Are great charities made or born?

Among the groups in our “meta-philanthropy” space, one of the big questions is how to create more “high-impact” (also called “blue-chip”) charities: the rare groups that can reliably, demonstrably translate donations into improved lives.

The rough consensus seems to be that we need to fund and support “high-performance organizations”: groups that have “some, but not all” of the qualities of blue-chip charities. The idea is that charities start with a few good qualities and slowly grow into blue-chippers.

(See, for example, parts one and two of Tactical Philanthropy’s discussion from last summer, which argues that “the best thing to do is not study how to [achieve impact] and then set out on that exact path with the exact tools needed according to your theory, but instead to build the most robust [organization] possible.” Also see the most recent draft of the Social Risk Assessment Protocol, which effectively gives twice the weight to a charity’s evaluation and adjustment practices that it gives to the charity’s choice of programs.)

I’ve been rethinking this idea. When I look at the three charities that I consider to be most “blue-chip” (our three highest-ranked charities), I don’t see a path of a “strong organization that eventually figured out what to do and whether it worked. ” Rather, I see organizations that stayed as small as possible – or didn’t exist – until they had strong evidence of impact for their basic approach. They built their choice of programming into their DNA, as much as they could, from day one.

The reigning consensus seems to treat “evidence of impact” as a late (or at least potentially late) step in the development of a nonprofit, but in fact it has been the first step for the strongest nonprofits I know of.

This makes intuitive sense to me as well.

  • Finding “approaches that work” is fundamentally a research challenge, and probably requires a completely different skill set from running an organization well.
  • Once an organization is “up and running,” it may become a very poor environment for a good impact evaluation. To me a good impact evaluation is one that has a real chance of demonstrating failure, and the stakes may simply be too high for an organization that has already built up significant funds, donors, clients, stories, staff, habits, etc.

The truth is that if an organization wants to become “high-impact,” there are already proven approaches for it to choose from; if it wants to investigate an approach that isn’t yet proven, it can (like VillageReach) stay at minimal size and essentially act as a “research project.” For an organization that has chosen to do neither of these things, and has already “scaled up” its program and built up a staff/organization (no matter how well run) … it may be too late.

GiveWell focuses on finding blue-chip charities, not on creating them. But for those looking to do the latter, I submit that it may be less effective to start with “high-performance organizations” than to start from scratch.

Comments

Are great charities made or born? — 3 Comments

  1. Even VillageReach took a lot of time to study different possible opportunities and programs before settling on vaccination and Cabo Delgado as suitable program and location. The founders have no past experience with or dedication to vaccination, they just saw it as the best opportunity.

  2. Interesting question and I’m not sure of course there is one clear answer or pathway to great charities. I like your proposal though of starting small and imbedding greatness in the model rather than expecting organisations to change what can be substantial internal style and ways of thinking. Changing culture – whether in non-profit or in classic businesses – is one of the hardest things to do and the bigger you are, the tougher.

    But I do caution one part of your theory. You say that VillageReach:

    appears to have stayed as small as possible until the evidence was there. Its first several years were devoted to a single pilot project, and only after the evaluations of this project were complete did it start to look at scaling up and taking on other engagements

    Which is excellent that it made this transition, but in following their footsteps it is equally important to note the thousands of organisations that start with pilot and research projects and get stuck there. THey never move on, never break out, never become great. The proving the model goes on forever, especially if it was never set as a time-limited phase towards an eventual ambition. So one organisation rising from this pool doesn’t prove a repeatable pathway, if you get the cautionary tale.

    It would be fascinating to understand how they made the jump, whether they started with an embedded ambition and how they knew when the model was proven enough to go big.

  3. McKay, thanks for the thoughts.

    My understanding is that VillageReach always had a pretty clear timeline for finishing and publishing their pilot project evaluation.

    I’m not sure it’s always a bad thing for an organization to get “stuck in the pilot phase.” What that means to me is that they haven’t yet figured out how to make what they’re doing work (demonstrably) even at a small scale. In such cases, it seems better for them to continue experimenting (or “floundering” depending on your spin) at a small scale rather than at a large scale.