Do We Need to Stop Demanding that Charities Be “Efficient”?

When it comes to efficiency, Hong Kong is king.  The city’s high regard for efficiency is captured in everything: from the design of its world class subway system to its paperless, officer-less immigration, from its one-tap stored value card payments to the cha chaan teng (Hong Kong café) lady yelling at customers for not being ready to order the moment they’ve walked through the door. The expectation and exaltation of efficiency have been deeply ingrained in all of the city’s residents.   In fact, I distinctly remember a time when I was about to rent a car in Washington D.C. with two friends from Hong Kong.  As we were walking toward the counter, they began grumbling and rolling their eyes, turning to each other saying, “Ugh… Now we’re going to have to make SMALL TALK with the attendant.   Why couldn’t this be like Hong Kong where we can just pick up the keys and leave?”  What happened to us?  And how did this obsession with efficiency make us so… inhuman?  In some ways, the not-for-profit world faces a similar pressure as that poor American woman at the rental car desk.  Everyone is looking for results and everyone is expecting efficiency.  The unfortunate reality, however, is that not all of the results we’re looking for can be achieved “efficiently,” or at least not quickly, and maybe we need to stop making that our goal and using that as the only indicator by which we measure an organisation’s success.

You see, when it comes to any kind of social enterprise, including not-for-profit charities and for-profit businesses, the key word is “social,” as in relating to society i.e. people.  And people… Well, they’re complicated.  People aren’t machines.  We can’t just replace a part or modify some code and suddenly find that whatever went wrong has been reversed or fixed.  Poverty, disease, abuse, loss, trauma, neglect… There is an abundance of events, circumstances or conditions that can render people quite vulnerable and in need of “social” services, whether education, employment, medical care, rehabilitation, counselling, nutritious meals or even just plain love.  And while the services can be delivered regularly and professionally, there are no guarantees when it comes to producing immediate results.  Why?  Because not every problem can be solved quickly and not every perceived problem can be “solved” at all.

I once counseled a girl struggling with depression.  We met and spoke over the phone many times and for many hours.  One day a few months in, after an exhausting two-hour conversation, I finally asked her a question that I thought would provoke an obvious answer: “Wouldn’t you rather NOT be depressed than stay depressed?”  Her answer: “I don’t know.  I don’t remember what it’s like to not be depressed.”  She had grown attached to the misery of her depression because it had become familiar and the thought of change, even to something she knew in theory to be better, seemed terrifying.  Our conversations continued for over a year, as she wrestled through various issues related to school and family.  Eventually I got to witness huge breakthroughs that have enabled her to now lead a depression-free life and to be in good standing with her family.  Was that an “efficient” use of my time?  Had you measured half a year into the whole process, it may have appeared as though there had been no impact at all.  And maybe there are other girls I could have worked with instead who would have shed depression earlier or not suffered from depression at all.  However, given the eventual outcome, can anyone say that the investment wasn’t worth it?  I have heard of many parallel situations, where individuals have grown attached to an addiction or a destructive habit and it is the investment of many hours that empowers them to ultimately break free.  Are the hours worth it?  Are the people worth it?

Consider another example.  On a recent trip to North Africa, I met a sweet little girl named Salma.  Salma was cute, playful and extremely affectionate, and Salma happens to have down syndrome.  There is no “cure” for the genetic disorder and therefore no “solution” to her “problem”—only treatments, therapies, coping strategies and support groups.  I spent a morning with Salma, rolling play dough and playing copy-cat, but mostly giggling and hugging, with occasional moments of  holding her tightly to keep her from punching the boy next to her.  Was that an “efficient” use of my time?  Would my time have been better spent distributing, perhaps, some impressive number of meals, medical kits or microfinance dollars?  Or would I be considered more successful or more impactful had I worked with more children that morning or perhaps children that have a curable condition or maybe healthy children with a higher likelihood of making a greater [financial] contribution to society?  By comparison, do we encourage parents to allocate time, love or attention to their children according to who is easier to love or who will more quickly appreciate/return love?  What is most efficient?  What is the better investment?  What is right?

If we continue to focus only on efficiency, measuring the success of organisations only by the sheer volume and/or the immediacy of their impact, we risk inadvertently telling not-for-profits to establish their services, programs and beneficiaries according to what will appear most impressive to donors, similar to telling a politician to pursue only the policies that will get him re-elected next term.  But, even more tragically, if we pursue only the projects that return immediate and/or tangible results, we risk telling some of the world’s most vulnerable communities that they’re just not worth our time.  Efficiency is certainly valuable and the efficient use of resources should continue to be a priority in every  organisation.  However, maybe caring for the world’s most vulnerable is a worthwhile investment and we just need to establish a measure better than “efficiency” to help donors appreciate the value of the services provided and the care received.

Amanda Y. Fung


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