Lessons I Learned About Charitable Giving In El Salvador


I’ve come across a very interesting observation recently of how things work here in El Salvador. As my readers know, I’m always interested in economics and the inner social workings of communities and society at large. I moved to El Salvador approximately a year ago.

This recent enlightening experience pertains specifically to charitable giving to veterinary clinics in El Salvador. My girlfriend owns a small veterinary clinic here in El Salvador, we have three dogs and we’re often helping homeless dogs in various ways. So, we have big hearts for helping out pooches in need.

Recently, I had a bizarre and unexpected twitter conversation with a number of people about donating money to Veterinary Clinics in El Salvador that illustrated a few things:

  • Charitable giving is very inefficient in El Salvador.
  • Contributors are often unaware of what they are donating money for.
  • Organizations don’t utilize available tools for tracking money.
  • Saying nothing is sometimes better than asking questions.

It all started with a simple tweet on twitter. I noticed that a woman “Bery” (@Beryz10) had posted a photo on Twitter of a badly injured dog that needed approximately $400 of surgical services here in El Salvador. Here is the specific tweet: (Warning! Graphic Image Below!)

In the photo, you could see that one of the eyes of the dog “Keysi” was protruding and needed to be removed. I felt very bad for the dog. Bery also listed all of the costs associated with the medical services for the dog. Here they are exactly as she wrote them, which can be found in that same Twitter thread:

  • Consulta $6 (consultation)
  • Hemograma $12 (hemogram)
  • Químicas Sanguíneas $60 (blood work)
  • 10 días de postoperatorio $90 (kennel stay)
  • Cirugía $180 (surgery)

It’s very difficult for homeless dogs to get the vital services that they need here. So I mentioned to my girlfriend that we should contribute money in order to help the dog. She agreed. The following morning, we went to the clinic where the dog was being held, called “Clinica La Rabida” and donated $30 together. At the clinic, there were other people donating money. I felt happy to know that other people also wanted to help animals in need, especially considering that the majority of people do not value the lives of animals in latin countries in the same way that they do in countries that are more developed (abuse and abandonment are common). The friendly young assistant at the desk gave us a receipt for the money we contributed and he allowed us to see the dog for a moment. We were very grateful.

We had a lot to do during the morning, so we mostly forgot about the experience. We did our part and we were satisfied with that. When I got home, it wasn’t on my mind. However, me being an active twitterer during my downtime, I started going through my twitter feed to see what the world was talking about. I noticed that Bery continued to publish tweets about the same dog. Also, I noticed that she published her bank account information to accept donations:

To me, nothing was unusual. She’s simply using bank accounts to collect money for the dog. Granted, she shared a long list of bank accounts, but it still seemed reasonable.

Then, things got unexpectedly complicated, thanks to my naivety.

I can’t say for certain how all charitable giving works in the United States, but I know that many charitable organizations often work towards “goals” of $X amount of money. Not always, but in many cases, charitable organizations publish their goals and inform contributors of their progress toward those goals. CharityNavigator, GoFundMe, Kiva, KickStarter, and others are well known for publishing goals and contributions. I have contributed money to many online charitable causes.

Seeing the many tweets from Bery, I was curious about the progress of this dogs situation. Did we reach the goal? Is the surgery scheduled? How much more money was needed in order to perform the procedures? “We can do this!” I thought to myself. I felt like a team player that was sitting on the edge of my chair in suspense while my team was about to score the winning goal.

Bery had pinned this tweet to the top of her twitter feed:

Given that this was her most prioritized thread (pinned to the top), I started reading through the comments. Nothing mentioned reaching the goal. My innocent curiosity and lack of knowledge of charitable giving in El Salvador led me to post the following tweet on that thread:

I wrote this in Spanish. The english translation is:

My girlfriend and I went to the office and donated $30 to Keysi. Other people were at the office donating their money too. How much money has been donated? People need to be informed about how much money is needed and how much money they received.

This was a mistake, which I later realized. This donation service is not an online technology service that shares information like many charities do. In other words, this was not a GoFundMe campaign.

So, still being blind by my ignorance, I continued on Twitter for a bit, posted a tweet about my growing Papaya plants, plugged in my phone to charge and continued my day. A number of hours pass. It wasn’t even on my mind.

