Isn’t it time we redefine success in charities?

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Charity word cloud

If Passion drives, let Reason hold the Reins.

Benjamin Franklin

Human beings are by nature emotional. When we see someone suffering, we are moved to act. That is what makes us human.

Never in the history of humankind have we had more potential to act. There are more charities than ever, more people volunteering overseas, more crowdfunding campaigns to support at a click of a button.

And yet, amongst all of this good work, there is the underlying paradox of the entire charity sector. It is a commonly held belief that for a charity to exist, someone must remain suffering.

This documentary from Poverty Inc, challenges us to ask the hard question: Are we a part of the problem?

In the documentary, Poverty Inc, the founder of TOMS shoes, Blake Mycoskie is interviewed. An entrepreneur with a good heart, Mycoskie makes a bold statement that once he learnt about the fact that children in other countries were going without shoes – he dedicated his entire life to solving this problem.

The response from a local entrepreneur was incredulous, but also incredibly sensible.

He’s going to supply shoes for people for the rest of his life (which) is implying that he would want people to stay without shoes for their life.

It is a commonly held belief that for a charity to exist, someone must remain suffering.

As our ability to exercise good intentions grows, our attention spans decrease. Research shows as we are bombarded with more new information daily, our ability focus on new information gets shorter and shorter. In 2013, a Twitter global trend would last for an average of 17.5 hours. In 2016, this Twitter trend lasts for only 11.9 hours.

The same is true in the non-profit sector. Timelines to deliver results get shorter and shorter. It is not uncommon for a charity to have to scope out a community, do a needs assessment, come up with a plan in consultation with said community, deliver the plan, and evaluate the (hopefully highly successful) intervention – all within 12 months.

No wonder our measures of success for a charity are so short term.

How many wells did the charity dig this year? How many girls went to school?

These short term, quantitative approaches are easy to capture, and easy to communicate.

But things get murky once we start to engage with complexity.

  • Who is going to maintain the wells once they are dug? Are they valued?
  • When the girls went to school, how were their lives changed? Did the school accept them because they felt compelled to, or because the possibility of funding was attached?
  • Most importantly, what happens to the wells and girls once the charity leaves?

Under such a system, that measures such short term success, what incentive is there for a charity to even think of leaving?

It is a commonly held belief that for a charity to exist, someone must remain suffering.

Women in India carrying water – is digging a well their priority or ours?

It seems to me that we need to rethink our entire definition of success in charities. Until we get away from short term thinking, we’re going to continue doing less meaningful work.

Imagine if we looked beyond the 10 or 15 years the charity works in an area, to the millennia that occur after the charity leaves?

This hand-drawn diagram shows how a charity should focus on long-term success.
This hand-drawn diagram shows how a charity should focus on long-term success.

Thinking of charity this way changes our entire concept of success. And therefore, it changes the way in which charities report.

It would require donors to stop asking:

  • How many wells did the charity dig this year? How many girls went to school?

It would require donors to start asking:

  • What milestones are you hitting to make the community self-sustainable?

It is a commonly held belief that for a charity to exist, someone must remain suffering.

But by focusing on what happens when charity finishes its work, we can challenge this commonly held belief. This requires a dramatic rethink, but it’s certainly not impossible.

If a charity knows when it’s going to stop existing, the suffering might also come to an end.


This year, OIC Cambodia, the charity I founded in Cambodia hit a major milestone towards making itself redundant.

The Ministry of Education in Cambodia signed a Memorandum of Understanding to start the first university course in speech therapy at a Cambodian university ever. This is the first step towards the organisation being able to exit Cambodia, and hand work over to the Cambodian government.

To start this university course, we are currently crowdfunding and have already raised over $10,000. However, we’ve still got a long way to go.

You can be part of ensuring a country is self-sustainable, and making sure they have the power of speech therapy, by supporting our campaign here.

Please give generously and spread the word!

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