Impact is the new black.
In the not-for-profit world, people want to know that their support is actually making a difference. And that’s smart. We’ve all heard too much about wasted funds, inefficient operations and less than perfect ethics to just hand over our money and leave it up to an organisation to do their thing.
Instead we want to know how our money will be used, and crucially how lives will be changed as a result of our support. We want to know: “What’s my impact?”
So it’s no surprise that people sometimes ask us if they can tie their support to an individual girl or a particular program – so they know exactly how their money is being used.
But it might surprise you that our answer is ‘no’.
In fact we actually do the opposite. In all but the rarest of cases, we work on a system where all donations go into a central ‘pot’ and our four girl-focused programs are funded from that one source. Whether it’s money from individuals or businesses, big campaigns like Do It In A Dress or school students running a bake sale – everything goes into that one funding pot that funds our four girl-focused programs:
‘But hang on,’ we can hear you say. ‘Why wouldn’t you let donors decide HOW their money gets used – wouldn’t they feel more connected to the work you are doing?’
It’s a good question! And we understand why ‘tied’ donations seem like a great idea – but there’s 3 reasons why we don’t work that way.
The first one is probably pretty obvious. Managing tied donations would divert precious resources away from getting girls into school. There’d be more accounting for the finance team, more reporting for the comms team and way more overall administration – without increasing the number of girls in school.
Think about the systems and processes required to tie Mr Smith’s $50 to Project X or Girl Y, so that we only gave him updates about Project X or Girl Y, and could track that $50 from when it was donated, to when it is eventually spent. Now imagine that system multiple for THOUSANDS of small donations (as most of our funding comes from private donations from thousands of people, rather than big wads of cash). You can see why we’d need a robust system to keep on top of all of that – which means more people and more administration required. BUT – even if we could resource the tied-donations approach, we still wouldn’t work that way. And here’s why.
Unexpected events change everything
Say a whole lot of donors told us they want their money to go to our Scholarship program. To honour their wishes we would have to ensure the money was used to cover the cost of sending girls to school and nothing else. Normally that wouldn’t be a problem. There are so many girls who need that support. But what if all the schools closed for seven months because of an Ebola outbreak? Which is exactly what happened in 2015.
If we accepted tied donations, all the money allocated to scholarships would have been locked up until schools reopened almost a year later. Instead, we were able to redirect funds to an urgent and incredibly effective Ebola education and support program that impacted thousands of people. You can read about it here.
Later the same year there was severe flooding in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Many of the girls in our Scholarships program live in the Freetown slum communities, and when floods raged through the city the girls lost their homes and all their possessions – including their school materials.
We were able to reallocate funding from our other programs towards replacing uniforms and school materials, so they could return to school as quickly as possible.
Working in places like Sierra Leone and Uganda, you have to expect the unexpected – and respond quickly when it happens. Pooled funds let us do that – they give us the flexibility and adaptability that’s essential to our effectiveness. You might have noticed that some of the large NGOs and organisations driving emergency appeals have learned this lesson and now tell donors that once the the initial need has been, met they will divert any surplus funds to other programs.
World Vision, for example, tells donors:
“In rare cases where donations exceed what is needed, or where local conditions prevent program implementation, World Vision will redirect funds to similar activities to help children and families in need.”
Working from a central pool of funds lets us keep growing
Our focus has always been on educating girls. But sometimes achieving that goal is hampered by other issues. Like years ago when we heard one of our scholars had fainted in class from hunger. When we looked into the situation a bit more we discovered lots of girls were in a similar situation. It’s impossible to concentrate on your studies when you’re hungry – so we had to do something.
We launched a pilot where we gave 16 students access to small micro loans while they were taught how to run a small business that would generate enough income to buy lunches, medication and other essentials. It was a huge success and today that program has grown and evolved into Business Brains, which has expanded to become one of our four girl-focused programs. If funds are tied to existing programs it’s incredibly difficult to find the resources to trial and grow new and innovative solutions to new problems.
Some programs are sexier than others
On the surface, some programs seem more important or interesting than others – and so they attract more support. Yet each program is critical to our overall success. And each program addresses a different need – or removes a different barrier to education. They work with each other and cohesively – if you take away one program our overall approach isn’t as strong and holistic. If 70% of donors chose to support our Scholarships program, for example, our remaining programs would be underfunded and that would reduce our overall effectiveness. So the final reason we don’t tie donations to particular programs is that we don’t want to create ‘uneven’ pools of money that didn’t match the needs of the communities we work in.
So that’s the thinking behind our ‘one big pot’ approach – and why it lets us maximise the impact of our programs.
But it’s not enough just for US to know we are maximising our supporters’ impact. Supporters have to know it too.
They have to know how their money is being used and have a real sense that they are making a difference. This is what drive all our communications. It’s why we explain how we allocate all our funding. It’s why we make our financials available for anyone to read. It’s why we tell real-life stories about the girls we support and the changes in their lives. Why we share our challenges and problems as well as our successes. We want you to know the WHOLE picture and really understand what it takes for your donation to have an impact on the ground – so if you ever have any questions about this, please ask!
We have a team of development, girls’ education, and fundraising nerds – so get in touch if you ever want to chat!
And if you’d like to explore any of these areas more, here are a few links: