When choice fatigue hits charitable giving

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 4 December 2023

The cost of living crisis hasn't hit charitable institutions as much as increasing scepticism from potential donors as to how their money is being used. A new charity umbrella group hopes to help change that. 

The seafront section of the Royal Palace in Nuku'alofa is blanketed in ash and there's damage to the fence and grounds from the tsunami that followed the volcanic eruption on January 15.

 The Royal Palace in Nuku'alofa, Tonga, damaged and blanketed in ash from the tsunami that followed the eruption of the Tonga Hunga-Tonga Ha'apai volcano on January 15, 2022. Photo: Matangi Tonga

When crisis, deprivation and sickness strike.

That's when we need charitable organisations to help bail us out. 

But while it's normally the targets of the charity dollar who are struggling, the charities themselves have also faced their fair share of challenges in recent years. Firstly, there was Covid, and now questions are being raised about where the money is actually going. 

In today's episode of The Detail we discuss a new group of eight New Zealand-based humanitarian charities that are changing the way they raise and spend funds to help ease the public's weariness. 

Paul Brown is the brains behind Emergency Alliance, that umbrella agency. He tells Wilhelmina Shrimpton the idea is that in times of crisis they can pool resources, and reduce administration costs – meaning more of every dollar donated reaches the frontline. 

"[Previously] we had behaviours that probably weren't that constructive. The more noise we made, we convinced ourselves the more money we'd raise. What ensued then was it was a race to the bottom to see who could spend the most money to raise the most money."

"The public were getting quite tired of this, and saying, 'why don't you put your energies towards the emergency, rather than trying to attract eyeballs on TV or listeners or advertise online?'"

Brown says the Alliance will go a long way towards achieving that. 

"We make it easy. We say that when you give to us, a couple of things: we decide where it goes best, based on the agencies who are responding in that region. Secondly, we won't pester you again. So we only ask for money around significant emergencies. We won't ring you up and say, 'thanks for the donations, can you give us some more?'"

It also means that during a disaster appeal, instead of eight campaigns and eight lots of advertising costs, there's just one. 

"I think donors are getting more sophisticated, and they're getting more informed. They're also getting more misinformed. So we think it's our role to actually cut through that and provide true and accurate information, and really help make that choice easier for donors if they want to make a donation."

Mena smiles at the camera. She is outdoors standing on a lawn, wearing a yellow top.

Mena Antonio is the chief executive of Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand. Photo: Supplied

The Detail also speaks to Caritas chief executive Mena Antonio. The Catholic aid and development agency works across the Pacific and Southeast Asia, and is one of the eight members of Emergency Alliance. 

"[The Alliance] makes the landscape cleaner, when you've got one appeal."

In the fight for dollars, Antonio says it also melts away competition, and makes it easier for donors. 

"What the Emergency Alliance does is, it's one funnel. So it reduces that confusion for [donors] so that they're not getting choice fatigue."

But in a cost of living crisis, are there enough dollars to go around? 

Paul Brown seems to think there are. 

"We often say that when times are tough, people have higher levels of empathy and actually give more. So it's quite counterintuitive."

You can donate to Emergency Alliance via their website.

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