Friday, January 26

A load of buffalo?

Philip Greenspun’s Weblog caused a stir the day after Christmas. His friend received a water buffalo from her dad through a fundraising program run by Heifer International. Greenspun read the small print which said there was no actual buffalo given to a poor family... it was only a symbolic gift and he declared it might be "the crummiest possible Christmas present."

Robert Thompson is a concert violinist who recently moved to China. He read the blog post and contacted Greenspun to tell him he knew first-hand it would be helpful for a poor farmer family to receive an actual water buffalo. Greenspun immediately asked if he could send the money for Thompson to purchase one and deliver then it to a family.

In early January, Thompson filmed his adventure to find, buy, and deliver one water buffalo to a family that needed it. The 8-minute video is well worth your time. Seriously... it's a great video.

Yesterday, Tom at asked that I comment on his blog entry on the subject, so here goes: I personally have no problem with the type of campaign Heifer is running. But then again, I would still give my money to Plan or Children International, even if I found out my child sponsorship was symbolic. Readers of this blog will know I don't often look favorably on donors who insist on restricted use donations and if a symbolic item helps provide a visual reminder of an intangible fundraising campaign - more power to them.


Tom @ said...

I'm all for unrestricted gifts. We all know how undesignated funds are hard to come by for most if not all organizations.

However, the issue with the "gift catalogues" is one of honest messaging.

If Gap (or any other for-profit consumer brand) were to sell on its website a product that appears to be a RED Hoodie but when you read the fine print, you are told that this is purely symbolic and that there really is no Hoodie but you've helped Gap's operating funds and contribtued to the RED campaign, what would consumer response be?

I'm saying that in this heightened climate of transparency and accountability, charities need to re-think their marketing tactics or face donor backlash (at least from the "consumer-donor" that these types of marketing strategies target).

Besides which, there are other ways by which to bring meaning to "intangible campaigns" exemplified possibly by Robert's video piece.

So in summary, it's two issues: This kind of dishonesty will create big-time blow-back; We need to be more creative in finding ways to explain our work in "consumer-friendly" (i.e. heart-string pulling) ways.

Thanks for engaging on this and have a great weekend!

a fundraiser said...

I'd be curious to know if you feel the same way about the gift catalogue that Defenders of Wildlife uses. (

They clearly state: Each wildife adoption is symbolic and your donation will be used where needed most to help protect our imperiled wildlife and wild lands.

Or what about when Democratic candidate Dennis Kucinich used an "Adopt An Intern" campaign to acquire monthly donors? (

Anonymous said...

OK - first of all - any good fundraiser knows that the "case for giving" is gold. We MUST give people reason, passion and a sense of urgency in order to break through the clutter of charities and causes. Therefore - I am ok with symbolic use of funds AS LONG as they stay within the charity's mission. Not like they were promising a water buffalo when the charity existed to further tennis in third world countries. And second of all - donors are smarter today than ever. Let them make the choices. Do the due diligence - and ensure the programs and outcomes their unrestricted gifts support ARE part of their interest. If not - call a major gift officer and give restricted or choose another charity.

Transparency is one thing - but face it - we need those funds to change the world we live in - and that's really what donors want in the end isn't it? They don't want a water buffalo - they want to save a village.

a recovering fundraiser said...

Given that Heifer is a development organization, the giving of the animal is the middle of the process. Community organizing may take up to two years for the community to determine the proper livestock and how they organize care of the livestock. After receipt of the animal, Heifer continues to work with communities to ensure proper veterinary care, project growth and ultimately, community self-reliance. So, the $500 heifer in the catalog is much more than just the gift of the animal.

I think Heifer's statements to that effect are quite clear. The donation levels also give the donor an idea of what is involved with the care of larger livestock (poultry - lower end gift, less expensive livestock; cattle - higher end gift - more expensive livestock)