How do you move the needle on a Big Problem like global poverty? How do you build an organization wherein the good accomplished is greater than the resources consumed? How do you start a social movement, create an excellent product or design a transformational ministry? Do you come up with a clever gimmick like the ice bucket challenge? Or try to make a 30-second video that goes viral? Or cold call all of the contacts in your phone? These questions have captivated my mind for years. As someone with a bias for trying things, I have had my fair share of failure with a Big Problem.
Gimmicks and viral videos and cold calls are not good strategies for solving Big Problems. There are no reliable get-rich-quick schemes. There is a winning strategy for solving Big Problems, but it is slow and expensive. I asked founders whom I admire how they built their organizations. I read books by people like Jim Collins, Patrick Lencioni and Gino Wickman. From this research—as well as my own experience building a nonprofit venture—I have come to the conclusion that the only winning strategy for solving Big Problems is People.
Jim Collins says that organizations should ask “Who?” before they ask “What?”. Innovating solutions to wicked problems requires putting innovators to the task and giving them room to experiment. Catalyzing a social movement requires creators to craft content, connectors to spread the word and communicators to lead change. In other words, having the right people is more important than having the right plan of action. To build a successful venture, you have to have the right people in the right seats on your bus. Simple Charity is currently looking for monthly givers because monthly giving means reliable revenue for payroll which means that we can hire talented people.
Most of the problems that arise in nonprofits are people problems. When you have the wrong person in the wrong seat, it is frustrating for everyone. Fortunately, I could not be happier with Simple Charity’s current team of three. But mistakes while forming a team are only one category of errors that nonprofits make. Another common error is overworking and underpaying staff. The resulting turnover is detrimental. Nonprofit CEOs often feel pressure from donors to keep salaries as low as possible and to produce results as quickly as possible. All the while, these organizations are recruiting in the same labor market as the for-profit world. Excellent staff at some point realize that they could make more money in a less stressful job, and they leave. And the progress that those People made on solving the nonprofit’s Big Problem leaves with them.
Simple Charity’s strategy is talented people. That’s it. That’s how we are going to execute on our mission of helping Christians practice solidarity with the global poor. We want to hire talented people, and we want to do everything we can to keep them.
This year, I would love to hire a software engineer and an economics PhD. Currently, I write the code for our website and spearhead our charity evaluation research. I enjoy these jobs, but it is not efficient for me to be doing them. Imagine if you had an economics PhD and a software engineer working full-time on the Big Problem of making effective charity as simple as possible for everyday church-going Christians. There are over a million charities in America. This is an overwhelming set of options. Because of this, the Gates Foundation suggests that “give lists”—lists of vetted charities—are an effective way of increasing donations. As far as I know, no one is currently working on a user-friendly give list specifically for thoughtful Christians who want to alleviate poverty and suffering around the world.
I would work for Simple Charity for free if our family could swing it. That is how much I believe in this organization’s potential. I currently make $35,000 a year (so much for that Duke degree in economics!). When I say that we need monthly donors in order to hire and retain excellent people, I am not trying to persuade you to give so that I can get rich. I am saying that I believe Simple Charity has the potential of eventually (think decades) moving the needle on the Big Problem of global poverty, but to do that, we need a team of hungry, resilient, creative people, some of whom we are able to retain for the long haul (think decades again).
Deploying capital to a nonprofit does not follow from rational self-interest. It is a net economic loss of 100% of the capital deployed every time. Because of this, nonprofits have a hard time acquiring the capital necessary to hire excellent people from the start. They live in a world of inefficiency where the founder is too resilient to quit but donors are too cautious to allow the founder to hire the best talent. Not all nonprofits are like this of course. But unfortunately, the majority are.
I am in no rush to grow Simple Charity. I believe our team is doing a great job, and if we keep at it, I believe we will see Kingdom impact. That said, I also see an amazing opportunity for Simple Charity to solve a real problem. When we have $25,000 of monthly giving coming in, we will be able to hire our software engineer and our economics PhD and start to make real progress in the Big Problem of mobilizing everyday Christians to effectively respond to global poverty. Some of the people reading this letter have capacity to give $100 a month to help us get there. Others have capacity for $1,000 a month. Others for $5,000 a month. Wherever you are, any amount would be incredibly helpful and deeply appreciated.
I believe that Simple Charity could move millions annually to effective, Kingdom-oriented charities to alleviate global poverty within the short to medium run. And if the Lord gives us favor, I believe it is feasible that we move billions in the long run. To get there, we will need to spend hundreds of thousands annually on the salaries of talented people. These people would allow us to hone our web platform, charity evaluation research and messaging to get us to a tipping point. At that tipping point, it is possible that Simple Charity becomes a go-to resource for American churchgoers to find charity recommendations. The result could be no less than a disruption in the nonprofit industry causing higher standards for excellence, increased funding for the best charities and spiritual renewal within givers. May the Lord do it, for His Kingdom and glory on earth as in Heaven.
Founder & CEO | Simple Charity