Politics & Policy

Charity without Charities

DonorSee founder Gret Glyer discusses the Peace Corps ban (screengrab via YouTube)
Philanthropy, innovation, and annoying the Peace Corps

Philanthropy can be a funny business. Let’s say you’re a do-gooder in Malawi and you hear about a little girl who has been attacked by a crocodile. She is badly hurt, but her family has no money for medical care at a private clinic.

What do you do?

The traditional philanthropic approach would be, approximately: build a hospital, staff it with the best doctors and nurses you can hire, and endow it generously so that little girls who have been chewed up by crocodiles and whose family has no money for medical care have a place to get help. Philanthropists love infrastructure, partly as the result of the natural human desire to see concrete results (maybe a big building with one’s family name over the door), partly because organizational leaders almost inevitably think in organizational terms, and partly out of lack of imagination. Without being uncharitable to the charitable, philanthropic enterprises are not immune to the effects of bureaucratic inertia, vanity, and career-building.

But in the example above — which is not a hypothetical example — there’s already infrastructure in place. What’s needed isn’t a $20 million charity hospital. What’s needed is $100 to pay the doctor. But $100 is a great deal of money in a place where many people live on $1 a day.

Gret Glyer, a young Grove City College graduate who did years of humanitarian work in Malawi as well as stints in Haiti, understands that better than most managers of name-brand philanthropic enterprises do. He also understands the need for more accountability and transparency in relief funding, having seen too many expense-account heroes ensconced in four-star hotel suites and white-tablecloth restaurants miles from the action. He has a keen appreciation for the Twitter generation’s love of instant gratification. The result is DonorSee, an app that directly connects charitable benefactors with local needs around the world.

The premise of DonorSee is straightforward: A trusted aid worker or local source identifies a problem — this little girl has been attacked by a crocodile, that one is deaf and needs a bone-conductor hearing aid — and puts up a request for funding (often in the low-hundreds-of-dollars range), donors transfer funds, and, a short time later (possibly within minutes or hours) the donors get a video of a patched-up girl returning to her family or of a little girl hearing for the first time.

That is the sort of thing that will get you fired from the Peace Corps.

Glyer can be pretty pointed on the subject of Big Aid. “They should be embarrassed of how ineffective they are, by how much they spend on infrastructure instead of projects,” he says. He tells of arriving in Haitian disaster areas well ahead of the Red Cross and other splendidly funded agencies. “I booked a ticket and took my phone and my app,” he says. After living on $600 a month in Malawi, Glyer paid $7,000 out of pocket – “my life’s savings, basically” — to develop a prototype version of DonorSee. The project is a for-profit enterprise, taking a small cut of the money that passes through in much the same way as GoFundMe and other crowdfunding services. The promise of profits allowed him to access venture-capital funding, which in turn allowed him to roll out DonorSee in 40 countries about four months ago.

Glyer was dismayed to see the Peace Corps not only turn its nose up at the DonorSee app but threaten to fire any employee using it to raise funds.

Both local and international relief workers have used DonorSee to connect specific needs with donors interested in them, but Glyer was dismayed to see the Peace Corps not only turn its nose up at the app but threaten to fire any employee using it to raise funds. Like many large bureaucracies, the Peace Corps has its own way of doing things, and it is committed to sticking to it — irrespective of how it works. And it isn’t clear that it does work all that well: An investigation spearheaded by former Peace Corps volunteers in 2011 found that the agency has a 30 percent dropout rate among its volunteers. Glyer dismisses much of the remaining cohort as paid vacationers; the agency does attract its share of résumé-paddlers and budding political careerists. On the subject of DonorSee, the Peace Corps will only say that the rules are the rules.

Fair enough. Why not change the rules?

Sometimes, big projects and big infrastructure are needed. Glyer began his fund-raising career by gathering money to build houses at $800 a pop and has worked on big institution-building, notably a girls’ school in Malawi. But big institutions often become their own reason for existing: Buildings and employees and such create jobs, not only for front-line workers but for managers, senior managers, executives, human-resources officers, lawyers, public-relations and marketing personnel, and more.

Sometimes you just need to stitch up a girl who has been bitten by a crocodile.

Glyer has worked with other large agencies and understands the necessity of working within their rules, “making sure everything’s kosher,” as he puts it. He cites two influential works, the book When Helping Hurts and the documentary Poverty, Inc., as raising real concerns about the way in which philanthropic enterprises and humanitarian-aid programs are implemented. And he says he is confident that technological and social change mean that “fat, bloated charities” are going to be feeling the heat from donors who want to get 90 cents worth of end-user benefit out of every dollar in donations rather than 90 cents of overhead and salaries.

Which is to say, the future of charity is not necessarily to be found in the future of charities.

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