This is a guest post from Eric Friedman about how he decided what charity to support for his most recent donation. We requested this post along the lines of earlier posts by Jason Fehr, Ian Turner and Dario Amodei.
In 2003, I decided that I wanted to increase the amount of money I gave away, shortly after a two-week trip to India. It was there that I saw a level of poverty beyond the scope of anything I had ever seen in America, and I privately vowed that I could not stand by idly.
When I returned home to Chicago, I tried to figure out the most effective way to give and the best organizations to support. Before my trip to India, I had made a few $100-$200 gifts that I later regretted, and this time around I was not going to give away a dime until I was convinced that my donation would be used well. Unfortunately, I was not able to find the information I needed to be comfortable making a donation. Despite the promise I had made to myself, I gave nothing.
Fast forward a year, and the big tsunami hit east Asia in December 2004. The images on tv motivated me to give $1,000 to an organization well-known for disaster relief, and that reminded me that I had not done what I planned on doing after returning from India. Although I restarted my research to find an organization I wanted to give more to, I couldn’t figure out which organizations were strong. Everything seemed like fluff, and there was no “Consumer Reports” for nonprofits. I barely gave anything in 2005.
By 2006, I came to realize that there wasn’t much high-quality information on which nonprofits performed best, so if I wanted to give, I’d have to make do without it. Inaction was unacceptable, so I developed a plan. I started with the American Institute of Philanthropy, which rates organizations on financial efficiency metrics such as percentage of costs that go towards fundraising and overhead. This provided a starting point to identify organizations that might be good, then I reviewed their websites to pick three that I liked. I knew that this was not a particularly rigorous screen, but it was the best I knew how to do at the time. In 2006, I gave $2,500 to CARE, $2,500 to Africare, and $1,000 to Freedom from Hunger.
I figured that donations of this size might draw enough attention to have a serious discussion with their staff. I spoke with each organization, but was unsatisfied with all of the conversations. Whenever I asked them about how to provide the most help for people or evaluate them against other organizations, their responses were inadequate. They were filled with anecdotes about individuals they’ve helped and inspirational stories, but not much information that would genuinely help answer my questions. I was quite surprised when some of them actually asked what I liked most among their set of programs (e.g. education, clean water, healthcare, emergency relief, etc). Weren’t they supposed to be more knowledgeable than me about which of these is most effective?
I asked if other donors asked these types of questions, and they said that it was rare. I asked if big, sophisticated foundations ask these types of questions. They didn’t either. I found that to be exceptionally odd. (Ed note: this was similar to GiveWell staff’s experience before starting GiveWell. See Elie’s blog post from February 2007) (Since then, I’ve asked several different nonprofits about the grant-making process and post-grant relationships they have with big foundations, and there appears to be a surprisingly small amount of value-added in the process. In some cases, the foundations are actually requiring the nonprofits to spend the grants on things the nonprofits don’t think will best help the intended recipients.)
I also spoke with a couple of philanthropy consultants, who I expected to be better at evaluating organizations and selecting priorities. I was disappointed. Usually they would turn the question on me and ask what types of programs and organizations interested me. I explained that I wanted to support programs that were most effective at helping people and organizations that were best at executing those programs, and I was looking for information on how to do that. Other than that, I didn’t really care what type of program or organization it was. While that seemed relatively basic to me, it appeared as if I was speaking a different language. One told me that I needed to figure out what my objectives were, though I thought I had stated them clearly. A couple were somewhat condescending—implying that they were the experts and I was the one who needed help. Their responses to my questions didn’t give me much confidence in their expertise. I wondered if I was the only donor trying to structure my giving around what the world needed rather than my personal interests. (Ed note: for more, see this Tactical Philanthropy post on the rarity of issue agnostic giving.)
Maybe I was being too critical. I knew that I wasn’t asking easy questions, but they also didn’t seem unfair. I wasn’t expecting an objectively perfect answer, but just something better than I got.
A turning point happened a few weeks later. My contact at Freedom from Hunger called me to see if I wanted to meet their CEO, who was going to be in my hometown for a conference. We had a great discussion for about an hour and a half in a hotel lobby, and it became clear to me that he understood what I was trying to do and thought about many of the same issues when running Freedom from Hunger. While I still didn’t know how to evaluate the quality of programs at different organizations, I found one that had shared many aspects of my philosophy. In 2007, I donated $25,000.
Based on the information I had at the time, there was no organization I believed in more than Freedom from Hunger.
