18 September 2012 ~ 4 Comments

The obsession with easy

This is a guest post from Anna McKeon, of PEPY in Cambodia. Anna not only led PEPY’s communication team to a new logo and a new website, but also took the time to write this piece on why she thinks “easy” is not what we always need to strive for.  Check it out!  Thanks Anna!

We have a fascination with easy. Technology and service are encouraged to collaborate as closely as possible to provide a smooth, stress-free path through life. We praise experiences that are “intuitive” – where people don’t even really need to think too much to accomplish what it is they’re trying to achieve – whether it’s the weekly online supermarket shopping or travelling abroad.

More often than not there is very little value placed on the advantage of things being difficult. Difficulty tends to represent a lack of clarity, poor communication, or unsatisfactory experience. The very semantics of making something “difficult” for someone have negative, almost malicious connotations.

Recently, however, I have been wondering whether there are some things in life that should just stay difficult. Maybe some things we should have to work hard at to understand. Maybe the path to achieving our aim should not always be easy.

I was having this conversation with a colleague the other day. We were discussing the merits of the type of websites on which charities can advertize their work and state the donations and volunteers they need. I’m not a fan of these kinds of websites for a few reasons – and I won’t go into them all here – but the main thing that struck me was the conversation we ended up having about the benefits of “easy”. These websites aim to make things easier for the donor and the volunteer. To make it easier for people who want to help, to be able to do so.

That sounds perfectly logical, doesn’t it? If people want to help, that’s great – right? We should make it easy for them – in fact, as easy as possible. We should provide them with lots of different tools and services so they can find the charities they like and very easily donate, volunteer, visit. After all – if more people in the world helped then the world would be a better place. So let’s make it as easy as possible. So easy it’s intuitive. So easy that people don’t even really have to think…

And there’s the rub. It is already so easy to donate to charity. You can send a text message, or click a button online and donate. It can be a knee jerk response to a TV ad or a celebrity doing some exercise. It doesn’t require that much brain power. I know, I’ve done it. It’s also dangerously easy to volunteer. I know, because I’ve done that too – and learned a few key life lessons along the way that I really should have taken the time to learn beforehand. There are many organizations who will take under-qualified people, who they would never hire otherwise, on a short-term basis just because they are willing to work for free.

Why on earth is it a good idea to try and make this easier?

Few people, when they donate to a charity, ask questions about how the money is being used, let alone thoroughly research the methodology and impact of the organization. Maybe this lack of attention sometimes means that more money is donated, but in my opinion, this is still not a good thing. Not only can it end up supporting ineffective development practice, it also encourages “armchair karma”: texting “donate” to 81155 to buy a mosquito net for someone in Africa to gratify your need that you are “socially conscious” and “giving back”. This isn’t giving back. This is just consuming dressed up slightly differently. You’re buying good feelings to support your good intentions. You’re not necessarily buying impact or any benefits for the people you think you might be helping. Maybe you’re lucky and you hit on an organization which actually is reputable, thoughtful, and delivers nets along with training and other malaria prevention methods. Equally, your text could donate to an organization that dumps 100 nets in a village and leaves. The nets sit there and are never used, or get used for something else altogether, because the local people never asked for them, had other priorities, or were skeptical of products left as charity.

Maybe we should not be making it easier for people. Maybe we should be making it harder.

Being a donor to an organization is like any other relationship. It’s best if you try and understand the person first. Learn about them. Recognize their successes and understand their failings. Then figure out where you might fit in, how your involvement together can create something mutually beneficial. Of course there’s nothing WRONG with wanting to feel good about helping. It’s normal. But why would you want to just buy the feeling good part, without knowing whether you’re actually making a difference? If you’re in a relationship, you know. You know and you care.

It’s the same with volunteering. A day at an orphanage painting a wall is a bit like those short-term connections that lack depth or understanding. You might get an instant sense of gratification out of it but you don’t know if the other person benefited equally from the experience since you’re not going to see them again anyway. We shouldn’t pretend this is “helping” anyone, or changing the world. (Check out this video from Aljazeera about the dangers of voluntourism).

Effective volunteering means learning, understanding, communicating, and perhaps, most importantly, committing. Give a time commitment that makes sense to the organization and doesn’t prove a drain on their resources. Make sure that it’s not all about getting your “experience” but also about the organization receiving some benefit other than training someone up just to watch them leave again in 2 months time. If you can’t commit the time, or don’t have the money, then don’t do it. You can still use that goodwill, and your wish to change the world, and take action. Find an organization closer to home that you can support in a different way. Volunteer at your local school. Bake a cake for your neighbor. Or even spend the time researching issues that you care about, understanding them, and learning about how you could use your skills to REALLY help.

Helping shouldn’t be easy because it’s not. It’s difficult to help people – even if they want to be helped and even if they need it. Whether you’re talking about a friend in difficulty or a whole country, there are many things to learn and challenges to face. We’ve all been there when sometimes you just can’t help someone any more because it’s too hard. It’s too much of a drain on your time and energy. Well, that can apply to international helping too. It can be tough and confusing and it can make you wish you never tried to help in the first place.

We shouldn’t make it easy. We’re doing a disservice to ourselves. We’re encouraging each other not to think, not to explore, not to discover. We’re not challenging ourselves, our commitment, our perceptions, or our opinions. We’re promoting a life of ease where a sense of goodwill can be bought and not earned.

So let’s leave some things to be difficult. Difficulty helps us learn. It helps us discover more about the very thing we are trying to achieve. It can also mean that it feels even sweeter when we do succeed in our aims. And you know what? Even though “difficult” might be a harder sell, I still know enough people out there who are up for the challenge.

