# Where I’m coming from

Last August, I decided that I wanted to give to charity, and I started working with Holden and a few other friends researching non-profits. We thought that with a little legwork, we’d be able to find the best organization in a given cause (clean water, say) by asking each organization two very basic questions: 1) what are you trying to accomplish? and 2) what’s your evidence that you can accomplish it?

Last fall, I asked those two questions to about 20 different non-profits working in the generic “clean-water for Africa” cause, and got three types of responses:

1) Hostile: why are you asking these questions? who do you work for? why would you want to know this? do you work for our competitors?

2) Dumbfounded: do you work for a giant foundation – they’re the only ones that ask these questions? I’ve never heard these questions from any private donor before – why do you want to know this?

3) Grateful: These are great questions. I met with the board today, and told them that we need to be able to answer these types of questions. Thanks!

All of these responses are unified by one striking theme: no one was used to answering these two simple questions. That’s how I knew that the GiveWell project wasn’t just going to be a way to make my decision for the year, but something that I needed to do.

After a few months of work, I decided to give to Population Services International because they adequately answered those two questions. PSI is the best I found, but they’re far from perfect. And, as Holden’s written, two of the achievement gap-related organizations we’ve reviewed and he’s donated to, while adequate, still leave a lot to be desired. I don’t want to settle for adequate next December.

• Matthew Monberg on February 22, 2007 at 10:10 pm said:

I suspect that it was #2 that trips people up. As someone who fields that question almost every day from donors (large and small) I hope I can provide some helpful context.

There are many donors who ask this question because they have an axe to grind. For example, I once had someone demand to see everyone’s compensation packages broken out into wages, benefits, and retirement. And that was ALL he was asking for. Should I give that information just because someone claiming to be a “donor” asked for it? I say no.

The Internet–while improving communication–has also given rise to huge scams. Beyond information that I am required to give by law to anyone who asks–how am I to know that you are legitimate.

We once had a scathing letter from a donor who said that he could no longer support us because of a particular partnership we had with another organization. When I looked up his giving record, his last donation was $20–and it was three years ago! There are a lot of$20 donors asking $20,000 questions and wanting$20,000 time from nonprofit executives. It’s very hard to sift through them when all you have is an e-mail or an unfamiliar voice at the end of the line.

Let me end by saying that every organization should have simple and public answers to the two questions you asked. It’s actually the least they could do–I think. I hope this helped.

• Hearing about unreasonable donors demanding information out of context does help me to understand where nonprofits are coming from. Throughout our project, we have tried to be explicit about what we are offering and what we aren’t – for my part, I have always said “I am considering several charities and planning to give a single gift of $X, so take that into consideration when deciding how much time to spend on me.” To the extent the information is easily available, though, I would think you would give it to anyone who asked, even the sketchy people. What harm can it do? I still haven’t seen an answer to that question. The issue is that the information often ISN’T easily available – and that, I think, is what really struck Elie (and I know it’s what struck me). By the way, it isn’t true that we’ve only had problems with question #2. An example from personal experience: it’s one thing to say you repair cleft palates. But for whom? Where? Are the people getting surgery otherwise healthy? What would their lives be like if not for these operations? Are you doing initial surgeries only, or are you doing followup surgeries and speech therapy? How much does all of this REALLY cost? These questions are all essential for understanding what is really being done to help people. They have been surprisingly hard to answer. • Matthew Monberg on February 25, 2007 at 8:27 pm said: The compensation information for my entire staff is easily available. Should I hand that over to anyone who asks? Many nonprofits do their best to anticipate donor questions and answer them in various ways (web sites, FAQs, annual reports, etc.) But it’s difficult to anticipate ALL the questions a donor will ask. For example, it could be that your cleft palate questions have never been asked by a donor before. Or, that information is available–but takes some time to get from field people who are half-a-world away with far less access to the Internet. Or, that the last time they gave that information out, they were skewered in a news article or blog post. Each time I get a “new” question, I try to keep an ongoing record of it so that we can answer it in the future for anyone else who asks. To your questions, do you really have enough information about cleft palate surgeries to know if you are getting the right/best answers? Or, have you thought about changing your approach to state what it is you are looking for, and therefore reduce any potential sensitivities or trust issues? In other words, write it like a want ad and put all your preferred qualities up front. You might want to test that…send a list of questions to some orgs, and send the want ad to others…see which gets you the information faster. Some of these are loaded questions. For example, “Are the people getting the surgery otherwise healthy?”–that leads me to believe that you place a higher priority on healthy recipients of cleft palate surgeries. Same thing with the initial surgery/follow-up care question. Are you saying that organization’s who do not provide follow-up care are doing a bad job, or just an incomplete one? Depending on my perspective, that could be offensive or threatening. And, since I don’t need another fight in my life, I just won’t answer you. I’m not sure if this is helpful or not. I think all of your questions are essential for understanding and I also think that donors often ask very narrowly construed questions based on incomplete information. Somewhere on the razor-thin line between those two is GiveWell. Good luck. • I do think you should share the compensation info with anyone who asks. I believe it’s all legally public record anyway: anyone making more than$50k has to be listed on the 990.

I’m not sure I fully understand the “want ad” idea, but it sounds like it would work against what we’re trying to do. We don’t believe ourselves to be experts. We don’t believe we understand the issues as well as charities do. Our goal is to understand, not command. When we ask “Do you do followup surgeries?” it’s not because we’re going to dump them for giving one answer or the other. We don’t necessarily have a “right” answer in mind. We just want to know, so we can compare them to others.

We try to be clear about this with everyone: that we just want to understand, and if our questions are too narrow and uninformed, we want the charity to inform us. But we demand an understanding, not “I don’t know” or “I won’t tell you.”

And yes, oftentimes the charities haven’t encountered these questions recently or at all, which makes them hard to answer. That’s the point. These are important questions, and they’re not being asked. That’s why we’re committed to the project.

• Beyond Giving on February 28, 2007 at 12:18 am said:

A few questions for GiveWell…

GiveWell has quickly become one of my favorite blogs to read and comment on. This entry stems from a discussion that Holden and I are having on this post about the lack of good information GiveWell gets from some nonprofit…

• The GiveWell Blog - Exploring how to get real change for your dollar. » The customer is on your side on March 24, 2007 at 5:50 pm said:

[…] Or is the reason you don’t answer our questions that you don’t know what the answers are? Do you really understand what your organization does? Do you really believe that you work for the best charity in the world? If not, why on earth are you spending your life marketing for it? […]

• The GiveWell Blog - Exploring how to get real change for your dollar. » Do any charities know what they’re doing? on April 24, 2007 at 5:25 am said:

[…] It seems clear to me that this is would be a disastrous strategy if we didn’t pick our charities carefully. Hey – that’s exactly how it works today, with the lion’s share of charitable capital coming from people who have no access to good information (though at least they can get irrelevant financial data and nonsensical metrics). […]

• The GiveWell Blog - Exploring how to get real change for your dollar. » BRB on May 5, 2007 at 12:10 pm said:

[…] Where I’m coming from. Elie has two stumpers for charities: what do you do, and does it work? […]

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