Think before you give

The New York Times cites a study that challenges the business model of some nonprofit organizations.  Here is a blurb from the article:

Giving used eyeglasses to poor countries may please the donors, but it is not worth the high delivery costs, a new study has concluded, and a $10 donation would do more good.

The study, led by Australian scientists and published in March in Optometry and Vision Science, found that only 7 percent of a test sample of 275 donated spectacles were usable. That raised the delivery cost to over $20 per usable pair. A simple eye exam and a set of ready-made glasses from China can be provided for just $10, the authors said.

The rejected glasses in the study had scratched lenses, damaged frames or prescriptions so specifically aligned to the original owners’ pupils that finding a match was unlikely.

Used glasses also must be cleaned, assessed and shipped, adding to the cost. Then potential recipients often reject them as castoffs, dirty, unfashionable or designed for the opposite sex.

I recognize that this is just one study and the research only applies to one type of organization/charitable model.  Still, there is an important lesson here as we start to think differently about how to address serious issues in a connected society.  All actions are not created equal.  All donations are not good donations.

Overall, the idea of recycling used goods to serve another societal need seems to make sense.  It certainly sets up a great story – and, as the study cites, makes donors feel good about their simple actions.  But a good story and a happy donor base aren’t the goal, or shouldn’t be the goal.  The goal is to give people access to quality eyeglasses… and if that goal isn’t being achieved, or could be achieved in a more efficient and effective way, then the organization is failing at its mission.

I routinely counsel organizations not to seek contributions – to not ask for money. Why not?  Because money is probably the least interesting thing that someone can offer - compared to their time, expertise, access to their network, and so on.  But in this case, it seems clear that raising money can more towards helping address a societal need (the lack of access to eyeglasses) than anything else.  In that case, dollars trump everything else.

Just because we have established that organizations whose goal is to provide eyeglasses to people who don’t have them should seek financial contributions instead of donations of used goods (that was easy!), doesn’t mean our work is done. We still have an abundance of used eyeglasses.  That begs the question: what other ways might old eyeglasses be used to solve a societal problem? 

Answer that…