A firestorm hits the unsuspecting foreigner

Being fairly new to El Salvador, I’m sometimes blindsided by unexpected circumstances. Social situations are often a lot more delicate in ways that I don’t realize, until it’s too late. And being from Boston, sometimes I forget that our particular form of being direct and “getting to the point” in conversation is not always valued by people of other cultures. They sometimes see directness as being rude, off-putting and brash. And they especially see directness that way when they don’t know a person well well…such as on Twitter, where nobody really knows anyone else.

When I finished some chores, I sat down and checked my phone. I had a ton of twitter responses. I didn’t expect that. I knew something was up. Oddly, many of the people were discussing “trust” and how distrustful I was. What? Trust? What does distrust have to do with anything? For me, this was about achieving the goals of this dog.

I soon realized that people thought that I was being distrustful of Bery (not the clinic) because had I asked Bery in my tweet about how much money was received.

One person even commented:

“he spreads distrust and discrediting the work of a person who seeks good for the dogs”

Yikes. What have I done? These people completely missed my point. This wasn’t about trust or discrediting anyone. This wasn’t even about people. This was about giving dogs the services that they need. Obviously, I was the outsider. I am foreigner to them. They distrusted in my intentions because they assumed that I was distrusting in their efforts. Bery herself, the woman that was tweeting, even challenged me to prove where I donated the money and that I had received a receipt for my contribution, which I provided to her. At first I was unclear about why she asked me about this, but I later realized that she needs to collect the money from the veterinary clinic, because she handles the money herself.

Bery also unpinned the tweet thread from the top of her Twitter page, and she started posting tweets about a different dog…and I’m still not 100% sure why. Maybe I had embarrassed her or maybe my question had raised concerns that she didn’t want spreading.

Bery eventually told me that she doesn’t work for the clinic…she simply helps injured dogs and asks for contributions online (which go directly to her bank account). Given that she handles things solo, she’s probably operating without being registered as a legal charity. Maybe that’s why everyone was so sensitive about the issue. And I didn’t realize that before but honestly, I don’t care. I wasn’t here to burst her bubble or cause problems. I gave money to help this dog.

The most reasonable argument was…

In the beginning, a couple of people respectfully tweeted that giving money without asking for results/information is the correct way to be charitable. Yes, true. There’s no doubt about that. It was my mistake and my ignorance for being unaware of Bery’s system of helping dogs. If results/numbers was something that was important to me (which it wasn’t), then I should have researched the “charity” first. But really, I didn’t care about the numbers in any sense of auditing Bery or the clinic. I just wanted, for myself and for others, to know if this dog had what she needed…that’s all. And if they didn’t want to provide that information, they could have just said that when I originally asked the question. Ugg.

So I read through people’s comments. Their assumption of my distrust seemed to be the biggest issue. So I explained my intentions, to summarize: This wasn’t a matter of trust, this was a matter of informing contributors so that we know when we have satisfied the needs of this pet, so that we can contribute to other pets that need vital services. This is about helping the most dogs possible.

To me, this conversation was not only about me…this was about all contributors collectively giving their money in a way that helps the maximum number of dogs with the high-level emergencies. However, I felt singled out because people were taking cheap-shots at me in order to gain “likes”. But I knew that my intentions were of good nature and that’s all that I needed to move forward.

The mob had been formed against me, challenge accepted.

When I tweeted the explanation of my intentions, it initially barely helped. The mob had already organized with pitchforks and torches and it seemed they were convinced that I was trying to create problems for Bery. They probably thought that I wanted this information to research Bery or discredit her or something.

As the tweets continued from both sides, I was focussed on these things:

  1. Ensuring that people are aware that this is not about distrust (why would I donate money to an organization that I distrust?)
  2. Reinforcing that my intentions are positive, for the benefit of this dog and other dogs that need access to limited resources.
  3. That disclosing information like this is beneficial for everybody involved.

Just to be clear, I apologized to Bery for the misunderstanding and explained that I did not imagine that this conversation would go in this direction. She accepted and she apologized too for misunderstanding me. However, the mobs momentum was already in full motion – tweets from the angry mob continued. For some reason they felt like they needed to defend Bery. Many of the comments from them sensationalized their distrustful assumptions that they had about my intentions. It’s a little bit unclear if I was being bullied by the group. I felt that I was at times, but some people seemed to understand my point and engaged in civil discussion in a problem-solving tone. Yes! Good! However, others provided work-around scenarios for why it’s not possible for veterinarians to disclose information about contribution…(none of which were valid, I should point out). For example…

They said that there is no “goal” and dogs need money infinitely.

It’s true that there will always be dogs in need, thus “dogs” in general will always need money. But that’s not what we were talking about…we were talking about this specific dog. This one dog does not need infinite money. And if he receives too much, then other dogs that have bigger emergencies will go without…remember, the charity pot is very small here.

