This post seeks to address a common misconception about our work, and will in the future be linked from an FAQ.
We often encounter confusion around the fact that we recommend so few charities. Some take this as a statement that “very few charities are accomplishing good,” but this is very much an incorrect interpretation. We recommend few charities by design, because we see ourselves as a “finder of great giving opportunities” rather than a “charity evaluator.” In other words, we’re not seeking to classify large numbers of charities as “good” or “bad”; our mission is solely to identify, and thoroughly investigate, the best.
The upshot is that the charities we don’t recommend may be doing great work, and our lack of recommendation shouldn’t be taken as evidence to the contrary. However, our top charities are the ones that we believe best fit our criteria: evidence-backed, cost-effective, and capable of effectively using more funding.
We take this approach because
- Thoroughly understanding even one charity is a great deal of work. We’ve put hundreds of hours into each of our current top charities. Our investigations include thoroughly reviewing the research behind charities’ programs, researching possible concerns about these programs, extensive back-and-forth with charities to gain full understanding of their processes and past and future uses of funds, multi-day site visits to charities’ operations in the field, and ongoing updates, as well as extremely time-intensive cost-effectiveness analysis (estimating how much good is accomplished per dollar spent). (For example, see this 2011 blog post about our due diligence on former #1 charity VillageReach; since then our process has intensified significantly).
- Thoroughly understanding our top charities makes a substantial difference to our donors. One of the ways in which our money moved has increased is that donors have given higher percentages of their income to our top charities over time, as their confidence in our recommendations has grown. As evidenced by the public discussions we’ve had, donors tend to have many questions about our top charities and to value the work we put into being thorough.
- Thoroughly understanding a charity is harder when the charity is less outstanding. Our top charities are characterized by partly by qualities that make them easy to understand: extreme transparency (which makes it relatively easy to communicate with them, understand them, and write about them) as well as strong relevant evidence bases (which make it relatively easy to answer key questions).
By contrast, the experiences we’ve had attempting thorough reviews of less outstanding charities have frequently involved time-consuming confusion over answers to key questions and contentious, and time-consuming discussions about what is appropriate for us to publish.
Note that establishing that a charity is failing would be even more difficult than establishing that a charity is succeeding. The latter is difficult because even well-done studies generally have many complexities and shortcomings. The former is more difficult because there is generally little data available (even if it exists it is unlikely to be made available to us).
- Thoroughly reviewing less outstanding charities – while more difficult than reviewing top charities – would be far less benefit to our mission. We have written about this issue previously. In the past, we’ve tried recommending larger numbers of charities, with lower confidence; these efforts have included recommendations in popular causes such as microfinance and U.S. equality of opportunity. But we’ve seen the vast majority of dollars go to the charities that win our highest recommendations, and the lower-tier recommendations have attracted relatively little in the way of donations.
It may be true that, all else equal, having more recommended charities raises our total money moved. It may be true that if we could comprehensively review all major charities, giving them a definitive positive or negative rating, our product would have more appeal. But these activities would take more resources than we have (or, in the case of the latter, more resources than we believe we could ever realistically have). The return on investment of reviewing less outstanding charities is far inferior to the return of focusing on the best giving opportunities.
- We need all the capacity we have for the goal of finding the best giving opportunities possible. As discussed previously, we are currently trying to increase the time we spend trying to explore giving opportunities outside of our traditional criteria. Doing so while maintaining confidence in our current charity recommendations takes all the capacity we have. And if we had more capacity, we would try to improve the speed and quality of our efforts to identify even more outstanding giving opportunities, long before we tried to review less outstanding charities.
Our process is built around having maximal confidence in our recommendations for how to do as much good as possible with one’s giving. This goal is distinct from the goal of reviewing and/or recommending large numbers of charities, and trying harder to accomplish the latter would detract from our success at the former.