Accountability in philanthropy

[Added August 27, 2014: GiveWell Labs is now known as the Open Philanthropy Project.]

We previously listed our five chief criteria for GiveWell Labs, an arm of our research process that will be open to any giving opportunity, no matter what form and what sector. This post further discusses the third of these criteria: “accountability.”

We’re OK with funding a project that might fail, but it’s very important to us that we be able to recognize, document, publicly discuss, and learn from such a failure if it happens.

This is the area in which we feel most strongly that current philanthropists are coming up short: they’re failing to learn (or at least, to help others learn) from their track records. For a simple example, take the issue of sustainability in developing-world aid.

  • A common goal of a philanthropic program is to see the government – or another funder – take over at some point, leading to lasting impact that doesn’t depend on continued funding.
  • We’ve seen many different approaches to accomplishing this. For example, VillageReach initially paid entirely for its own project, with the hope that the government would switch over to its model once the proof of concept had been established; now that that idea has failed to pan out, VillageReach is asking for more cost-sharing from the government up front as it re-implements its model.
  • Yet there appears to be so little evidence on what sorts of projects have and haven’t achieved sustainability in the past that one paper by prominent scholars argues that the whole idea of sustainability is an “illusion” (an argument endorsed by William Easterly).

Most of the funders we’ve talked to don’t seem to have very clear senses even of their own organizations’ track records (both good and bad). Even if funders are learning internally and informally from their own failures, they aren’t learning from each others’.

We believe that we have an unusual commitment to public and documented discussion of whether our giving ends up accomplishing what we hope. We’ve been releasing regular updates on VillageReach, the organization we directed the most money to in 2010, and we intend to do the same with our current top charities. These updates are specific and honest about both good and bad news (and there has been a fair amount of the latter).

We believe that having an up-front, pre-declared plan for determining whether a project goes as hoped should be common in general, but it is particularly important to us because we see it as an area where we can add value that other funders are failing to add. When considering options for GiveWell Labs, we feel that even if we focused on relatively low-ambition, low-upside, “typical” direct-aid projects, our public discussion and documentation of their progress will make these projects unusually helpful.

Accountability is also particularly important to us because we are just getting started with GiveWell Labs (and are new to giving in general). Learning is important, and that means being up front about what we’re trying to accomplish and how, in a way that will make it possible for us to detect, report, and learn from failure.


Accountability in philanthropy — 7 Comments

  1. I quite agree. What increasingly strikes me as amazing is that in 2012 these thoughts are still rather novel in the philanthropy sector.

    It might be interesting for GiveWell to have a page where you collect various reasons stated by charities or funders for their lack of transparency or accountability and to unpick the shaky logic those reasons are based on.

    Or perhaps this could be a regular column for a newspaper or magazine, a bit like the UK’s Guardian newspaper has a ‘Bad Science’ weekly column which highlights egregious science reporting.

    Does GiveWell share a hypothesis that increasing transparency and accountability will in the long term tend to increase the size of the pie of total individual giving, plus direct a higher proportion of individual giving to causes with a high ROI in terms of quality-adjusted life-years (compared, say, to giving to one’s former educational institution)? I think these are reasonable hypotheses. Is it part of GiveWell’s plan to assess these potential effects?

  2. Elliot: thanks for the thoughts. For now, we plan to continue occasionally blogging about accountability/transparency when we find interesting cases or issues to discuss. On your idea for critiquing the reasons charities give for a lack of transparency: though I agree this would be interesting, it’s very rare to find a charity publicly stating an argument/reason for not being transparent. In response to your question: we share the hypothesis that increasing transparency and accountability will lead to more and better giving. In order to track our influence, we measure our annual money moved: see our most recent report here.

  3. Do you plan to publish more of your research in GiveWell Labs? I’m highly interested, but your last publication is more than a year old.

  4. Vollmer – we’ve written quite a bit more about GiveWell Labs over the past year, thought not always under that name. Some of the posts include:

    We’re planning a more substantive update on our GiveWell Labs research progress in the next few weeks.