In early 2007, my life took a turn for the better: I met the woman who is now my wife. In 2008, Freedom from Hunger offered us the opportunity to join them (at our expense) on a site visit to some of their programs in Ghana. During our time there, we spent a significant amount of time with some of their senior staff (including the CEO), three board members, program staff, and their clients. We saw the programs in action, which increased our conviction in what they do.
We gave another $28,000 to Freedom from Hunger in 2008.
I started following GiveWell in 2009. It was clear from their blog that we shared similar values, and I loved what they were trying to do. But I disagreed with some aspects of their approach. Their emphasis on measurement seemed excessive. This approach had a built-in bias towards smaller, single-program organizations that could measure their impact more precisely. I wasn’t convinced that there weren’t economies of scale in international development. And their focus on scaling up existing solutions and excluding funding unproven innovations seemed incomplete. While I liked what they were doing, I still had more conviction in my own ability to pick organizations.
We gave Freedom from Hunger another $27,000 in 2009.
As I continued to follow GiveWell’s blog in 2010, I became more persuaded toward their views on areas where I previously disagreed. There were still differences of opinion, but I was also coming to realize that their skill in selecting organizations far exceeded mine. It was humbling to realize that someone else is better at something I had put so much thought into.
At that time, GiveWell had not evaluated Freedom from Hunger. For the first time in several years, I wasn’t sure where to donate to. I had a very candid conversation with Freedom from Hunger about this predicament, and they offered to have GiveWell evaluate them. GiveWell was also willing to do the evaluation—they already wanted to learn more about Freedom from Hunger independent of me.
The evaluation resulted in a “notable” rating, which is better than the vast majority of the organizations GiveWell considers, but also not nearly as strong as Gold.
My wife and I liked the people at Freedom from Hunger and had become personally connected with them, especially with the site visit to Ghana. They are extraordinary people who have devoted their lives to helping others, and they are really good at what they do. They might be the best at their specific niche in the nonprofit world. Despite this, GiveWell’s review suggested that there might be organizations in different niches that have a greater possibility of generating results. If helping others was a sport, Freedom from Hunger is good enough to qualify for the Olympics, but it didn’t win the Gold.
My wife and I had several conversations about what to do. Freedom from Hunger did nothing wrong and we had no regrets about our prior donations. They were our friends, and we had enough of a relationship with them that if we shifted our donations elsewhere, we’d have to explain why.
Eventually, we decided that there was one fundamental principle we should apply: giving was primarily about helping the less fortunate, not our friendships or personal interests. Breaking up with Freedom from Hunger would be hard. I explained our reasoning and they took it in stride, demonstrating that they care more about the less fortunate than their own institutional growth. They are a good group. But in 2010, we gave about $31,000 to GiveWell’s donor advised fund to ultimately be distributed as they recommended.
I imagine that there are other donors who read this blog, but donate to many organizations that are not recommended by GiveWell. While I don’t want to oversimplify the decision-making involved with large charitable gifts or pretend that I have all the answers, I will offer two pieces of advice.
First, know what you’re trying to do. I’ve heard many people say that philanthropy is very personal. I understand that view, and my own giving is close to my heart. But if giving is primarily about helping others, then that the most important component of giving should be about other people. That is, the donor’s personal friendships, interests, and passions should take a back seat. Although you may feel a close connection to a school you attended, an illness that affected a family member, or a community you live in, those may not be the areas positioned to provide the most help for others. Instead, donors primarily focused on helping others should identify the greatest areas of need and the most effective solutions. It can be tough to put other people’s needs over ours, but, ironically, it makes most donors feel better about giving in the end. I certainly do.
Second, know when someone else has more expertise than you. I originally viewed Freedom from Hunger as the best organization I could identify based on the information available to me at the time. And I had thought about it a lot. So it was personally challenging for me to acknowledge that GiveWell is better at evaluating charitable organizations. Neither my wife nor I agree with every aspect of GiveWell’s philosophy and approach—I doubt there is anyone who does—but the strengths they have seemed more than enough to outweigh any weaknesses we perceived. There is a certain pride of ownership many donors (including me) have as they develop their own philanthropic paths, and I’d encourage them to critically self-evaluate to make sure pride of ownership doesn’t get in the way of incorporating the expertise of others.
I am extremely appreciative for the work GiveWell has done to provide resources that were not available at the time I started giving. I get more personal satisfaction from knowing that my giving is doing more to help others, and I will have fewer reservations about opening my wallet wider in the future. To be completely frank, one thing that confuses me is why foundations and mega-donors making million-plus dollar gifts apparently make little use of GiveWell. I hope and expect this to change over time.