For years, the 3 key things we’ve looked for in a charity have been (a) evidence of effectiveness; (b) cost-effectiveness; (c) room for more funding. Over time, however, our attitude toward all three of these things – and the weight that we should put on our analysis of each – has changed. This post discusses why
- On the evidence of effectiveness front, we used to look for charities that collected their own data that could make a compelling case for impact. We no longer expect to see this in the near future. We believe that the best evidence for effectiveness is likely to come from independent literature (such as academic studies). We believe that if a program does not have a strong independent case, there is unlikely to be a charity that can demonstrate impact with such a program.
- We have continually lowered our expectations for how much role cost-effectiveness analysis will play in our decisions. We still believe that doing such analysis is worthwhile when possible – partly because of the questions it raises – but we believe the cases where it can meaningfully distinguish between two interventions are limited.
- We have continually raised our expectations for how much role room for more funding analysis will play in our decisions. Questions around “room for more funding” are now frequently the first – and most core – questions we ask about a giving opportunity.
In all of these searches, we’ve found very little in the way of “charities demonstrating effectiveness using their own data.”
- The closest we’ve come is the case for VillageReach, which comes from a mix of independent literature (on the effectiveness of vaccines) and VillageReach’s own data. However, we’ve recently lowered our estimate of how conclusive even this evidence is.
- The other two strongest charities we’ve found, Against Malaria Foundation and Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, have cases that hinge much more strongly on the independent evidence for their programs (insecticide-treated net distribution and deworming). While they have provided some useful data, this data would not be compelling in the absence of the background case for their interventions.
- Many of the organizations that have reputations as unusually “evidence-based” have declined to participate in our process, or provided evidence that we don’t find compelling (example).
We believe the underlying dynamic is that
- Evidence on these sorts of interventions is very difficult and expensive to collect.
- It’s particularly difficult to collect such evidence in a way that addresses various common concerns that we believe to be very common and important in the context of evaluating charitable programs.
- Studies that can adequately address these issues are generally “gold-standard” studies, and are therefore of general interest (and can be found by searching independent/academic literature).
Accordingly, our interest in “program evaluation” – the work that charities do to systematically and empirically evaluate their own programs – has greatly diminished. We are skeptical of the value of studies that fall below the “gold standard” bar that usually accompanies high-reputation independent literature.
This shift in our thinking has greatly influenced how our process works and what we expect it to find. Rather than putting a lot of time into scanning charities’ websites for empirical evidence, as we did previously, we now are focused on identifying the evidence-backed interventions, then finding the vehicles by which donors can fund these interventions.
Over the years, we’ve put a lot of effort into this sort of analysis, and learned a lot about it. In particular:
- In sectors outside of global health and nutrition, it is generally impractical to connect measurable outcomes to meaningful outcomes (for example, we may observe that an education program raises test scores, but it is very difficult to connect this to something directly related to improvements in quality of life). Not surprisingly, the vast majority of attempts to do cost-effectiveness analysis (including both GiveWell’s attempts and others’ attempts) have been in the field of global health and nutrition.
- Within global health and nutrition, even the most prominent, best-resourced attempts at cost-effectiveness analysis have had questionable quality and usefulness.
- Our own attempts to do cost-effectiveness analysis have turned out to be very sensitive to small variations in basic assumptions. Such sensitivity is directly relevant to how much weight we should put on such estimates in decision-making.
- That said, we continue to find cost-effectiveness analysis to be very useful when feasible, partly because it is a way of disciplining ourselves to make sure we’ve addressed every input and question that matters on the causal chain between interventions (e.g., nets) and morally relevant outcomes (e.g., lives saved). In addition, cost-effectiveness analysis can be useful for extreme comparisons, identifying interventions that are extremely unlikely to have competitive cost-effectiveness (for example, see our comparison of U.S. and international aid).
While we still intend to work hard on cost-effectiveness analysis, and we still see value in it, we do not see it as holding out much promise for helping to resolve difficult decisions between one giving opportunity and another. We find other criteria to be easier to make distinctions on – criteria such as strength of evidence (discussed above) and room for more funding (discussed below).
In 2010, as a result of substantial conversations with VillageReach, we developed the basic approach of scenario analysis, and since then we’ve used this approach to reach some surprising conclusions, such as the lack of short-term room for more funding for the Nurse-Family Partnership and recommending KIPP Houston rather than the KIPP Foundation due to “room for more funding” issues.
By now, room for more funding is in some ways the “primary” criterion we look at, in the sense that it’s often the first thing we ask for and sits at the core of our view on an organization. This is because
- Asking “what activities additional dollars would allow” determines what activities we focus on evaluating.
- Many of the charities and programs that may seem to have the most “slam-dunk” case for impact also seem – not surprisingly – to have their funding needs already met by others. We’ve found it relatively challenging to find activities that are both highly appealing and truly underfunded.
- In the absence of reliable explicit cost-effectiveness analysis, an alternative way of maximizing impact is to look for the most appealing activities that have funding gaps. The analytical, “sector-agnostic” approach we bring to giving seems well-suited to doing so in a way that other funders can’t or won’t.
Many people – including us early in our history – may be inclined to think that maximizing impact consists of laying out all the options, estimating their quantified impact-per-dollar, and ranking them. We’ve seen major limitations to this approach (though we still utilize it). We’ve also, however, come across another way of thinking about maximizing impact: finding where one can fit into the philanthropic ecosystem such that one is funding the best work that others won’t.