The first question I have for any charity is, “What do you do?” Not “What are you trying to accomplish?” (example: “Fight AIDS”) but “What activities are you carrying out and where?” (example: “School-based education programs emphasizing protection in Mozambique”).
It’s a simple question, and an obviously important one: as the Disease Control Priorities Report makes quite clear, some program types have strong track records and some have none (or negative) track records.
But at least in the area of international aid, “What do you do?” can be a difficult question to answer.
Take Africare for example. Go to the homepage and you’ll see press releases from scattered programs. Click Programs and you’ll see goals/categories (“HIV/AIDS,” “Health,” etc.) Clicking Learn more for HIV/AIDS takes you to an overview of the problem of HIV/AIDS. Now an “Africare Programs” tab appears at the top, giving you the following list:
- HIV prevention
- HIV/AIDS counseling and testing
- Treatment, palliative care and other support for people living with HIV, AIDS and TB/HIV
- Support for AIDS orphans
The 2nd and 3rd of these are fairly clear (though these activities do come in different “flavors” – for example, ART treatment with and without supplementary feeding). The 4th eventually links to another page with more detail. But “HIV prevention” can mean many things: abstinence education, prevention education, peer-based/school-based/media-based programs, condom distribution, circumcision and more. And, we still don’t know where any of this takes place.
In Africare’s case, the answer to my question turns out to be on pages 19-22 of the Annual Report. Africare runs a dizzying array of programs, each sponsored by a particular set of donors. To me it appears to be almost a “subcontractor” organization, carrying out what its major donors want rather than pursuing any particular strategy of its own. (More on this idea in a future post.)
No help from the Form 990
The IRS Form 990 is supposed to be the source for basic public information on a charity. But while it tells you plenty about revenues, expenses, and assets, it rarely answers the “What do you do?” question. Charities are asked only to provide only a brief, overarching mission statement.
Creating a database
We wish there were a database that told us what activities charities carry out and where. Such a database wouldn’t, by itself, answer the “Where should I donate?” question we’re eventually trying to get to. But it would be a huge help, and it doesn’t exist right now.
So we’re trying to create it. We’ve found that you can usually uncover what a charity does with enough digging (as in the above case). Now we’re trying to capture this information for all or nearly all international aid organizations that are (a) relatively large (b) US-registered public charities.
This is the main work we’re looking for a prospective new hire to do.