The GiveWell Blog

Just say something, anything

Smarter Spending on AIDS: How the Big Funders Can Do Better. When I saw that title, linked here, I quickly opened the link expecting a report critically evaluating which strategies work in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Should we fund condom distribution or programs promoting monogamy? Is ARV distribution enough or do non-profits need to follow-up with clients to make sure each takes their medication? What progress has been made on an AIDS vaccine – does that need more funding? Instead, I found a report full of corporate gobbledygook, which endorsed the following best practices – “working with the government; building local capacity; keeping funding flexible; selecting appropriate recipients; making the money move; and collecting and sharing data.”

Seriously? “Selecting appropriate recipients?” “Making the money move?” Does anyone think a paper like this can, will, or should change anyone’s behavior?

This is just the latest example I’ve seen of reports that seem to actually say nothing. By “nothing” I mean one of two things: either 1) the conclusions a paper offers are so general and vague and offer such scant evidence and reasoning that they’re practically useless or 2) the paper asserts conclusions which are so obvious that no one could possibly argue with them.

There’s the paper on practices of high-impact nonprofits that’s been floating around the blogosphere; I thought Albert’s post (linked) did a good job pointing out its shortcoming, but I also want to mention that its 6 attempts at “debunking myths” (pg 34-35) seem to come down to saying: “Effective nonprofits can come in all shapes and sizes.” Really? This changes everything!

There’s the Hard Lessons paper many have praised as a breakthrough in foundation self-criticism. Hard lessons taught here include “Allow room for the definition of success to shift and evolve as people learn what is possible and effective, as relationships deepen, and as the work matures”; “Match evaluation tools to their purposes”; and “Cultivate a flexible learning stance” (pg vii). They don’t, though, include any lessons about program design itself.

We often say we’d like to see more self-evaluation in the nonprofit sector. Papers like these are not what we’re referring to.


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