Last week I went to the memorial service for Rick Cohen, the long-time reporter for the Nonprofit Quarterly and an excellent reporter. Cohen and I came from opposite ends of the political spectrum. He named his daughter after Eleanor Roosevelt, and I am amused by a story I once heard about William F. Buckley, Jr., that when he heard at one point in the 1950s that Eleanor Roosevelt would not cross a picket line, that he would plan to hire people to picket her house so she wouldn’t cause any trouble.
But one lesson I learned from all the Hudson Institute conferences I attended is that, while the left and right will never agree on what nonprofits should spend their money on, in terms of philanthropic practice, there’s not much difference between me, Pablo Eisenberg, or Aaron Dorfman. We would all agree that foundations should increase their payout rates, although the left would mandate this and I think it should be done voluntarily. None of us is in favor of large foundations, in the name of doing good, spending massive amounts on fancy buildings, huge salaries, or first-class travel.
I especially enjoyed learning that one activity Cohen and his friends conducted was deciding who was “the most narcissistic foundation president in America.” Cohen proposed a scientific solution to this problem—namely, counting the number of times the president’s name appeared in press releases.
I think another area where the left and right are converging is in the idea that foreign aid should be small scale, practical, and useful. We would also agree that far too often rich countries give poor counties things that the rich countries are eager to get rid of, but that the poor countries don’t want or need. For example, we spend a lot of money on agricultural aid programs that give surplus food to the Third World, ensuring that the less-developed countries’ farmers can’t sell their crops because of the freebies contributed by the West.
In the late 1990s, I went to the Frederick, Maryland rescue mission and found that a steady income stream came from bundling clothes and selling them to factories who would sell the used clothes in the Third World, where they were known as “who die” clothes—the idea being that Africans thought all the surplus clothing came from estate sales.
Courtney Martin, in this essay for “The Development Set,” a blog funded by the Gates Foundation, has a lot of good examples about well-intentioned Westerners whose Third World adventures caused more harm than good.
She begins by noting that 22 year olds are flooding nonprofits with applications for overseas assignments. But they’re doing so, she argues, because they don’t think they can do any good in our country:
If you’re young, privileged, and interested in creating a life of meaning, of course you’d be attracted to solving problems that seem urgent and readily solvable. Of course you’d want to apply for prestigious fellowships that mark you as an ambitious altruist among your peers. Of course you’d want to fly on planes to exotic locations with, importantly, exotic problems.
Now I’m two (or, sigh, three) generations removed from the Millennials, but if I were 22, of course I’d rather go to Ecuador or India instead of Philadelphia or Baltimore. Overseas travel is an adventure! But what Martin’s important point is that you shouldn’t go overseas because you think you can fix problems in cultures of which you know very little.
She offers several examples of well-intentioned gadgets that collapsed once they were tested in the field. One was the Playpump, a device that was launched in 2006 with $60 million in grants, including $10 million from the U.S. government (thanks to a personal endorsement from George and Laura Bush), as well as substantial grants from the Clinton and Case Foundations. Rapper Jay-Z also contributed $250,000.
The Playpump was a merry-go-round that supposedly raised water from a well by having kids play on an attached merry-go-round; the more kids played, the more water was raised for an underground tank. The project would pay for itself by having companies advertise on the tank.
According to this piece from the Guardian by Andrew Chambers, the nonprofit group the Sphere Project found that it would take children 27 hours a day to raise enough water to make the Playpump fill its goal of supplying “clean drinking water for up to 10 million people.” Since the pumps were mostly in rural areas, few advertisers bought space on the tank.
Another dubious device, says Martin, was the SOCCKET, whose backers in 2011 raised just over $92,000 on Kickstarter for a soccer ball that would also produce and store energy. Three years later, the device’s creators apologized to their backers for producing “an incredibly underwhelming product with a slew of manufacturing and quality control errors.” The company compared themselves to Urkel, the goofball from “Family Matters,” and promised everyone a SOCCKET II real soon now.
Development experts also realize there are problems with well-intentioned companies who promise to donate a product to the poor every time you buy one. TOMS Shoes, says Martin, “has become infamous” for its policy of donating a pair of shoes to the poor for every pair purchased (and charging buyers a premium for the donation). The company may have donated a million pairs of shoes, says Martin, but those are a million pairs of shoes that Third World shoe factories can’t sell. Some aid experts have created an acronym, “SWEDOW”—Stuff We Don’t Want—to describe these well-intentioned but questionable donations.
Martin suggests that all the energy young people spend overseas can be used at home. She endorses this essay by C.Z. Nmaemeka in which he calls for smart people to teach entrepreneurship to “the unexotic underclass”—single mothers, veterans, those over 50 who want to work but can’t find full-time employment—and who might live in Detroit, Mississippi, or St. Louis rather than exotic, appealing third-world locations. She also agrees with Nmaemeka that it would be better for really great entrepreneurs to stop trying to create “solipsistic” devices—gadgets that will make tech-savvy Millennials techier and savvier—and concentrate on products that will make the lives of poor people in America better.
Rather than go to the Third World and feel frustrated because you’re dealing with a culture you don’t know and a language you can’t speak, Martin says there are plenty of useful poverty-fighting activities for idealistic young people to perform in this country.
“Resist the reductive seduction of other people’s problems,” she concludes, “and, instead, fall in love with the longer-term prospect of staying home and facing systemic complexity head on.”
 No, I’m not going to tell you who won.