The big question: is our project 1.0 or 2.0?

I’d like to open this post by thanking whatever visionary had the idea to start adding “2.0″ to the end of everything. Benefits to society already include Web 2.0, Library 2.0, Office 2.0, Business 2.0, and Learning 2.0. I don’t really know what most of these are, but I can only assume that we’re now roughly twice as good at learning and running businesses, which is pretty great.

So when reflecting on the GiveWell project lately, I decided to figure out what version of thing we are. Seems pretty key, no? And the bad news is, I was forced to conclude that we do not fall under the category of Web 2.0, which probably means that we are also not Charity 2.0, Usefulness 2.0, or Awesomeness 2.0. I hate to deliver this news, but if you haven’t already disgustedly flipped away from this page in search of something hipper, I can explain (and provide lots of examples of projects that are Charity 2.0).

To the extent I can see a unifying theme to “Web 2.0,” besides the use of fancy web programming that we definitely lack, it’s the following:

  • Most content is created and submitted not by a central organization, but by a community of users at large.
  • Since none of these users is full-time, their contributions tend to come in chunks of a few minutes or a few hours.
  • Content is then centrally structured and organized to allow highly flexible, customized, personal delivery.

Web 2.0 isn’t about creating something in one place and distributing it; it’s about providing a structure for people to communicate with others like them. Classic examples are YouTube, Flickr, Digg, and the appropriately named Del.icio.us. And part of the wave of Web 2.0 sites has been a sub-wave of new giving sites that I would classify as “Charity 2.0.” There are a ton of them. Off the top of my head, I can think of ChipIn, GlobalGiving, GiveMeaning, DonorsChoose, Helpalot (check the video on this one for a wild ride of Entertainment 2.0), Great Nonprofits, the new Change.org, and SixDegrees.org.

The first four of these are all basically matching donors and recipients, by letting the recipients put in their info and leaving the whole decision up to the donor. The latter four are matching donors and donors, i.e., encouraging people to promote the causes they like and find the causes their friends (or favorite celebrities) like. I have no problem with any of this (except maybe the celebrities – taking their word on the best charities seems a lot like taking their word on the right politics, and also seems a lot like eating paste), but I want to note how fundamentally different it is from what we are doing.

We are trying to build a centralized, organized information set about what the best causes and charities are. We’ve put features on our site – and are working on more – to facilitate open dialogue, allowing anyone to share opinions and add information to what we have. But in most cases, understanding a nonprofit takes money (to make them communicate with you) and hours of hard work (to go through what they send and question them effectively). We have found no sources that explain causes and organizations at the level of depth we want – understanding who is being helped, what other problems they have, what is being done for them, what activities the donations are financing, and what reasons there are to expect these activities to be effective. We hope others will help us find this information, but we expect to do a lot of it ourselves. And in the end, we are building one set of reviews. Not MyFacts – the true facts. Not MyCharities – the best charities.

Social networking is appealing partly because for most decisions you have to make in life, personal referrals are a great way to go (as a recent Monblog post reasons). But the reasons personal referrals work largely break down when it comes to charity. Most things you spend money on are things that you get to directly see and enjoy; therefore, when you get a friend’s opinion, you know you’re getting an opinion based on direct experience and knowledge. With charities, by contrast, the only way someone else’s opinion is useful to you is if they’ve done additional research work above and beyond simply “consuming the product” (donating).

And with most expenditures, you’re trying to please yourself – so it makes sense to talk to people like you and see what they like. With charity, you’re trying to improve the world; your personal values play a role, but it’s less like figuring out the best restaurant to eat at (in which case it matters a lot whether a referrer has similar tastes to yours) and more like figuring out how to build the best bridge (what matters is that it works).

For these reasons, making charity more personal and customizable is not the most promising way to improve it. It’s much more important to centralize our knowledge of what your dollars actually accomplish, and what the facts of your options are – something that doesn’t depend on who you are and what music you like.

So we seem to have run into a paradox. GiveWell is awesome, yet it is not 2.0. I think we can all agree: the only possible conclusion is that we are Charity Vista.

Comments

The big question: is our project 1.0 or 2.0? — 6 Comments

  1. Hi, my name is Julius, initiator of Helpalot.org.

    “And with most expenditures, you’re trying to please yourself – so it makes sense to talk to people like you and see what they like. With charity, you’re trying to improve the world; your personal values play a role, but it’s less like figuring out the best restaurant to eat at (in which case it matters a lot whether a referrer has similar tastes to yours) and more like figuring out how to build the best bridge (what matters is that it works).”

    My vision is that one of the main problems is that it is hard to find out if you can trust a charity. Especially the really small charities.

    The social network element is there to help you pick a charity (project) because you can use the flow of trust from your personal network. If a friend of a friend supports a charity, the chances are bigger that this charity is trustworthy. So for me it is not so much about the ‘taste’, but more on the quality.

    I just found your site, so I haven’t yet really researched it. As you did know about Helpalot.org, do you think there is some sort of collaboration possible?

    Julius

  2. I think social networking features are valuable. I do want eventually to incorporate them into GiveWell. So collaboration may be possible.

    Taste vs. quality was part of my point, but not all of it. If your friend recommends a restaurant, it’s because he’s been to it. He’s eaten there, he’s been served by its staff – the simple act of consuming from the restaurant has given him a ton of relevant evidence.

    “Consuming from” (giving to) a charity does not necessarily involve gathering any evidence. I don’t know what charities to give to; my friends don’t know; their friends don’t know; and unlike with restaurants, there is no natural/organic way of finding out. One of us has to make a deliberate and time-consuming effort to collect evidence. (Once that happens, the social network becomes useful.)

    I think the project of collecting evidence (what we’re focusing on) is more important than connecting friends. But both are important.

    If you’d like, I’ll send you an email / comment in the next couple days to discuss your project more specifically.

  3. Hi, reading your “About GiveWell” I’m definately interested in getting in contact, so please mail me.

    “I think the project of collecting evidence (what we’re focusing on) is more important than connecting friends. But both are important.”

    Yes, both are important, as I see it, the connecting part is only a tool, giving people a social context where some sort of social controll takes place. You don’t want to lie when your friends are listening. Taking the restaurant example; there are people who do visit the charities and have personal contact with these charities. The idea is to give these people a voice.

    For example a friend of sister went to Kisumu in Kenia to help orphans and I talked to her about her visit. I might not have been there myself, but I dare to say that what she was doing was a good thing. I’m willing to put my social reputation on the line for that and put it on my profile.

    Well I could write a long comment about all this, but let’s first get in email contact and see if and how we could collaborate.

    If you want to write a post about charity social networks, you’d have to take a look at change.org. I’m not related to the project, but it has some overlap with Helpalot and just went online this week.

    Maybe you can give some feedback on both concepts, what you think are the strong and weak points of both sites. I could send you more info on Helpalot if needed.

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