A proposal for donors interested in causes/charities we haven’t covered

I was talking with a friend of mine recently about how he decides which charities to support, and he said:

I really like the GiveWell approach, but there are two reasons it’s not practical for me to base most of my charitable decisions on it. First, you just haven’t covered a lot of the areas I care about. I want to give to support food banks, but you haven’t covered food banks. Second, a lot of the time, I get requests from friends or solicitations from charities (referred by friends), and I need information on a specific charity — that’s not something GiveWell provides.

These two issues — GiveWell’s lack of breadth in coverage of different causes and specific charities — are probably the most common points a lot of donors make when they think about using our research.

Here, I want to make a proposal that I think solves the problem for donors like my friend. If you agree with GiveWell’s philosophy about giving, do the following:

  • First, when a charity (or friend) solicits you to support their cause, list a set of important questions you’d need them to answer to give your confidence that their approach is working. This is the approach GiveWell generally takes. (For example, see our questions for surgery charities, water charities and microlending charities.)

    If you need help creating a list of questions, email us and we’ll send you our thoughts. If you have your own, send them to us, so we can publish the questions that donors are using, and others can rely on the questions that have already been created.

  • If they can answer your questions compellingly, and using specifics and facts rather than generalities and stories, great! Write them a check. (Unfortunately, this result has been unusual in my experience.)
  • If they can’t answer your questions, write a check to a donor-advised fund and tell them that when they can answer your questions, you’ll recommend a grant to them from your account.

Here’s an example of how this would work.

A charity approaches you and asks for a donation. Let’s say it’s a food bank. The charity says, “People are hungry. Giving to us will help provide poor individuals with the food they need to survive. And, our approach is to pick up food that’s going to be thrown out by local stores and restaurants, so your donation is leveraged and will help a lot of people.”

Instead of just writing a check, ask the charity the following (these are just a few questions that come to mind when thinking about this issue):

  1. Is using donations to pick up food the only program you run, or do you run other programs as well? What portion of your overall budget does each program account for?
  2. Who are the people that your food bank serves? What type of food-needs do they have? (You may be surprised.)
  3. Is money, specifically, a bottleneck to providing more people more food? (This is part of the room-for-more-funding question that we think is essential to investigate.) That is, it seems plausible that the bottleneck to providing more food is the supply of “leftover food,” not funds.
  4. How much more food can you commit to provide if you receive another $100,000? $1 million?
  5. Is the food you’re providing safe? Healthy? What type of food do you provide? Have you ever needed to discard food because it had spoiled? What rules do you follow to make decisions to discard food? How does your organization’s senior management know that the food delivered is high quality?

The beauty of this approach is that (a) you force yourself to give charitably when asked — you’re not just ignoring charities or friends; (b) you help to create good incentives for charities by only rewarding those that can make a convincing case for strong results; (c) you’ll help us create a repository of questions to ask charities working on different causes; and (d) you’ll still get a tax deduction.

Comments

A proposal for donors interested in causes/charities we haven’t covered — 9 Comments

  1. Elie,
    How much work/time do you think it would take to create a set of questions like these across a set of popular cause areas? All of the “Questions to ask charities” that I have seen are focused on management or financials and not on programmatic execution.

  2. Sean,

    I don’t think it would be terribly time consuming to write up a basic list of questions for major causes and charities, and it’s something we might do at some point.

    That said, there are two reasons I like the do-it-yourself approach:

    • The questions will get better as donors know more about a cause. For example, our questions on microfinance have developed significantly since we published our first report in mid-2008. So, I think creating a framework where the questions are changing/evolving is important.
    • Letting donors drive the process means we’ll prioritize which causes/charities to cover based on donor preferences. By letting donors tell us which causes they care about, we’ll develop the question they find most useful first.
  3. In my corner of the Internet, a lot of people are interested in “reducing existential risk” – do you know anything about that?

  4. Doug, I am a regular reader of Overcoming Bias and Less Wrong and I speak periodically with Michael Vassar (and occasionally with other people in that circle). So I have thought about and discussed these issues informally, though I’ve never put real time/resources into them. We are planning to run a post on SIAI at some point in the future, though it could be a while.

    Some off-the-cuff generic q’s for an existential risk organization:

    1. What is the risk? What is known/knowable about its likelihood of coming about and potential timing? What are the potential harms?

