imageMy daughter thinks ducks are cool.  You know how kids are.  Now, there’s no way I’m getting her a pet duck.  But I can “buy” a duck for someone who could really benefit from owning a duck and have a card sent to my daughter saying so.  That’s almost as good as a pet duck in her eyes—and way better than one in mine.

Gift catalogs that let donors do that kind of thing have exploded in the past few years.  No wonder:  They’re fun, useful, and donor centered.  They let donors give very narrowly to fund things they like for reasons of their own.

Or do they?

A quick look at some of the leading catalogs shows that most have disclaimers about what donors’ gifts actually do.  Here’s a typical disclaimer, the one used by Heifer International:

Each purchase from this catalog represents a contribution to the entire mission of Heifer International. Donations will be used where needed most to help struggling people.

In other words, if I buy a duck from Heifer (or many other catalogs that make similar disclaimers), I’m not buying a duck.  I guess I’m okay with that.  But my daughter would be less than pleased to learn that her duck was only a “duck”—a symbolic creature.  And I wonder how other donors would feel. 

There’s another type of disclaimer that handles the issue differently.  Here’s the disclaimer used by World Vision:

Please note that your donations go directly to their stated use, unless an item has already been fully funded or the minimum number of shares (where applicable) has not been purchased. In such cases, funds will be allocated to areas of similar need.

If I’m reading it right, World Vision says if I buy a duck, I might be buying a duck, unless too many other people already bought ducks—in which case I’ll get something not too terribly unlike a duck.  That feels a little better, doesn’t it?  It might even pass the daughter test.

If you’re going to launch a giving program like this—and it’s worth at least considering—you should ask yourself these questions about what you offer and how you offer it:

  • Is it scrupulously true?

  • Does it honor donors’ wishes?

  • Are you prepared for “too much” success?

  • Can you proudly explain it to your kids?

Done right, these catalogs are donor-powered dynamos.  Done wrong, they’re ethically questionable—and trouble waiting to happen.

Image source: stock.xchng

imageJeff Brooks is creative director at Merkle|Domain, a direct-response agency serving the nonprofit world.  He blogs at the Donor Power Blog.