Let me depart from the usual tech and tech event flavor of this blog to write about something I care about deeply.

I don't buy lottery tickets because I figure I have won the lottery several times already: I am a white mail born in Canada into a middle class family. How many more advantages does a person need? The impulse to want to help others who, simply by accident of birth, do not have the same opportunities I have had is very strong. So what is the best way to do this?

Like most businesses I'm sure, we at Singular Software get a lot (and I mean, a lot) of requests to donate our software or other things for various causes. It would be easy to just say yes to all of them, but I used to consider them carefully and support the ones that seemed genuine and worthy. I'm glad I took the time to do so because a few of them were for purposes that I strongly disagreed with. And of course some are simply not genuine.

But in recent months I have been examining more carefully what I and my company can do to actually achieve something and be effective. Every one in business is keenly aware of the difference between activity and accomplishment (or should). Our charitable giving should be looked at in the same light. And mine, I'm afraid to say, has been mostly activity with questionable accomplishment.

So now I am taking a much more active approach to my philanthropy (modest as it is). But, perhaps paradoxically, one result is that I have less time to assess and respond to incoming requests and may seem less generous than before.

Here is how I explained it to one particularly persistent request for assistance.
I have given a lot of money to various causes over the years and have concluded it was a complete waste. The reason why is that it was passive and reactive, with no real attention being paid to the impact it might have. My response to this is not to pull back, but rather to redouble my efforts, take the time to devise a donation strategy, pick my battles and be very conscious of whether I am being effective. This takes a lot of time, but I like how it is working out.

Part of the strategy is to allocate my time carefully. There are only so many hours in the day that I can spend on philanthropic efforts. Every minute that I take to write letters like this one is a minute I can't spend finding the most effective way to stop the trafficking of women in Vietnam or free a political prisoner in Burma. We get a lot of requests for donations to all kinds of things. We can either say yes to all of them or no to all of them, but there is no way we are going to take the time to investigate them to see which ones we feel we should support. Instead, we will use our time to identify the efforts that make the most sense to us and we will put a lot of support behind those, without having to be approached about it. In other words, don't call us, we'll call you.

So, no, I don't know your organization and I am not going find out about it. I will assume that you are a good person who is sincere in what you are trying to do. If that is the case, then I think you will agree that there are many ways to do good things in this world and that we should be respectful of the time and efforts of those who are doing what they can, even if it is not directly supporting our own specific cause.
On re-reading the above, the tone is a little harsher than it needed to be. (I overreacted a bit to the sixth attempt from this person to contact me.) I have all the respect in the world for those who are taking an active role, whatever it is, when so many don't. But the opportunity cost is too high to just be reactive.

This is not to say that I will never consider a request for support. But if the message doesn't hit me the right way right off the bat, you may just get a link to this blog post in response.

There seems to be a bit of a minor revolution happening in the realm of aid, philanthropy, NGO strategy and social entrepreneurship. I am late to the party, but I am catching up. I plan to write more about this in the future.

Update: In the case that prompted this post, I took the time to learn more about the effort behind the request and have given them the support they asked for.


  1. Hello, Bruce, my name is Travis Richey, I'm an independent video producer in Hollywood. I also head up video services for the ACME Comedy Theater, which records all of it's shows with 7 camera angles (and to who an automatic syncing software could have saved countless man-hours over the last few years).

    I want first to congratulate you on your success. It's really great that you have been able to turn your passion and ingenuity into a successful business model.

    But to my point; I would never have even heard about your software until Shawn Ahmed (whose efforts I support as much as I can) posted about his need. As someone who is making the transition to DSLR filming (with non-sync audio), I looked very closely at your product as a possible investment in the future. Reading about the events surrounding the Uncultured Project's request sullied my opinion considerably.

    Now, you've apparently realized that the time you spent writing the response letter to Shawn would have been better served by investigating his organization. Kudos for that. It's a fairly obvious truth that there is no way that, of all the causes and charities out there, that the one you decide to “call” will happen to be the one that could be best served by a complementary copy of your software. Thus it is logical that you (or a designated associate) at least put a basic effort into investigating requests that come your way. (if indeed you have a desire to support charitable causes - if not, no harm done by ignoring every request.)

    I'm glad you had a change of heart in this case, and my initial distaste for your philanthropic attitude has abated somewhat, but it does come a little late. Shawn already had another one of his supporters purchase the software for his use.

    I will rely on Shawn's first-hand review of your software; as will others, I'm sure. I wish you all the best, but remember, it's a social networking world we live in. No one is more powerful than everyone else. I hope you've learned an important business lesson. Your company's survival may depend on it.


  2. @Travis: Just to clarify, the purchase price of the software has been refunded, so it was not too late.

    My "philanthropic attitude" is a sincere attempt to have the most impact I can. We all have to make choices about where we put our efforts. Because one of my choices didn't line up exactly with yours, you find that distasteful? Not sure I get that.

    As for the "business lesson", this was not a business decision. It was a personal choice to assess the merits of the request and decide accordingly.

  3. Bruce,

    First, thanks much for your generosity and for thinking about these issues.

    Even a young filmmaker such as Ben Kadie (http://slugco.com) gets more requests for help that he fulfill or even fully evaluate. A typical request is by a family friend to make a documenary about something important. While Ben can help with a few of the smallest projects, it would be impossible to do all of them. We've found the book "The Power of a Positive No: How to Say No and Still Get to Yes" very helpful. (The Amazon comments include a summary: http://www.amazon.com/Power-Positive-No-How-Still/dp/0553804987). So, far he's been able to keep his friends, keep getting interesting offers, and have time for his projects.

    (It has also helped me professionally and when working with Ben!)