Adam Carter on Deciding Not to Grow a Nonprofit

In Chapter 8 of 13 in his 2012 Capture Your Flag interview, micro-philanthropist Adam Carter answers "What Made You Decide Not to Expand the Scope of Your Micro-Philanthropy Efforts?"  As Carter gains experience, he finds it is not in his best interest to scale his non-profit in the funds it raises and the number of projects it completes.  Carter notes his struggle to do more good while staying true to his hands-on founding goals. 

Adam Carter is a micro-philanthropist currently living in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  He is the founder of the Cause and Affect Foundation, which raises small amounts of financing to provide direct-to-source project funding for individuals and communities in need across the globe.  To date, Carter has traveled to over 80 countries.  He earned an MA in International Development from George Washington University and a BA in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Michigan.


Erik Michielsen: What made you decide not to expand the scope of your micro-philanthropy efforts?

Adam Carter: I think a lot of start-ups whether it’s a nonprofit or a business, they’re immediately thinking, okay, how big can I get? I think that’s kind of the instinct there. So when I started Cause & Affect, I was really excited to really create a model that could be ramped up in time. And so as I started the process, as I started to raise money, and then I started to distribute the funds to these projects around the world, I got to the point where I realized that there was a problem and that was that as I scaled up Cause & Affect, it would change the whole structure of what I had envisioned. You know, I created this so that I would be able to be out in the field personally overseeing all of these projects. I mean, Cause & Affect is based on the fact that I’m able to see exactly how every dollar is spent, and that I’m not just simply sending it over to organizations that look like they have a good website, or someone goes and visits and says, “Oh, it’s a good project. Okay, here’s a few thousand dollars.” That’s not how it works.

So what I realized is that for me to really scale this up, first of all it would require a lot more time. I mean, as it is I’m putting in a lot of my own time and money for traveling, and I’m content with that. That’s fine, but in order for me to do this really full time, you know, to that extent, I would have to get some income, and so then you just kind of work backwards. Well, what’s the minimum amount of income I would need to live my life and plan for a future, whatever? So, I mean, even if it was just, let’s say $50,000, from $50,000—If I’m gonna raise $50,000, that’s gonna go towards me, we have to be sure that’s only maybe 10% of what we’re raising. So then you’re looking at $500,000 that we’d have to bring in every year in order to justify a $50,000 salary for myself. And that’s obviously quite a challenge these days, and also once you—in order to bring in $500,000 a year, you might have to hire someone to help you with your marketing or your fundraising, and then you’ve got another salary to deal with, so that’s more money you need to bring in just to break even, and I felt like this was just setting up a lot of pressure for me personally, whereas what I’m really good at, I wasn’t born to be a CEO and to micro-manage four or five people working for me, and if I wanted to do that I probably would have set up a business or an NGO 15 years ago.

What I’m good at is the interpersonal relationships in the field and assessing each of these projects and finding the best way to help them, and finding out how to be the most effective with this small amount of money. Now, obviously, it would be wonderful to be able to distribute more money, and hopefully, down the road, we will find a way to do that, to ramp up these contributions in that there is still a way within this model to give a lot more money. I mean each of these projects that I’m assisting with, $1,000 or $2,000. I could easily add a zero to that if some other donors come on board that really share the vision, but I kind of realized that I needed to focus on the task at hand which was making sure that every dollar distributed goes directly to the people in need, instead of worrying about how big of a structure I could create and, instead of getting my ego in it of like, how big of an organization I could create.