How to Kill Your Charity

Editors Note: This guest blog was authored by Eric Stowe, founder and executive director of Splash, a nonprofit that aims to change the lives of vulnerable children in impoverished urban areas through WASH interventions in orphanages, schools, children’s hospitals, street shelters, and rescue homes. Eric introduces the concept of killing one’s charity and why an exit strategy is important for organizations that want to succeed at their missions and have lasting impact.    

Eric Stowe, Founder of Splash

I have spent virtually every waking moment for the last six years building my international charity, Splash. As of this month, we implement WASH projects serving 250,000 children in seven countries every day — and we are fast on our way to doing so for more than one million children. In the coming months, we will achieve our largest goal yet: bringing clean water to every orphanage in China!

Needless to say, I am incredibly proud of this work, of the phenomenal team undertaking it, and of the mounting progress we’ve made. I see significant growth in our future — operationally, financially, programmatically — and even greater impact for the thousands of children we serve.

Yet, despite this significant progress, I want nothing more than to kill my charity.

I know that may seem kind of blunt for someone who has worked in the nonprofit world my entire professional career and in the WASH sector for the better part of a decade. Yet I can state without hesitation that I am tired of the same ineffective international nonprofit model and I am desperate to see a change. Don’t get me wrong, I deeply love my job, but ultimately I want to kill the organization that provides it.

For years, I have worked within and seen up close traditional international charities operating with the firm belief that they are THE solution to any problem they are tackling. I don’t agree. We’ve seen little proof in the long term that these conventional mentalities actually scale real and lasting solutions —  solutions that end the perpetual cycle of their work altogether. So when I look out at the landscape of the charitable sector, I have reservations about the rapid proliferation of new charities wanting to implement or fund projects internationally.

When I first started Splash, in 2007, there were more than 12,000 U.S. charities working internationally. Six years later, there are nearly 17,000. Collectively, these nonprofits represent more than $30 billion dollars in total annual donations.

$30 billion. That is a lot of money with the potential to achieve dramatic change of the systems, and significant impact on the challenges, we in the sector work with and on. And every year forward that amount is projected to increase as will the number of charities it supports.

Now here is a critical question: how many of those organizations do you believe will go out of business, not because of poor stewardship, egregious acts, or lackluster fundraising, but because they actually accomplished their missions and can ethically and effectively close up shop? Can you name more than a handful that ever have? Conversely, how many do you believe will simply continue to grow or live on indefinitely with no end in sight? The latter is most assuredly the norm, yet the former is what every international charity claims is their long-range vision: to see a day when our work is no longer needed.

If redundancy is the goal, shouldn’t we be planning for it, then?

I started Splash believing charity at its best can solve any massive problem only by enabling the communities we serve to take over our work, do it better, more efficiently, and at greater scale in the future. Building on local strengths, facilitating locally appropriate funding streams, nurturing local community support, aligning local governmental investment and national policy, and co-creating the local businesses to serve as our replacements — all with the end goal of fundamentally erasing the necessity for our foreign charity’s presence — is not aspirational, nor is it isolated just to WASH projects. It is both an appropriate and realistic goal for virtually every organization working in the international sector: health, education, poverty, conservation, housing, and food; whether focused on kids or the elderly; working for men, women, boys, or girls.

Really, what would it look like if even a fraction of the 17,000 U.S. international charities were planning for their exits as methodically and with as much precision as they were their next gala?

There is a clear way forward that requires a disciplined way out, because charity is a means —it cannot be the end.

I recently spoke at TEDxSeattle where I highlighted what I believe are the five appropriate steps for “How To Kill Your Charity.” I urge you to watch this talk and ask the question — can the nonprofit sector be more effective? I say yes.

I welcome your comments below. You can also reach me on Twitter: @ericstowe. Please join the conversation, and learn more about how I plan to kill my charity.