This is a guest post from Anna McKeon, Director of Communications at PEPY.

  • http://twitter.com/NickCarroway Nick Carraway

    An interesting take giving.  It reminded me of the Whole Earth Demise Party, where they gave away $20,000.  http://www.wholeearth.com/issue/1180/article/321/history.-.demise.party.etc

    I don’t consider myself a soft touch.  But on occasion, someone will ask for a handout and I take a chance on them.  The last time, I had an intuitive certainty that the individual was, in fact, hungry and needed food. But I could be wrong — and perhaps went for alcohol or drugs or whatever. 

    It is frequently said that individuals should invest their money in ‘what they know’. Perhaps that is one starting place.

    It makes sense that charitable giving should produce a reasonable, positive return on your gift.  In which case, picking a charity should be no easier than buying a stock.  Which, if you are trying to outperform the averages, isn’t at all easy. 

  • Jon

    I’m having trouble agreeing with these points; they are very dismissive and idealistic.

    For example, “Anna McKeon, of PEPY in Cambodia. Anna not only led PEPY’s communication team to a new logo and a new website…”

    So for this new website, the design should be motivated by her thoughts that “Few people, when they donate to a charity, ask questions about how the
    money is being used, let alone thoroughly research the methodology and
    impact of the organization. Maybe this lack of attention sometimes means
    that more money is donated, but in my opinion, this is still not a good

    BUT, there is a bright green “DONATE” button on the front page of the PEPY website, that in two steps, (Step 1: enter contact info; Step 2: Pay) will gladly take someone’s money, without encouraging them to find out any more about the organization: “Fill out the appropriate information to the left. When you’re done,
    click “Next” to proceed to the next step. If you’re donating through
    PayPal your browser will be redirected to another screen. Please have your credit card ready. You’re awesome and thanks for donating!”


  • Anonymous

    I hear you Jon, and I agree! This is a BIG challenge for a group trying to get out information about transparency as a tool for evaluation, or trying to get people to spend more time researching this stuff. It’s a slippery slope – as more and more tools start to make this “easier”, if you don’t keep up with the trend of making donations easy, people find it too hard to donate! I was talking to an NGO once that was sending a photo and GPS coordinates of their library support programs to their donors. They recognized that this was taking a LOT of time and energy, and that it was wasting the time of their field staff who could have been working with teachers or librarians but instead were running around getting photos. They also committed that you would get the photos within X number of weeks, and sometimes the programs that they were supporting should have taken longer then that, so they would rush things along simply to make their own self-imposed deadline to get some donor in San Diego a picture. This seemed so ridiculous to me – and when I asked them why they were harming their programs by trapping themselves in their own donor promises their answer was “Well, Kiva does it. People know exactly who their money goes to on Kiva, and they make that easy. Kiva is our competition for funding, so we need to do it too.”  The confusion about where people’s money goes with Kiva is a totally different conversation ( http://blogs.cgdev.org/open_book/2009/10/kiva-is-not-quite-what-it-seems.php ) but the point is, this big NGO felt that the “easier” everyone else made their donating/connecting for donors, they easier they needed to make it, even if it meant decreasing their own impact.

    It’s tricky – I agree! It’s indeed part of the appeal of social enterprise I think – taking away the need to rely as much on financial handouts and instead selling a product or service people pay for.

  • Anna

    Hi Jon


    Thank you for your comment – sorry it’s taken me a while
    to respond, I was away from the internet for a while.


    I can see how my points may have come across as
    dismissive as in the article I certainly didn’t delve into the complexities of non-profit
    marketing. I’ll try and respond to some of that below. In terms of being
    idealistic, I don’t think that’s always a bad thing.


    With regards to our approach to PEPY’s new website design
    and how we thought about donors as part of that process, I’d like to highlight
    some things we chose not to do. We decided not to follow a sponsorship
    model (where donors can sponsor individual children) or a donation-in-kind
    model (“click here to buy a goat” type of thing) as although both often appeal to
    donors looking for a more tangible connection to a cause, we feel they not only
    encourage people to ask the wrong questions but also can cause problems in
    terms of implementation of the funds (how do the children feel who aren’t sponsored?
    How much does a goat really cost? Do the funds cover vaccinations/feed/training
    etc?) As Daniela pointed out there are many donation models that seek to create
    very tailored experiences for the donor that can end up causing problems for
    the organization, despite the funds they can bring.


    We were also mindful, when designing the site, of the
    audience that we knew would be donating through it. In the main, the people who
    donate to PEPY do not find us initially through our website. We’re not a big
    enough organization for that. In general, we have had contact with our donors
    prior to them donating, either through connections with a friend or colleague,
    or through our partner organization PEPY Tours. We try and build relationships
    with our donors before they donate, as well as after. We designed the site with
    these types of donors in mind so they could access the information they needed –
    as well as donate if they wished to.


    We would actually have loved to design a site that was
    more of a forum for this kind of discussion, that encouraged engagement and
    conversation, and that was much more of an interactive experience for the donor,
    supporter, or casual visitor. However, our big constraint is resource and our
    primary objective for the site was that it would be easy to maintain,
    regardless of whether or not it was run by native English speakers in the years
    to come. This restricted our ambition in this regard.


    Having said all this, I totally take your point that we
    have overlooked an opportunity to encourage donors to thoroughly interrogate us
    as an organization before they donate. We can certainly find a way through the
    donation mechanism on the site to point potential donors more directly to our
    financial information and program information. We’ll be making those changes in
    the next few weeks – so I really appreciate you pulling me up on this.