If you’re an animal lover, you’ve probably seen them in your Facebook and Twitter feeds; photos of tortured, abused and very sad looking animals that need our help. I have a lot of friends that do animal rescue and I keep an eye on animal nonprofits and so I see these photos constantly. I’m very disturbed by these images and I’ve asked myself why people publish them, especially when I’m usually flipping through Facebook at lunchtime.
The obvious answer to this is the shock value. In this day and age of extreme violence, both in real life and on television and movies, the photos have to be very graphic to get people to wake up out of their slumber and care –especially if the bad things are happening half way around the world. And if people care then awareness is raised and presumably donations for the nonprofits will follow. The same idea works on television too. I think everyone has seen the animal welfare commercials with the achingly sad voice of Sarah McLachlan floating through images of death row dogs and cats. You have to have a pretty cold heart to not feel even a little weepy eyed at such suffering.
So, is there anything wrong with using such imagery?
I think the biggest problem is desensitization. I remember watching the Sally Struthers’ Christian Children’s Fund commercials in the late 80s and even though these commercials seemed to be very effective in the earlier years, they became a punchline later on. The sight of a dying kid with flies biting their eyeballs (thank you Book of Mormon for that reference) just isn’t as effective as it once was. Still, I’m sure the campaign was very successful and it probably raised a lot of money in its time. I still occasionally see these commercials of sad looking kids but I think these child organizations have had to come up with different strategies to excite and energize their donors. I wonder if the animal rescue groups will need to take the same approach once the sight of an emaciated dog just doesn’t elicit the same amount of sympathy that it does now.
Perhaps more worrisome is that there are some nonprofits that use sensationalism to oversell their message. The best example of this was the infamous Kony 2012 video that was produced by the Invisible Children nonprofit. I saw the video and yes, it was definitely compelling but using the CEO’s cute Caucasian kid to convey the atrocities of the Kony regime in Africa was just ridiculously manipulative. And of course, once the video went viral, it was picked apart by the experts who said that it oversimplified a very complex problem and was full of factual flaws. Perhaps Invisible Children was doing good work before the infamous video hit YouTube but they should never have relied on such hyperbole to tell a story—even if they were successful in making Kony famous, which allegedly, was their plan all along.
To add to that point, I think the public needs to be very skeptical of any nonprofit when they are trying hard to sell their message with the help of shocking images, videos or storytelling. There is a charity that was practically in my backyard when I worked in Los Angeles and they have chosen recently to focus on rescuing dogs from Asian countries where dog meat is still a concern. The photos on Facebook are incredibly graphic—even for this veterinarian who has seen some terrible abuse cases first hand—and the accompanying stories are so overwrought with emotion that I think even Nicholas Sparks would be put to shame. It is an incredibly effective strategy if the CEO wants to raise awareness because there are hundreds of shares and comments with every post. But I do hope that if these people are donating money (which I assume a portion of them are), then they are asking themselves why there isn’t any financial information on the website or even who the board members are, if indeed there are board members. I really feel strongly that a nonprofit needs to respect their donors by being completely transparent and it seems very wrong to manipulate people’s emotions without even the courtesy of public financial records.
When I started the Savong Foundation many years ago, I decided that I didn’t want to be a manipulative nonprofit. I didn’t want our team to plaster images of sad looking kids everywhere on social media who were in desperate need of a western donor. I didn’t want to focus on the tragic stories. I wanted to be completely transparent about what we were trying to do and I wanted us to focus on the happy stories, our success stories, how we are able to transform lives with even the smallest donation. I wanted our students to be a proud group of people and not resort to shameless tactics to find their support. I think it’s a better approach but being completely honest, it’s not the easiest approach. I think I would get a lot more shares and likes and probably even more money if I tried to raise a few social media eyebrows.
I guess we’ll have to settle for less and I’m perfectly okay with that.
I get these questions a lot …
“Whatever got you interested in that country?”
“How can you help a country with so many problems?”
Or sometimes I just get an odd look and I’m guessing the person is trying to figure out if they could even point out Cambodia on a map.
