Keep giving simple

Keep it simple folks

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:

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.

– Ken McCarthy

P.S. For over 25 years I’ve been sharing the simple but powerful things that matter in business with my clients.

If you’d like direction for your business that will work today, tomorrow and twenty years from now, visit us at the System Club.

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20 Responses to Keep giving simple

  1. Andy Iskandar October 21, 2011 at 9:37 am #

    Oh wow, what a good idea Ken. Yup, I’ve always had an issue with mega-charities and how much out of every donated dollar actually goes to the intended recipient.

    I would love to implement your online platform in my part of the world, south-east asia. I’m active in humanitarian efforts and community work here. Any chance of licensing or utilising your website system for our efforts here?


    Best regards,
    Andy Iskandar

  2. Gavin October 21, 2011 at 9:44 am #

    well done excellent a truely smart and simple way of making everything easier.
    I acknowledge your smartness and abilities

  3. Marvin McPhate October 21, 2011 at 11:43 am #

    I don,t do mega-charities for reasons stated above and/or others, but this looks like something worth while.
    Mega-charities leave the same bad taste as our welfare system, a lot of people make a lot of money and very few helped.
    Would it be OK to publish a short note and link to your article and the website on my website?

  4. Russell October 21, 2011 at 11:45 am #

    Ken this is a great Idea, and you have really hit on another point in regard to “mega ” charities taking the funds that grass root organizations need.

    I work in the social enterprise field and i see many not for profit grassroots organizations struggle with funds as the charities at the “topend of town” get the
    lions share. You put it so well “there are small, highly effective, locally based grassroots help groups that are all but starved of meaningful assistance.”

    Here at we recently had to cut back to four days a week and reduced opening hours because of the lack of funds. That means the domestic violence, homelessness, and other programs are not available to the people who need it most, with the funds going to, as you state to prop up the salaries and office decor of middle men organizations.

    I think this type of site could be used in not only disaster projects, perhaps we could get to start one here in Australia.

  5. Steve Anson October 21, 2011 at 11:46 am #

    I’m a Director of a major charity and much of what you say makes sense. Although I think the relief/disaster management logistics of getting essential goods and services to the right people at the right time is quite complex. I do like the idea that an Internet based model might streamline the process. Keep up the good work.

  6. Paula Bonelli October 21, 2011 at 12:27 pm #

    Thanks for the inspiration, Ken! I am in the middle of my life and often struggle with “software” too. Just echoing your same sentiments to my hubby last night! And thanks for setting up the Rebuild123 Web site – great idea! I would much rather put my $’s toward very specific needs that are real. What a good way to cut through the crap. Always enjoy your emails. 🙂

  7. Chris October 21, 2011 at 1:25 pm #

    I share your thoughts to the tee, Ken. I’d like to find out how to startup Rebuild123 in Maryland.

  8. Victor Antunez October 21, 2011 at 1:27 pm #

    That was a real nice article Ken. As I read it I started to think to myself, ‘Ok, sounds bad but I hope that you are going to offer a solution because it really stinks when people in positions to be heard get people all worked and then leave them hanging without a possible solution.’


  9. Victor Antunez October 21, 2011 at 1:29 pm #

    I should have looked at the wbsite before I left my comment above.

    So why the narrow focus on NY state?

  10. David Cunningham October 21, 2011 at 4:21 pm #

    What a great idea and accomplishment. Totally on target. It has been many years since I have been directly involved in flood recovery operations but tools that people can use was a critical help. I now live in a non-flooding arid climate but have many ties to the people in your region and appreciate their needs. Thank you for what you have accomplished.

  11. Al October 21, 2011 at 4:43 pm #


    Excellent idea re: a -very- troublesome problem; thank you.

    FYI when the wife & I were looking for a charity to get behind last year, we found – they claim to evaluate the financial health, accountability, transparency, etc. of a fairly large group of charities. We found it a good resource; hope it’s helpful to you & readers here as well. Maybe orgs like the MARK project on your site could get a boost there – not sure.

