Saturday, August 31, 2013

The donation challenge

It's looking better for the Deer Park prairie preservation effort.  When I last mentioned this initiative, it appeared that the clock would run out before enough money could be raised, but the donations continued to flow and the deadline was extended in view of the reported financial momentum.
Status as of August 31, 2013, with about ten more days available for fundraising. 

Screengrabbed from this site
If you're like me, you have trouble deciding which nonprofit causes are worthy of your hard-earned money.  There are so many of them and they all need funding.  I have an extended family member who is involved with philanthropic pursuits within one of greater Houston's core counties.  I am told that, just in that one suburban county, there are over four thousand registered nonprofit organizations. 

And a lot of them eventually make their way into the pages of your newspapers or to your front door to ask for support.  And when you tell them that you cannot donate because your charity budget has been max'd out by your existing pledges, their last-ditch persuasion is often, "Well, could you maybe just spare twenty bucks one time for a good cause, then?!"

Hmmm, let's see... doing the math, if I say yes to every local nonprofit who eventually asks me that question, I'll be out about eighty thousand bucks.  I'm afraid that's a bit beyond my reach.  Just a bit. 

It's an epic struggle for a limited number of dollars, and most of the door-knockers don't seem sensitive to the fact that we middle-class suburbanites are faced with an endless stream of heartfelt-pleading solicitors just like themselves.

Microsoft clip art. 
Even when you narrow down the list of those nonprofits that are nearest and dearest to your heart, it's really difficult to determine which are the best investments because the financial representations that you see on the surface are not necessarily the whole truth. 

Here's a prime example from my personal history.  Like much of America, I became enamored with Greg Mortenson's four-million-copy best-seller "Three Cups of Tea" and his efforts to build schools in Afghanistan.  Finally, there seemed to be a viable route by which effective and near-direct developmental support could be rendered to one of the places in the world where it was most desperately needed.
Mortenson's nonprofit Central Asia Institute ( made it look soooo easy: they associated specific dollar figures with the services that could be provided for those corresponding amounts.  I looked at this list and thought, "Wow - how cool is that??!!  I can work, support my own family, save for retirement, AND pay the equivalent of one or more Afghani teachers' salaries every year!" 

List screengrabbed from this CAI fundraising guide
Alas, the situation didn't prove to be anywhere near that simple.  I had done my homework prior to investing in CAI.  I had reviewed third-party assessments including those published by Charity Navigator, which is one of the most prominent nonprofit watch-dogs.  And like the rest of America, I soon became shocked by the allegations of financial mis-use by CAI.
One of the most vocal of the CAI whistle-blowers was investigative journalist Jon Krakauer, who published an e-book titled "Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way".  According to Wiki, it became a number one best-seller on Kindle (web excerpt here).  Mortenson's "Three Cups of Tea" co-author later committed suicide

This Google auto-fill screengrab suggests the extent to which Krakauer, who was a prominent American writer long before his CAI expose, has become associated with his allegations. 
The corresponding 60 Minutes investigative footage can be seen here.  Regarding this list above (tap to expand image), are these the kinds of uses to which you'd like your hard-earned money allocated?  Nnnnope - me neither. 

Summary screengrab from Wikipedia
Anyway, where did that donation experience leave me?  Once bitten, twice shy, to say the very least.  It's very difficult to vet a nonprofit the way it needs to be done.  It's very difficult to know whether any given donation will be properly applied.  In the case of Bayou Land Conservancy, at this point they seem to be long on appeals but short on contingencies.  One of the most obvious questions that remains unanswered at this point about the Deer Park Prairie is, what's going to happen to all those donations if the $4 million figure is NOT reached??  What will that money be spent on instead, and will the donors approve of that? 

I don't know the answer to that and I don't know the answer to other questions surrounding this organization.  I do know that, in cases where ambiguity exists, I tend to respond by splitting the difference:  I donate, but not as much as I would if instead I had a greater level of confidence in the nonprofit. Charitable contributions are really no different than other forms of investment in which portfolio diversification is key.  By splitting the difference thusly, I can still participate as I would like to, but at the same time if the nonprofit's performance were to tank, I'm not out a large sum of money - certainly nothing approaching a third-world teacher's salary (or two, or three).   
Let's hope that Bayou Land Conservancy can get this job handled the way it needs to be. 

Screengrab from my on-line donation receipt. 


  1. A good read with good advice! Bayou Land Conservancy, and not the Bayou Preservation Association is leading the fundraising for the Deer Park Prairie (though we do work with BPA on many projects!)

    Please feel free to contact us at 281-576-1634 with any questions about the donation process, and how funds will be handled.

    Thank you so much for spreading the word about this important project.

  2. Thanks - I corrected my typo, and it's good to see that someone is paying attention to their trackbacks (most folks don't). I'm encouraging everyone to spread the word through their personal channels. Hopefully you guys will soon have your cash in hand.


I'm forced to moderate comments because the spammers have become too much for me to keep up with. If you have a legitimate comment, I will post it promptly. Sorry for the inconvenience.