My simple answer is that I took a sabbatical from my veterinary job eight years ago and I spent about a week in Phnom Penh and then Siem Reap. I wanted to do something other than photograph the beautiful temples of Angkor so I looked up volunteering positions on the internet. I came across a young man who had recently started a free English language school. His name was Savong. He was bright, ambitious and very friendly. We immediately formed a friendship and I was so moved by what he had accomplished for his underprivileged students, I wanted to be a part of it. I promised that I would return and six months later, I did. Three years later, I started the Savong Foundation which supports students who can’t pay for high quality education. So, one answer is that I became involved in Cambodia due to pure chance. Or maybe it was fate. That’s an interesting discussion for another time.
Another answer, perhaps even more obvious than the first one, is that I wanted to “give back” and to share the wealth that has been given to me over the years. I came from a very middle class family but looking back I considered myself very fortunate; I was educated at a private boarding school in Scotland while my parents were setting up schools in Africa. After we returned to Canada, I spent my high school days either at school or at home doing homework for the next day. I never had to take on a part-time job and in the summer, I spent the lazy days at our cottage on a lake. I was awarded a scholarship to the University of Western Ontario where I obtained my Bachelor of Science and then I was off to the Ontario Veterinary College, graduating with very little debt thanks to my parents and the Ontario government.
But life wasn’t perfect and I would not call it a privileged upbringing. Scottish boarding schools are pretty much hell on earth for a very sensitive homesick boy all of nine years old whose parents were thousands of miles away. In those days, the headmaster was allowed to beat the children if they did something bad and apparently I did because I was beaten twice with the infamous jokari bat on my bare backside. I was ridiculed in the showers because my bottom (I’ll use the British expression) was flaming red. I would also like to mention how we had to wear shorts in the middle of winter and I was turned off playing the chanter (a musical instrument) because the teacher hovered with a ruler, threatening to smack my fingers if I made a wrong note. When I returned to Canada, my parents got involved in a difficult business deal and money was very tight. I remember we ate out at the local restaurant once a week (our special treat!) for $1.99 fish and chips but we weren’t allowed dessert and we were only allowed to order water as a beverage.
“That’s how the restaurant makes their money. Cake and coke,” my dad warned us.
After I was awarded my DVM degree I moved to Las Vegas, became a small animal veterinarian and money wasn’t a problem. Please don’t get the impression that veterinarians are overpaid because they definitely are not. They earn far less than dentists and physicians and (I may be biased here) but I think they work much harder. The point is that I was comfortable and I bought a house and a car and I considered myself pretty happy and so, blessed with the compassion gene, it was no wonder that I was looking for ways to “give back”.
If there were a third answer, I would refer you to an excellent TED talk by Hugh Evans who talks about Global Citizens. These are people who don’t see themselves confined by boarders but primarily self-identify as members of the human race and work to help each other. He brings up an excellent point that we just can’t ignore problems in other countries because poverty, war, inequality and climate change will affect us all if we don’t address these major issues. We’ve seen it already in Syria (just as one example) and we will continue to see growing problems around the world if we don’t energize those people who are willing to see the world as one. Don’t even get me started about Sir Donald trying to build a wall to keep out the Mexicans. That’s exactly the opposite of what Global Citizens are trying to achieve.
Yes, I want to be a Global Citizen so I see nothing wrong with being a Canadian, living in the United States and wanting to help Cambodia. It all makes perfect sense.
So now I get to ask the question …
What country are you going to help?
And if the answer is Cambodia, that’s great! Sponsorships for students start at $50/month and we prefer that you use the PayPal Giving Fund to avoid transaction fees.
How much do you think I made as the CEO of the Savong Foundation last year?
You would be correct if you came up with the exact number of -$5168.36. Yes, that’s right, it’s a minus because I earned $0 but with personal donations, advertising, travel expenses and other miscellaneous costs, I’m in the hole for over $5000 for 2015. I certainly don’t regret spending the money; I like to direct as much money towards our student programs as possible and I realize there are personal costs associated with running a nonprofit.
At the Savong Foundation, very little money is spent on administrative expenses. In fact, last year, over 98% of our income was put towards program expenses. We were able to achieve this number because none of our board members get a salary and we only had two paid staff members, our scholarship manager and our computer teacher. We don’t have an office and we don’t have team building getaways in expensive hotels.
98% is an impressive number and I’m very proud of what we have achieved with our public and corporate donations. However, does that mean we are “better” than those nonprofits who have a lower percentage, meaning that more of their donations went towards administrative expenses than program expenses?
