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):
- 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?
- Who are the people that your food bank serves? What type of food-needs do they have? (You may be surprised.)
- 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.
- How much more food can you commit to provide if you receive another $100,000? $1 million?
- 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.