    2. Is this the right time to start addressing the risk? To what extent might we be in a better position to understand/address the risk later?

    3. Who else is working on this risk? How do you differ from them?

    4. What is your organization going to do to address this risk? If the risk and solution are both far in the future, what sort of roadmap have you laid out to track your progress in the intermediate time? What can I expect to see over time to know how things are going? (Corollary: does this roadmap make sense? What do past roadmaps look like against the actual progress that has been made?)

    5. How will more funding affect your organization’s activities? How much more funding can you productively absorb and what will you commit to do if you do get such funding?

    6. To the extent that your activities will require “beating” other organizations (in advocacy, in speed of innovation, etc.), what are the skills and backgrounds of your staffers that are relevant to their ability to do this?

    In the case of SIAI specifically, it seems to me that #1-3 have been extensively discussed in public, and while there is a huge amount of unquantifiable uncertainty that will lead different people to different conclusions, I think that SIAI’s answers are strong overall. I feel that there has been less public discussion of #4-6, and to date the private discussions I’ve had on these points haven’t satisfied me (though the discussions are ongoing).

  5. When solicited by friends for donations to charities of their choice, I always give at least a token sum (even when it’s the United Way and I have to hold my nose). Here’s why:

    1. Ideally, it’s true that everyone should use a GiveWell-style analytical approach for evaluating charities. However, many (educated) people lack the analytical capability to do so, or lack the interest to do so.

    2. I like to encourage, not discourage, giving amongst my friends and family. So rather than lecture them about how they chose an ineffective charity, I always give something in order to positively reinforce their request.

    3. While the idea of giving to a donor-advised fund is an interesting one, I think that would still be offensive to a lot of people. On the face of it, you’re telling the requester that their charity is not “good enough”. Now, that may be precisely the approach that you want to take, but it does have negative repercussions as well, in both discouraging the requester, and from a purely social standpoint as well.

    4. I do think the idea of raising questions to ask is excellent, and it’s great to pass these along to those who request donations as well.

  6. Praveen, I think the points you raise are legitimate depending on which friends we’re talking about.

    I think the DAF idea definitely does a better job showing that one is serious and creating the right incentives. Raising questions is good, but much weaker when there’s no concrete consequence to answering/not answering them.

    On the other hand, sometimes the offensiveness of taking this kind of “hard line” may outweigh the benefits. I think it largely depends on the relationship & personality of the person making the request.

  7. I am so glad I took the time to scroll down through the blog posts! I work for a food bank, and we are also interested in having GiveWell conduct research in our sector.

    I note from earlier entries that GiveWell would prefer to focus on international hunger rather than domestic hunger, given their differing characteristics. I can understand that, but I know that in setting those priorities, you are missing a great opportunity.

    It is [an admittedly now outdated] fact that Americans are spending 5 times more than it takes to end domestic hunger and yet are nowhere near meeting that goal (that research was completed in 1996, and our recommendations are gaining traction). And well-informed donors could provide the influence necessary to finish changing the way we operate.

    The issue as we discovered then was not on the food banks’ acquisition side (because of the vast amounts of edible food that still end up in landfills), nor on the funding side, but on the distribution side of the equation – the pantries. So we developed a food pantry evaluation (if you click on my name, it’s the third link down, and the rest of the research results are there, too).

  8. Eilanna, thanks for the links. Do you know whether any specific organizations have filled out the Evaluation Score sheet and whether their responses are publicly available? Has your organization filled out the sheet? Though we aren’t currently focused on this cause, we’d be potentially interested in reviewing the answers specific organizations give.

  9. Holden, you’re welcome. I do know that the score sheet is something my organization uses internally, but I don’t know what other groups have used it. I know our Executive Director often includes it in his presentation packets, and if you’d like to continue this conversation by e-mailing me, I’d be happy to put you in touch with him.

    I see from a quick Google search that Foodshare, a food bank in Connecticut, has a ,a href=”http://fdshr.convio.net/site/DocServer/Food_Pantry_Best_Practices_-_Scoring_Guide.pdf?docID=743″>similar scoring tool (with much easier numbers!) that it uses with all 150 of its agencies – no results online that I could find though. Also high up on the Google list are Food Bank of the Rockies and the Riverbend Food Bank.