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Odds and Ends: On a Path to Giving Better
Odds and Ends: On a Path to Giving Better

Nicholas Kristof opines on Snapchat, judging nonprofits, and creating empathy

Rick Tulka

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has traveled to more than 150 countries, lived on four continents, and won two Pulitzer Prizes—one for his reporting on the Tiananmen Square democracy movement in China and the other for his coverage of the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan. Writing frequently on global health, poverty, and gender oppression, Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, brought attention to the abuse and exploitation of women and girls worldwide in their best-selling book Half the Sky. In their follow-up, A Path Appears, they profile philanthropic efforts that are creating positive changes. "I have seen a lot of progress on issues that I care about," he says. "As a journalist, you do see some really terrible things. But side by side with the worst of humanity, you tend to also see the very best." Ready to hear more? Listen to the extended audio interview, and see Kristof at the Summit for Leaders in Advancement in Chicago, July 12–14.

Snapchat is known for its short-lived content—messages disappear after 10 seconds; stories after 24 hours. What attracted you to it?

I like to play with new platforms, new ways of reaching young people in particular. I spend a lot of time on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Instagram, and Pinterest. The great disadvantage of Snapchat for somebody like me is that you can't include a link to an article, and it's harder for things to go viral because you don't share snaps. I want to build the choir, not just preach to it. That involves finding young people and building an audience with them.

In A Path Appears, you encouraged people to do research before giving to the charities you listed. How should people judge nonprofits?

On their impact. Often, we give to the people who are good at asking, not those who are good at spending. So if we get a call that mentions children with cancer or disabled veterans, we may instinctively say OK and donate without knowing anything about the organization. We would never buy something that way, yet because it's charity, we give. That's a mistake. We should focus on the organizations that have a record of spending effectively—and that doesn't just mean good financial ratios. It means having an impact, whatever the area may be.

People increasingly speak about giving as an investment. Do you like that shift in terminology?

I really do. The same tough-mindedness we bring to the investment world should be brought to the charitable world, and the same sense of risk as well. We intuitively understand that not all financial investments are going to profit. There's often a situation of high risk and high reward. Likewise, it's useful for nonprofits to take risks. But nonprofits are fearful that if they take risks, they will antagonize donors, who will think their money was wasted. On the contrary, a certain amount of risk is probably useful, and nonprofits are, systematically, taking fewer risks than for-profits. As a donor, I'm not put off by a nonprofit taking risks. I would admire it.

You've written that the world needs more empathy. Is that teachable?

I think it is. Service-learning requirements and projects are a step toward that. Even if they're somewhat coerced, kids are at least exposed to disadvantage and to the need to put their own lives in greater perspective. I think the ethic among young people now is that they should do something service-related. Even if the motives for entering into a service-learning project are somewhat cynical—to impress colleges or to try to get fellowships—they often have impact. In the classroom, we could read more about people from different cultures and use literature or film to understand how other people live, whether in different countries or areas within our own country, and to build understanding and, yes, empathy.

—Interview by David Moltz and Theresa Walker




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