    Of course, if you have any insider info re: charitynavigator, I’d love to know – maybe they have a bias as well?

    Hat’s off to you Ken.

  12. Stephanie October 21, 2011 at 5:08 pm #

    Thanks, Ken, for a very timely and well thought-out solution to a complex and frustrating problem. My husband and I have been involved in Disaster Preparedness and have experienced exactly what you are talking about.

    Bless you for coming up with at least one useful answer.

    Best regards and much Aloha!

  13. Donna Maher October 21, 2011 at 5:28 pm #


    As always, you are not only a veritable fount of information, but you have a heart of gold! I’ve always been reticent about donating to huge charities because of the reasons you stated, including some you offered that I’d not yet thought of.

    Thank you for starting something really worthwhile and I’ll help spread the word, too.

    God bless you!

  14. Orestes October 22, 2011 at 9:02 am #

    Thanks Ken for the advice as I love to give but I didn´t know that sometimes
    what you give get in the wrong hands which is pretty sad.And your simple
    system is really wonderful and very effective..the way it should be.

    Keep on the good work!


  15. RStevens October 22, 2011 at 4:32 pm #

    Fantastic idea and kudos for taking the time to create this package. I can see it growing beyond the NE and hope you do plan to offer this worldwide…Bangkok comes to mind at the moment.

  16. Jurgen Dombro October 22, 2011 at 7:33 pm #

    Great idea Ken, I’m suspect to giving to these mega charities because all to often money sent does not go to where it is needed the most and sad to say it goes in someones pocket or at least some of it does for administration fees. I read some where once 50% of money sent to some charitable organizations never reached the people in need.

    I salute your ideas Ken, and thanks for this information as I believe it can do a lot of good.

    Jurgen Dombro

  17. Ken McCarthy October 25, 2011 at 2:58 pm #

    Yes, I would like to give this platform away to legitimate groups.

    To do that, I need to find an utterly reliable person who can be the interface between me and groups that would like to use the platform.

    I’m not in a position at the moment to deal with groups on a “one off” basis.

    The person will need to have a long and verifiable track record of volunteer work and references I can check out in depth. It’s a non-paying job just as the creation of the software and its deployment in New York has been.

  18. Andy Iskandar October 28, 2011 at 3:45 pm #

    Hi Ken,

    I understand where you’re coming from. However, I am not looking to be any sort of “interface”. I am just a person (based in South-East Asia) who has been doing humanitarian & volunteer work on the grassroots level for the past 20+ years and it occurred to me that your platform would be useful to implement in my region… a platform that connects grassroots organisations (who do the real work) in the region directly with donors in the region, hence bypassing the mega-charities in the middle.

    I understand that the entire effort has been voluntary. I just thought you had a good idea there. So once you’ve found that person to be the “interface”, do let us know.


  19. Ken McCarthy October 31, 2011 at 4:06 pm #

    The issues are pretty simple:

    First, I need to make sure that the people we give the program to are for real.

    People’s declarations that they are for real are obviously not enough. If you look at the site, we require groups to provide real world references from real world community leaders (mayors, chamber of commerce heads, local media) in order to be listed on the site.

    Giving the software away requires at least that much due diligence, probably a whole lot more.

    Second, there is a learning curve for the administrator. Not a big one, but it’s there and that means that someone has to have the time to do the training and coaching.

    If someone wants to step up and take charge of the due diligence necessary and train new admins, I’m all for it. Right now, this particular project and the other things I’m doing are keeping me pretty busy at the moment.

    That and the fact that 2.2 million people in my region have no electric (which means no heat for many).and no Internet.

    I happen to be one of them and am writing this from a public computer terminal in NYC.

  20. Late to the party here, but let me still say this looks really good. For many years, my wife and I have channeled our giving into small grassroots charities that use the money for the intended purpose. The Internet provides many more tools. You may want to build bridges with people who’ve already done some of the heavy lifting (for instance, the funding mechanisms for investigative journalism at Spot.Us, for entrepreneurship at Kickstarter. and a similar site for progressive activists–name escapes me at the moment)

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