To better inform my new online course “Smarter Donors… Make a Difference,” I conducted market research using I asked two multiple choice questions about annual giving levels and about how much research donors undertook before making a gift, and two open ended questions about their satisfaction levels and if they would enjoy learning how to be smarter and more effective. Within just a few minutes, I had 32 qualified respondents. Though just a tiny sample, it so perfectly illustrates why donor education is urgently needed that these responses must be shared.

Due to the nature of the research platform, I expected most of the respondents to be small donors (who give under $10,000 a year) and indeed only four give between $10,000 and $20,000 – none give over $20,000. Twelve checked “I give only to organizations I know well (religious, alma mater, etc).” Eleven checked “My giving is pretty spontaneous – in response to appeals or requests from friends – so I don’t do any research.” Only the smallest number, nine, checked “I’d love to find organizations doing good work in the issue area I’m interested in, but I don’t know where to begin.” As research shows time and again, people give to institutions often not aligned with the causes or issues that move them.

This focus on organizations but not issues was most apparent in the answers to the open-ended question: “If you were offered a free online course to learn how to give your money away more strategically and effectively, would you take it? What would you like to learn specifically?” ONLY ONE respondent answered, “I would like to learn how to focus on human causes where funding is needed.” Everyone else wanted to know about the non-profit. A few (3) used words such as “impact” or “effectiveness,” but the majority wanted to know “where the money goes” or “whether the money is used effectively.” Several mentioned worrying about high CEO or staff salaries.

Even before conducting any interviews, my decision has been reaffirmed to make “how to choose a cause and develop your personal giving roadmap” the course’s first module. Figuring out which approach is most effective, which non-profits are already dealing with the issue, and what lessons have been learned must come first. Selecting an organization to support is the LAST milestone of the roadmap. And when we get to this final module, the first lesson will be “Overhead costs are not an indication of effectiveness.” Too few people realize that most jobs in the non-profit sector are grossly underpaid (only 5 percent of America’s 1.5 million non-profits have budgets over $10 million and could even contemplate paying inflated salaries in any case). Naturally, we all want our hard-earned dollars going to the right organizations, but first we must figure out who is doing the best work, who is listening to their beneficiaries, and who reaching their goals. None of my respondents said “I want to learn how to do the most good with my modest means.” My course will give even them a simple framework to do this.