Call Me a Churl If You Like

I remember getting really excited about the idea of Heifer International, giving donations that would buy need people around the world cows and goats. Until, that is, I read the (very) fine print and discovered that my gift would not in fact buy someone an actual cow or goat, but would go into the charity’s general fund.

The prices in this catalog represent the complete livestock gift of a quality animal, technical assistance and training. Each purchase is symbolic and represents a contribution to the entire mission of Heifer International. Donations will be used where needed most to help struggling people.

How many actual cows or goats emerged at the other end was uncertain.

How unfortunate therefore to see a great group like Oxfam stoop to the same tactic. If you read their online pitch for Oxfam America Unwrapped you could easily come to believe that your gift of $75 would actually buy someone an actual cow.

But that’s not how it works:

In technical terms (what the lawyers tell us we need to explain):
Oxfam America works in 26 countries around the world. This catalog contains gift items that symbolically represent our work. The items selected represent project goals from grants disbursed by our seven offices around the world. The purchase of each gift item is a contribution toward Oxfam America’s many programs, not a donation to a specific project or goal. Your donation will be used where it is needed the most–to help people living in poverty throughout the world.

Or, as the FAQ says:

Am I really buying a camel?
First off, let’s be clear: Neither you nor your gift recipient will receive a camel (other than the handsome photo on the gift card). When you buy a camel from Oxfam America Unwrapped, you are actually giving much more. The impact of your donation will have far-reaching effects. In each case, your donation will be used where it is most needed. For more information, click on the “How it Works” tab (at the top of the page).

Does a camel really cost $175?
Since our gifts are symbolic, these prices represent a suggested donation. We have drawn from a range of gifts so that you can make a donation that is meaningful—and fits your budget!

Good causes, especially Oxfam, but I don’t like the tricksy marketing.

I’m not sure what the going rate is for a camel, but I suspect that when you “give a camel” you are not giving a camel, not to mention “so much more” — the going rate for a camel seems to be £300 to £2,000. If so, that $175 will thus buy at most half of one of the mangiest variety.

[If all went according to plan, I’m just back from Italy now, but very jet lagged. And I am leaving for my next trip … tonight. So I’ve queued up some more posts to cover for me. This is one of them.]

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4 Responses to Call Me a Churl If You Like

  1. k says:

    Having spent some time at the Heifer Ranch, I can assure you they do, in fact, make gifts of animals. But they also want to make sure that the animals aren’t being squandered, so they provide the required training to effectively use the animals in the most sustainable ways. If Heifer gave an actual animal for every donation it received equalling the amount of an animal, it would not be serving the purpose it was created to serve. The idea isn’t just to give a family a cow. The idea is to give a cow and then teach the family how to use the cow in farming, to milk the cow for food, and to breed the cow for offspring that can either be raised, sold, or, in keeping with Heifer’s mission, passed on to other families. This is really “teaching a man to fish” rather than giving a man a fish.

    So, no, your donation doesn’t actually give a family a cow–or a goat, or flock of geese, or chickens. Instead, your donation makes it possible for Heifer to give families animals and train them in using those animals sustainably, hopefully for generations to come. I guess I just don’t understand the outrage.

  2. Michael says:

    I think it’s very misleading to tell people who don’t investigate the fine print that they have done something (“given a camel”) that they have not done. It’s just not honest. They say you have done it, they send you a card thanking you for doing it, but you have not “actually” done it.

    There were no “actual” weapons of mass destruction either. It’s a slippery slope.

  3. Seth Wagoner says:

    I’m also very disappointed to hear about this, if not *entirely* surprised. Fortunately there are plenty of microfinance initiatives out there these days which are a good deal more honest and transparent. I’ve been meaning to blog about them…damned startup, eaten all my blogging time! But I’ll link this post when I do.

    I suspect there are consumer level carbon credit schemes that are just as dodgy – they’ll sell you the planting of 20 trees, but do something quite different with your money.

  4. Matt says:

    K- you’re right that the strategy of Heifer is probably the right one as far as actually giving the animals. (At the least I’m willing to defer to their greater experience unless I see a very good argument otherwise.) But I think that MIchael is exactly right that it’s insulting and counter-productive to use misleading advertising to do good. Due to some modest donations at various points I get all the pleas for money from pretty much every humanitarian and liberal group. I _never_ give money to ones that use distorting, hysterical, or outragous advertising. Maybe it’s all market-tested and works. But if they are going to insult my intelligence or not trust me to understand the situation I don’t see why I ought to trust them, either.

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