Nonprofit evaluation websites such as Charity Navigator would have you believe that.
But the answer isn’t quite so clear.
I believe that nonprofits have as much right to hire skilled and qualified staff as a profit organization if they want to be a successful corporation. And here is the key: Skilled and qualified staff demand high salaries. And why shouldn’t they? They are hopefully the top people in their field! Why should nonprofits have to settle for second or third best just to keep their administrative expenses low so that they rank higher among nonprofits?
Of course, there is a limit. A small organization shouldn’t be paying their CEO a ridiculously disproportionate salary. And large organizations shouldn’t have ridiculously low program expenses percentages either. But even if they do, I still don’t think these percentages are necessarily a good measure of the work that a nonprofit is doing.
It’s much more important to look at IMPACT. In other words, how effective is the nonprofit in achieving its stated goals for each dollar spent? And nonprofits have to be compared to similar nonprofits. I think it’s crazy to try to compare a veteran’s organization with an animal welfare organization because they have entirely different goals and expenses. You know what they say about apples and oranges.
Every donor wants to know that their money is being well spent … and the Savong Foundation is fortunate that we can keep our overhead costs to a minimum. However, I still think we should evaluate nonprofits in a different way by focusing on what truly matters.
It’s an alarming figure: One qualified doctor for every 5000 people in Cambodia, which is one of the lowest ratios in the world. It’s no wonder that poor people must turn to unqualified and unlicensed “healers” to get any hope of care.
And with an entire village getting infected with HIV, it’s a tragic situation.
Of course, the situation is more complex than this. Even if there were more physicians, could the poor people afford to get proper treatment? What role should the government have in making sure that its people get treated? Should there be an accelerated program through university to produce more healthcare workers?
At the Savong Foundation, we want our students to go to university and have professional careers. We may have three young women who would like to go to medical school this fall but the fees are quite high and there is no way that the average Cambodian student could afford them.
$1500 for tuition for year 1 and then it increases to $3000 over the course of an eight year program. These fees don’t include living expenses which range from $100 to $200/month. Of course, these fees may sound cheap to the average foreigner going through med school but for Cambodia, where a family may bring in only $100 or $200/month, the fees might as well be a million dollars a year.
We’ve looked into microloans and so far, this is not even a viable solution. There is a limit of $5000 and the loan needs to be paid back before the start of the next school year. Our option at this point is to seek out private donations to cover the fees and with three students, these fees will be substantial …
But this is what Cambodia needs! Young, ambitious, highly intelligent physicians who understand what it’s like to be poor!
If you would like to sponsor one of our young women, please contact me at email@example.com.
I can’t wait till graduation day.
There seem to be five types of tourists in Siem Reap.
Neo-Hippies: These are the couples that have spent far too much time in South-east Asia. They have surfed in Bali, done the Moon Festival in Phuket and drunk scorpion wine in Vietnam. He has dreds and she has armpit hair. Both are wearing tank tops and AliBaba pants and have golden tans. In their 20s and usually Caucasian.
People from Iowa: No offense to Iowa… Okay, maybe a little. These are youngish couples who vaguely read something about Cambodia and thought it would be a neat place to visit. They are in way over their heads and quickly realize that Disneyland would have been a wiser choice. Dressed in polos and khakis, they sweat way too much and look generally tired and/or frustrated. Will likely never leave their home again when they return.
The Au-Pairs: Two girls in their twenties, usually from Europe or Australia. They have the eager and innocent look of young people who still believe they can change the world in three months. They shrug off cultural differences and try to learn Khmer. Children love them and they love children.
The Golden Go-Getters: These couples are in their sixties but have the energy of twenty-year olds. They arrive in Siem Reap and are stomping around temples within hours because heat, insects or tsunamis are not going to slow them down. They are running through their bucket list before they drop dead, likely from exhaustion.
The Kor-Asians: These are packs of people from richer Asian countries, usually Korea and Japan but also China. They are on a tour and have three days to take photos of things that have already been photographed millions of times before. They travel on a tour bus and only eat at Korean/Japanese/Chinese establishments which are “safe”. Many are wearing visors.
Yes, these are just generalizations and have nothing to do with our education projects… Just a little fun.