Two of my favorite bloggers, both of whom irritate the hell out of me at times (but I always come back for more), have finally collided. I could see it coming. Both are extremists.

Jeff Brooks of DonorPowerBlog has never met a donor he didn't like. For him, the job of a fundraiser is tap into the emotions of the inner donor in each of us. And treat each donor as though the world would stop but for their personal generosity. Donors rule the world.

And Holden Karnofsky of The GiveWellBlog, on the other hand, has never met his inner donor. He sees himself as the ultimate rationalist, busily complaining about the paucity of performance data from the various causes invited to compete for his generosity and intellectual approval. There's no room for emotion in Holden's evaluation calculus. As he puts it (you can read his full rant here):

“I think that giving because of what it does for you — whether you call it happiness or fulfillment or what — is crass and misguided and yuck.”

The moment I read that comment, I knew it would blow Jeff Brooks' gasket.

Indeed it did, you can read his reaction here. But in a sentence:

“…the belief that there's something wrong with donors who don't think or act like us (the smart, good, aware, evolved, or whatever people) is flat-out poisonous.”

Why do I write about this intermural controversy?

Because both bloggers consistently and provocatively drive home respective points of view that serious fundraisers need to take to heart … but also, IMHO, with a grain of salt.

Brooks champions seeing the world through the eyes of the donor. Coming from a creative guy/copywriter talking to other folks who raise money, that's infallible advice. If you're a fundraiser, you must attempt to transport yourself out of your own persona (with its knowledge, assumptions, biases etc.) and into the persona of your prospect. It doesn't matter if you're asking for $15 or $15 million.

Of course it's impossible to shed all of your pre-conceptions; some of the most important of them are unconscious after all. But the more you try it and the better you get at it, the better you'll perform as a fundraiser (or marketer of any kind).

My only differerence with Jeff (as explained here) is that I believe some donors aren't worth the trouble.

Karnofsky champions results, real results. Nonprofits do need to inquire into their strategies, establish and measure against empirically sound performance criteria, not be self-delusional about their effectiveness, and not assume that “doing good” in and of itself deserves applause and money from donors. The donor expectation bar is going up steadily … as it should.

My difference with Holden is that he starts from such an intellectually superior posture that he pretty much suggests that most nonprofits (as well as donors) are ineffective fools … unable to document that they are really accomplishing anything, especially if they are addressing “symptoms” as opposed to systemic root causes … in which case, the burden of proof on performance gets even tougher. One wonders whether Holden will ever find a charity worthy of his approval and money. And if he does, dare he feel good about it?!

Jeff and Holden ought to meet face-to-face.

Holden might convince Jeff that some donors are dolts, egotistically wasting their money and distracting nonprofits from getting their work done. And Jeff might help Holden get in touch with the emotional roots of his “perfect donor meets perfect charity” quest.

Tom

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