Some people from the mob also said that it’s impossible to calculate the costs of services for specific dogs. Even Bery said that, which was surprising, because it’s wrong and she should know that because apparently she brings dogs to veterinarian clinics often.

These things raised my eyebrows for the simple fact that these things are untrue. The cost of pet services can be calculated to approximate figures, whether it’s one-time medical services or ongoing monthly expenses like dog food and shelter. Dogs are like people…we can determine what medical services will cost and we can determine our living expenses. People do it every day, with a pencil and paper in less than 10 minutes. If the situation changes at any point, we re-calculate the numbers. This is budgeting 101.

“Goals cannot exist”

Another thing someone said is that goals don’t exist, implying that goals can’t exist for some magical reason pertaining to animal medical care. That’s obviously incorrect too. I’ve worked in hospitals (for humans). If hospitals can have goals, timelines and expected recovery times, then veterinarian clinics can too. It’s not that complicated. Any experienced licensed professional should be able to put together a rough timeline & cost estimate.

When I explained these things in tweets, it seemed to appease the group. Many of the people realized that I did, in fact, have good intentions. A couple late-comers to the conversation said “No! Nobody can calculate to the penny the exact cost of services.” To which I replied, “they can determine approximate costs and overestimate to be safe”. I imagine that person just wanted to shut me up, but that tends to only work when someone has confronted me with a reasonable argument.

But Chris, what if a veterinarian truly doesn’t know how much services that dog needs?

I’m glad you asked. Imagine this…$5,000 worth of services for extreme cases. Done. Problem solved. Now we have a goal. Surely this figure is high by El Salvador’s standards. It’s intentionally high. The point is to have a goal, and now we have one. Wasn’t that hard?

Keep in mind, my girlfriend is a veterinarian. (Her clinic does not in any way advertise for, seek, or accept charitable contributions. I want to be clear about that so that everyone is aware that there is no conflict of interest.) I appreciate all veterinary clinics. Their work is important. Also, my girlfriend and I often pay out-of-pocket for medical services at other clinics sometimes for homeless animals. I devote my time and money to help her clinic and I help individual dogs when a desperate moment presents itself. This is not my first rodeo. I know generally how vet clinics operate. I know which services are offered. Plus, I’ve had dogs as pets through-out my life.

In the end, I reflected a lot on this enlightening experience.

It really was unnecessary. I overstepped invisible boundaries and realized my error when it was too late. However, it was enlightening for me too. I got an inside view of how a charity works in a second world country. I was able to see how distrust is rampant in El Salvador (again). Lastly, I was able to see how a tight social system can attempt to silence people when the people in charge start to feel uncomfortable. That was a valuable takeaway. As everyone knows…corruption is a huge challenge in the government of El Salvador. Now I can understand a little better how political powers can work to attempt to ridicule a person into submission for simply asking questions. Although this happened unexpectedly to me in a very light way, I can definitely say that it opened my eyes a little bit.

After everything concluded, I don’t regret it. I am very satisfied with the inside-view that I was able to see. I have never been exposed to something like this before.

The big problem in charitable giving without transparency…

I respect anyone that has desire to help others. I realize that it’s impossible for there to be complete transparency, especially because of legal barriers presented in different countries. However, saying that a dog needs money infinitely is a weak and incorrect oversimplification, that most definitely leads to inefficient uses of funds (unintentionally and intentionally).

If charitable donors don’t know when the medical needs of one animal are satisfied, then they will without doubt be unaware that their money can be better used for another animal that needs resources more urgently. If there was only one veterinary clinic in El Salvador…the process would be simple. People would just give their money and they would assume that it will be used to provide services for the animals that the vets deem need it most.

However, there are hundreds of animal clinics. Maybe if people were better informed, they would choose to give money to a different clinic that has larger emergencies. Hospitals prioritize patients according to their afflictions, right? Yes. However, this is not the case for charitable giving in El Salvador (and probably other places in the world).

A small story that exactly illustrates how these charities work:

Imagine that you are part of a group of people that donates money to a hospital. There is only one hospital in town and it depends on charity giving to survive. The contributors main goal is to help the patient that has the most urgent needs, while also maintaining the health of less-urgent patients. This is easy… the hospital simply tells the contributors when there is a new emergency, the people give their money and the patient gets the needed services. Therefore, donating money is easy. 

