It Ain't What You Give book review

11th June 2012



"It Ain't What You Give: It's The Way That You Give It" is the title of a recent new book by Caroline Fiennes of Giving Evidence in the UK.  I finished reading it last night.


It is excellent and I thoroughly recommend it to anyone.  Cocky and quirky in equal measure, it is a must-read for anyone interested in giving to charity, whether they are individuals, companies or foundations.  Its basic premise is this: if you want to do the maximum good in this world, you had better do your research and make the best decisions you possibly can in terms of whom you support and how.


It is a different and refreshing way of looking at the whole issue of social and environmental impact than I am used to (that is, from the donor's point of view rather than the charity's).  At present, and contrary to what they might say, the majority of donors does not think about impact in a very strategic way, but this is gradually changing, not least because of publications such as this.  Charities have no option but to respond and the book provides plenty of food for thought and practical tips on how they might do so.


Before giving, Caroline urges people to ask charities these six questions (p. 58):


1) What's the problem you're trying to solve?

2) What activities does the organisation do?

3) How do those activities help solve the problem?

4) How do you find out whether you are achieving anything? (what is the research process?)

5) What are you achieving (what results does that process produce?)

6) How are you learning and improving? (what examples do you have of learning and improving?)


How many charities will be able to provide reasonable answers to these questions? The reality is that not all will.  Herein lies the crux: not all charities are made equal and not all are delivering maximum impact.  This is a bitter pill to swallow for the community and voluntary sector, but it is very real and it must be discussed.


The chapter on not using 'adminstration costs' as a way to judge a charity is worth the price of the book alone.  It will be music to charities' ears to hear that donors ought to simplify their application procedures, ought not to restrict their funds, ought to give larger amounts over longer periods of times, ought to ease their reporting requirements, etc.  I really like the way that volunteering is given equal value to the provision of money, which is rare.


The book also managed to clarify my thinking on the million dollar question about comparing different charities (pp. 197-198). There is a fallacy that it is easy to compare companies in the private sector because they all use the same reporting mechanism. However, that reporting mechanism is almost exclusively about financial performance, not impact.  For-profit companies generate and destroy social value each and every day, yet this is rarely measured and when it is done, it proves just as difficult to do and to compare as within not-for-profit organisations.


So in all, an inspiring, engaging and very useful book, which I know I will consult regularly.  (ISBN: 978-0-9571633-0-0)


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