This question might be at the core of our disagreements with many:
When you have no information one way or the other about a charity’s effectiveness, what should you assume by default?
Our default assumption, or prior, is that a charity – at least in one of the areas we’ve studied most, U.S. equality of opportunity or international aid – is falling far short of what it promises donors, and very likely failing to accomplish much of anything (or even doing harm). This doesn’t mean we think all charities are failing – just that, in the absence of strong evidence of impact, this is the appropriate starting-point assumption.
Many others seem to have the opposite prior: they assume that a charity is doing great things unless it is proven not to be. These people are shocked that we hand out “0 out of 3 stars” for charities just because so little information is available about them; they feel the burden of proof is on us to show that a charity is not accomplishing good. When someone asks them to give to a charity, they usually give.
This puts us in an odd situation: we have very little interest in bad charities, yet others are far more interested in us when we talk about bad charities. To us, credible positive stories are surprising and interesting; to others, credible negative stories are surprising and interesting.
A good example is Smile Train. Nothing in our recent post is really recent at all – we did all of that investigation in 2006. We’ve known about the problem with Smile Train’s pitch for over three years, and have never written it up because we just don’t care that much.
Since day one of our project, our priority has been to identify top charities. When we see a promising charity, we get surprised and excited and pour time into it; when a charity looks bad, we move on and forget about it. Yet others find a report on a great charity to be mind-numbing, and are shocked and intrigued when they hear that a charity might be failing.
So which prior is more reasonable? Before you have evidence about a charity’s impact, should you assume that it’s living up to its (generally extravagant) promises? Or should you assume that it’s well-intentioned but failing?
We’ll offer up a few points in defense of our position in a future post. If you have the opposite position, please share your thoughts in the comments.