"I would rather have it said ‘He lived usefully’ than ‘He died rich.’" — Benjamin Franklin (as quoted in the Fall American Benefactor)

So if you have no time to do any more than you’re doing, as is likely, perhaps you’d want to send a check. (Better still, donate appreciated securities held at least a year and a day.)

But where? Any charity will have lots of administrative expenses. That’s largely unavoidable. But it does make you worry.

If you were running a charity and found that for $1 million you could do a mailing that would bring in $1.2 million, would you do it? If not, you’d be losing the chance to net $200,000 for your good work. But if you did go for that $200,000, it would mean that 83% of the money people mailed in went simply to cover the cost of the solicitation itself.

Perhaps in some ways the very best charity, whether incorporated as such or not, is the one that dispenses with the $70,000-a-year development director charged with raising, first, the $70,000 to cover his salary and then the cost of the caterer for the dinner that was necessary to raise the $70,000. Take my friend Joe Cherner. He made a ton of money on Wall Street in his 20’s, left to set up a thing called SmokeFree Educational Services, Inc., and has run it for many years now with mostly his own funds. The administrative salaries of the organization total zero. He and his partner Laurent Seitz work for free. (Obviously, not everyone can afford to do this!) His development director costs nothing, because he doesn’t have one. He calls his friends and sometimes gets us to kick in some dough. Relatively little of his time is focused on raising money. Almost all of it is focused on getting the job done. He’s gotten cigarette ads removed from New York’s buses, subways and sports stadiums; he’s gotten smoking banned from restaurants except near the bar; he’s gotten cigarette vending machines (the easiest way for underage kids to buy smokes) removed from the city except in bars (and even then, they must be a good distance from the door, and within sight of an adult). Whatever you may think of his program, he’s been amazingly effective.

Clearly, not everyone is rich enough to run his own charity, although it does make you think. Is there a "mini-charity" you could run yourself? For example, could you find the right person to provide midnight basketball services (since your own hook shot isn’t what it used to be, and you’d be scared to go into that neighborhood after dark, let alone at midnight) and then provide him with the money for fliers, T-shirts, a couple of basketballs, Gatorade and a trophy?

In such a scheme, you lose the tax deduction that going through an established 501c-3 provides. But then maybe not: You might well be able to do it through the local school or YMCA or community foundation. Let them find the right individual, write the check to them — and then take the tax deduction.

In either event, though, the point is that all your money will go to "the cause," with little or no frictional sales and transaction costs to dilute its impact. Sort of like buying wholesale instead of retail or insisting on a low-expense, no-load mutual fund (or, for that matter, a deep discount broker).

I thought of this recently when I got an appeal for a project that could meaningfully improve 100,000 young lives.

Tomorrow: 100,000 Smiles

 

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