Remember when computer centers were going to save the world? The first project I ever worked on was going to be revolutionary: My team and I were going to transform the lives of poor students in the townships of South Africa, and we were going to do it with computers. Access to technology promised a bright future—the solution that would break a child out of poverty. Or so we thought, until every single one of our centers failed. Computer centers may have represented a way for children to learn how to use a budding technology, but we soon began to see that it is hard to prioritize after-school computer classes when you’re dealing with insurmountable problems such as hunger, HIV/AIDS, an unsafe home, and being responsible for multiple siblings and ailing parents. 

Primary school students work at a township computer center in 2003.

We realized that to transform children’s lives, we needed to provide more than computers. So we regrouped. We restructured our approach, narrowed our scope, and created an organization that aims to provide every solution that a child in our target geography may need. Today, Ubuntu Education Fund utilizes a comprehensive model that provides these solutions.

We’re very glad we chose that route. But we could have simply continued the computer center project and, with some flashy rhetoric, framed it as a success. Maybe we could have said it was a “social innovation project, utilizing cutting edge technology to promote sustainable enterprise through building the capacity of social entrepreneurs.” Ripe with buzzwords, that kind of language surely would have encouraged funders to open up their wallets. The problem is, those generous donors would have been supporting a grossly inadequate intervention. When nonprofits start extrapolating their work, they run the risk of over-selling their impact, over-simplifying the problem they’re trying to solve, and misleading donors, other organizations, and themselves. 

Easily marketable buzzwords force nonprofits into a destructive spiral that works like this: To fundraise effectively, nonprofits come up with accessible, digestible, emotive concepts that resonate with those who work outside the sector. A successful marketing strategy popularizes these ideas, and in doing so, takes some liberties, equating parts of a solution to “saving a life.” Both the solution and the problem run the risk of becoming overly simplified into more buzzwords that pervade the philanthropic dialogue. Over time the partial solution becomes distorted, generalized, and touted as the next big thing. Funders then expect other nonprofits to incorporate these “solutions” into their models, and nonprofits acquiesce because they need the money, even though compliance may undermine their efforts. 

Consider malaria eradication campaigns. For years, nonprofits have boasted to funders that they can save a child from malaria with a bed net for just $10. That easily understood product, delivered at a low cost-per-unit price, is appealing. To date, millions of dollars have been raised to get bed nets into the hands of the impoverished in areas rife with malaria. 

But even as donations roll in and bed nets are distributed, data suggest that in some places, nearly half of the people who have access to bed nets don’t sleep under them. The benefit isn’t realized because the solution isn’t complete. What’s more, there are myriad compounding issues to consider when dealing with individuals facing life-threatening diseases, and this complexity is difficult to capture in buzzwords for the general population. That’s why “save a child for $10” distorts the issue, and potentially diverts money from work that would identify, fund, and implement a comprehensive solution. Bed nets aren’t the only way to save lives from malaria, and nonprofits are compelled to try to meet unrealistic expectations that low costs should yield high returns. 

This same pattern has been repeated across the sector. One-for-one campaigns are marketed as a life-saving act of social capitalism, while in reality donated items pile up in warehouses because distribution logistics don’t work well. Nutrition supplements, described as a simple way to eradicate malnutrition, may have short-term benefits when children actually receive them, but can these same children break out of poverty armed with only a cup of soup or some protein paste? Large-scale HIV testing, once hailed as a successful endeavor not only to identify the numbers of people affected by the virus and track the spread of the disease, but also to encourage HIV-positive individuals to get treatment, never did lead to increased access to treatment or decreased prevalence of HIV/AIDS. 

All of these efforts do have an impact on impoverished people across the world—we are not discounting the hard work being done—but a one-off intervention is never going to eradicate poverty, hunger, or disease.

In order to break the cycle, nonprofit organizations need to market their work honestly. As nonprofit leaders, we need to avoid misleading, oversimplified language when talking about our core theories of change, and we need to speak up if and when popularization distorts those theories. We need to recognize the challenges we face and adjust our programs to fit our goals (or adjust our goals). We must pledge to stop linking small dollar amounts with massive change. We need to outline the higher surrounding costs of creating sustainable change and market the entire package: donors may fund a piece of the solution, but it should be clear that $1, $10, and even $1,000 will not save a life. We also need to contextualize proven interventions and concepts, making it clear that while a certain solution might be highly effective in one context, it should not be blindly prescribed across various geographic regions that have their own unique environments, culture, challenges, and political structure.

As we do so, over time we envision a philanthropic sector that understands the true cost and difficulty of transforming a life.