However, one day, 5 new hospitals open in town. All of the new hospitals have professionals that offer decent medical services. There are now 6 hospitals in town. One day, the people are alerted about a medical emergency. A man hammered a nail into his hand. This is the biggest emergency for this hospital. The contributors don’t know how much money to give because the doctors do not know the approximate cost. The doctors say “I am a professional, but I cannot be expected to know the costs of services that will be needed”. The people are confused about what they should do. They will feel bad if they do not help the patient as much as they possibly can, because maybe not enough people will give money. So the contributors give all of their money. They have no more money to donate. The contributors don’t know this…but the hospital received $5,000 for a surgery that only cost $500. And in truth, the doctors did their job very well. However, there was $4,500 remaining that, according to hospital policy, will be held for future services. The contributors trust that the money will be used ethically.

The next day arrives…

Oh no, another very bad medical emergency happened. Earlier that day, there was a big car accident. Two people were injured. The patients were brought to a different hospital after the accident. The first patient, a woman requires hip surgery. The second patient, a man, will have his leg amputated. This emergency requires vital, life saving medical services. Both injured patients need $2,000 worth of medical services, amounting to $4,000 in total. Unfortunately, the last minute charitable efforts of any remaining contributors only amounts to $200. The other hospital has $4,500 in the bank, but that hospital does not distribute money to other hospitals.

The contributors are left without any options. They cannot help these two patients. And sadly, the contributors are not informed that the other hospital has remaining money, so they are in the dark. The woman with the broken hip faces agony and pain for weeks while her body tries to heal. The man suffered from enormous internal infections and died.

One day, a man has an idea…

“This disaster could have been avoided if the doctors were more transparent to us, the contributors” he explains to the other helpers. “If only the doctors had calculated the approximate cost of their medical services, we the contributors could have helped everyone!”

But the other contributors are uncomfortable with this idea. They don’t like to question people in authority positions, such as doctors. They want to trust that the doctors use the money most efficiently. And the doctors are nervous that they will not receive more charitable contributions soon.

So the doctors spread terrible things about the man, saying that he is distrustful of them, he does not value their work, and this man is not to be trusted. The doctors say “trust in us, continuously give us your money, this is what god wants, we know more than you”. The man says “If you are professionals and you know more than us, then why can’t you estimate the cost of your services so that the contributors can help more people?” The doctors have no reasonable answer to this, so they ignore the man. The contributors continue donating money and the town suffers from many deaths every month because of this system of undisclosed information.

The doctors have won and nobody asks questions, while more people continue to suffer and die.

The end.

Great story, eh? Maybe not, but it illustrates my point.

This is exactly what is happening in El Salvador regarding charitable contributions for animals. There are hundreds of people (thousands maybe?) giving small ($10 or less, usually) to charities, without any knowledge if the money could be used elsewhere for more urgent emergencies. Dogs are dying because of this.

So really Chris, was any of this about distrust?

I find it hard to imagine that anybody would donate money to an organization or person that they distrust. I had no reason to distrust. The only thing in my mind was helping this dog because this dog definitely did need expensive services (expensive by El Salvador standards). So, it wasn’t about distrust.

However…

After so many people distrusted me and made me feel semi-bullied, I started feeling like I was missing something. People don’t usually respond so negatively towards curious people that actively give money from their pocket. So I must be honest that about halfway through this experience I started questioning what was happening…

  • People were immediately distrustful towards my intentions.
  • Literally everybody was against me at the beginning.
  • Three people said that money must be given “infinitely”.
  • One guy claimed that I was trying to discredit her.
  • Bery unpinned this twitter thread immediately.
  • Bery start tweeting about a different dog immediately.
  • Later, Bery specifically said that she did not work for this Veterinary Clinic, she only helps the animal and uses this clinic for services.
  • Bery said that she receives all of the money and pays for the services.
  • Bery posted a long list of bank accounts, including PayPal in order for her to directly receive contributions from people.

Maybe Bery has a high-level of integrity and she’s just helping these animals. I’m fine with that explanation. Dogs need help and few people are willing to devote time to this cause. Dogs her desperately need help. So, I don’t regret giving money for this dog.

The only thing I wish would change is for Bery and other charitable causes to provide a more specific details, so that money contributors are informed of when a specific dog has adequate financial support. That way, we can help more dogs other dogs too.

And just as a final note – this blog is read by so few people that Bery has nothing to worry about. The authorities here in El Salvador have bigger challenges to solve, with all of the gang murders and drug trafficking. They definitely don’t care about one woman trying to help dogs.