To Donate, Investigate (The Korea Times, March 11, 2014) by Casey Lartigue, Jr.

To donate, investigate
By Casey Lartigue, Jr.  

When I give public speeches based on my Korea Times opinion piece, 
“To be a good volunteer, use your brain” (Dec. 5, 2012), I typically start by daring the “good” volunteers to stand up. I angrily stare at the ones who do, dismissing them as “a bunch of liars.” I then ask the “lousy” volunteers to stand up; I warmly congratulate them for being honest.

It is an ice-breaker that brings chuckles but has a serious point: There are some lousy volunteers. I don’t mean extreme cases like negligent volunteers losing kids during field trips or lazy ones watching the clock waiting for lunch to start. I’m talking about typical volunteers who don’t think about how they can add value beyond being a warm body.

I’ve been doing voluntary work for more than a decade and have served on the boards of directors of several organizations. I start sharpening my knives when prospective volunteers ask, “How can I help?” I typically respond “Who are you?” I politely tell them I am as mystified as they are about how they can help because I don’t know their interests or skills. At the end of every speech, people have told me they have been inspired to become thoughtful volunteers.

A few others have followed up to ask, in the words of one caring friend: “But what if I don’t know how to use my brain?” So I give recent examples of what I mean. Sarah Shechner, the owner of the horse farm Grace Stables in Indeokwon, and her assistant manager Ko Sung-hee, now give free horse rides to the children studying at the Mulmangcho School (for adolescent North Korean refugees). Mutual friend Sunnie Kim has never visited the school but she put two and two together and connected us (I’m the international adviser to the school). If Sunnie had asked me, “How can I help,” how would I have ever known to ask her to connect me to her friend who owns a horse farm?

I’m always delighted to connect with quick-thinking people. Perhaps they can join me in encouraging donors to use their brains.

Oh, yeah, there are some lousy donors. I don’t mean extreme cases like someone donating loaded guns to toddlers. I mean well-intentioned donors who search for organizations to dump items on organize feel good but not useful activities.

I often receive requests from organizations seeking to hold charitable donation drives, and I often try to help. Certainly there are some uplifting stories. I do wonder, however, if many collection drives are worth the trip.

Which would you choose: (A) Used clothes valued at $5,000 when bought new or (B) $1,000 in cash? I suspect that most people not in the used clothing business would take the cash and call it a day. Why expect organizations staffed by humans to be any different?

I will say aloud what more donors need to hear, but that recipient organizations don’t say often or loudly enough: If you want to help, then give money. Many donated items quietly get dumped, stored away, or “re-donated” (the way people “re-gift” unwanted Christmas presents).

Yeah, I said it. Instead of donation drives, help by raising or giving money. Or include fund-raising along with a donation drive. I’m sure that donation drives can be team building exercises or teach organizational skills. But donation drives usually aren’t wanted by recipients; the supply far exceeds the demand.

I have delivered the “good news” to schools and NGOs about proposed donation drives. Thankfully none have shot this particular messenger. I sense they will take items, even “leftovers,” because they don’t want to seem ungrateful by rejecting well-intentioned offers. Donors should hear the truth: Fundraisers are more desirable.

Here’s my main suggestion to donors who want to be helpful: Engage in “investigative giving.” Instead of an email offering to hold a donation drive, get to know organization leaders and the “doers” on staff. I doubt you’ll hear them suggesting donation drives. Donations that are targeted ― money to pay for rides for volunteers, computers for refugees who have just arrived to the country ― are more helpful than scattershot donation drives.

That kind of “investigative giving” would be the equivalent of a tailor-made suit rather than 10 donated suits of various measurements. If potential recipients know you are truly listening, then they’ll drop clues about things they need ― or may come right out and tell you after they feel comfortable telling you the truth.

So if I ever give a speech before donors, I will ask the “good” ones to stand up. I hope that some veterans of my volunteer activities, speeches and readers of this column will join me in angrily staring at them, playfully calling them liars and then encouraging them to use their brains.

The writer is the international adviser to the Mulmangcho School (for adolescent North Korean refugees) in Yeoju, Korea, the international adviser to HOPE (Helping Others Prosper Through English) in Seoul and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Frederick Douglass Memorial Historical Association in Washington, D.C

Donations are great, but can be too much of a great thing...