I never cease to be amazed, and annoyed, by how complicated most software is to learn.
I just don’t get it.
Why should any software be any more complicated than using an ATM machine? No one needs a manual or tutorial to get cash from an unfamiliar ATM machine even though you’re handling some pretty serious data – cash!
Yet just about any software program, and even many websites, require training to use.
OK, end of rant on that point other than to say that providing functions and features doesn’t mean squat if people can’t figure them out and actually use them (Are you listening Microsoft?)
The hazards of giving
Actually,this article is only peripherally about software programs, it’s really about the “software” of charitable giving.
When there is a disaster locally, or even halfway around the world, the natural inclination of many people is to help in some way.
That’s a good thing. That impulse is why the human race still exists.
However, how to help effectively is not so easy. Here are two things that in my opinion either don’t help at all or help a lot less than you’d hope.
First, here’s something that does not help…Packing up stuff from your basement, attic, and closets (mostly clothes) and dropping them off at an emergency collection center.
Here’s the reality of that. During emergencies there is almost always a shortage of storage space and manpower, not to mention the ability to deal with extraneous matters.
In every case I’ve seen, un-asked for bundles of clothes, T-shirts, teddy bears, and other “feel good” donations actually cause more problems than they solve. They take up space, they take up manpower to sort and they take up the mental bandwidth of people who already have too much on their plate.
Donated clothes often end up molding away somewhere and are ultimately taken away by people who are in the business of packaging random clothing donations in bulk and exporting them to the Third World where they are sold by the bale. Probably not what the donor intended and definitely not what the group in need needed.
What about cash?
Cash is better because the people on the ground can use it to buy what they actually need, assuming of course what they need is available for sale which is a big assumption.
But there’s a problem with cash, especially when you give it to what I call the mega-charities.
Without starting a long diatribe, because if I start I may never stop, I invite you to Google and see what groups like the Red Cross did with the donations they received after 9/11 and after the New Orleans levee failures and Gulf Coast storm damage.
I guarantee you will be shocked.
I also guarantee you will be shocked at the salaries of the executive directors of some of the mega-charities, the percentage of the money they receive that goes to “overhead”, and the percentage of the money they receive that goes to “promotion.”
Add that to the fact that most of these groups reserve the right to take money you give for Cause A and redirect to Cause B and you have a situation where when you give a $1, you’re lucky if thirty to as little as 5 cents is actually spent the way you hope.
The mega-charities have well oiled promotion machines, put political people on their boards, and for the most part get a free pass from the news media (except for when they get caught red-handed doing “funny” things with donations…which usually happens a few months after every high profile disaster they’re involved in and is only reported in the back of the newspaper.)
Meanwhile, there are small, highly effective, locally based grassroots help groups that are all but starved of meaningful assistance. Yet somehow these folks, without the oak paneled offices and high six-figure director salaries, find a way to do the heavy lifting of helping folks in grave need after disasters.
It’s time to dis-intermediate the world of giving
People give to the mega-charities because mega-charities have an overwhelming advantage over small, grassroots groups when it comes to getting media attention.
What, if anything, can be done about this?
Well, if the music industry could be dis-intermediated and the stock brokerage industry could be dis-intermediated and just about every industry you can think of these days can be dis-intermediated, then why not charitable giving?
The word “dis-intermediate” means to remove intermediaries, also known as middlemen. The middleman business is a great business – especially for middlemen – but it doesn’t serve the consumer or, in this case, people in need.
The question is how do you cut the mega-charity middlemen out of the supply chain? Or at least reduce their cut to a reasonable amount and redirect resources to where they are truly needed with a minimum of waste.
The Internet to the rescue again
When you spend time in relief efforts as I have, you always find two things: a shortage of actionable information and a shortage of the things people actually need where and when they are needed.
For example, after the recent catastrophic flooding in the Catskills, folks who lost everything showed up needing crowbars, hammers, face masks, work gloves and other basic tools to remove the waterlogged sheetrock from their houses so they could begin the process of rebuilding before mold set in.
What they got, initially at least, were bales and bales of T-shirts.
Maybe this kind of thing was unavoidable in the pre-Internet era, but it’s absolutely crazy today.
A simple system for your examination
This month we created a simple website to help address this problem.
Users can go to the site, select the region they want to help, drill down to the town and/or organization they want to help, and read the EXACT items that a specific group on the ground needs right now today.
On the backend, relief groups can easily add to their list of needs, delete items after they have been provided, change the number of a given item that’s needed, and even – because this does happen due to inefficiencies in the current way of doing things – list their surpluses. (Sometimes a group that has plenty of food will be sent pallets of macaroni, for example, while another group 10 miles away is facing an acute food shortage.)
Each group gets its own account which gives them their own page on the site where they can list their contact info and update their current needs. There is a provision for adding media, like video and audio, to the page as well.
These pages have multiple functions:
1. The group can use its page to help keep their own records straight. An online system beats scraps of paper and memory.
2. If a group doesn’t have a website, and many still don’t, they can use their page to communicate their needs to their volunteers, donors, and their local news media.
3. If a group does have a website, but lacks the in-house sophistication to post the details of their ever-changing needs, they can use the system and link to it from their homepage.
The first phase of this operation is to reach out to local organizations, get them listed, and train them on how to manage their public needs list. We’ve designed the software so that the training process can be accomplished over the telephone in five minutes or less.
The second phase is to promote the website. So far, we’ve seen that people with influence, whether in the media or through their roles in various community organizations, instantly see the value of a simple, common sense-based information clearinghouse like this and are all too happy to spread the word.
If you’re involved in relief activities, or know someone who is, they might find this model worthy of study.
You can check it out here (and if you’re inclined to help any of these groups, all the better):
Click here to see the system in action: http://www.Rebuild123.org
– Ken McCarthy
P.S. This site is just 15 days old and we expect to be listing many more organizations and regions as the days go on. Information on how to have your group listed is at the bottom of the home page. This site is focusing on New York State, though we do plan to add info about Vermont and Massachusetts as well since these regions are so close to each other,