nonprofit sector and fuel the development and dissemination of innovations to tackle poverty, disease, lack of schooling, etc.
Over $220 billion in 2009 came from American individuals. According to the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, nearly half of that came from non-wealthy households – those with incomes of less than $200,000 and net worth of less than $1,000,000.
So contrary to popular belief, the power of giving by everyday American households is equal to the power of giving by the wealthy. In 2009, the Gates Foundation made $3 billion in grants. If we assume everyday households gave $110 billion, that’s 36 times the power of the world’s wealthiest foundation.
I ask you to remember that there is often no correlation between the magnitude in importance of a story and the amount of media coverage it receives. I give you the sad demise of Charlie Sheen as a timely example.
The big story in philanthropy today is that there are millions of everyday donors who are funding change in their communities, states, the country and the world.
Their contributions are just as important to saving Africa and taking on the biggest social challenges of our time.
“A working class hero is something to be.” John Lennon