The GiveWell Blog

Getting the word out

It’s been about 5 days since we released our Africa report, and now we’re trying to get the word out. Some stuff:

  • This week’s Chronicle of Philanthropy features us, and in a true act of sadism puts me on the cover.
  • Smart Money mentions us in an article on intelligent giving. On the other hand, even after I desperately tried to explain to the reporter why the Straw Ratio is worthless, the article still spouts out the same old crap about “The important figure to look for is the spending ratio” blah blah blah. Even when they quote me pointing out that “That’s like looking at how much of a movie’s budget is going to the actors, and rating the end result based on just that,” the conclusion they come to is that you need to adjust the Straw Ratio for the sector – not that you need to scrap it altogether.

    Nobody in the nonprofit sector, except Charity Navigator itself, thinks these ratings are a good idea. How can we get this across to the mainstream media?

  • Tom Belford, with whom we’ve sparred before, made a post that I enjoyed quite a bit and completely captures the big picture of our project. He rightly points out that I’m a punk, and also (wrongly I think, but it’s debatable) calls our focus on cost-effectiveness “naive or chilling.” But this is what really matters: GiveWell is “truly putting to shame much larger foundations and major donors who haven’t shown any remotely proportionate determination to ask probing questions about the efficacy of the groups they support. Or to share the answers when they do ask … If Give Well sticks at it, they’ll make a huge contribution. Not so much via their own direct giving, but rather through their provocation and the public sharing of their analyses, successes and failures.” Right. Our decisions are of course going to be highly debatable; but the most important reason for our project is just to get the discussion going.
  • Want to read our press release? Check out Sean calling it the “best press release I’ve ever seen.” He must not have seen Charity Navigator’s … we can all only guess how they’ve been managing to get the media to listen to their perspective over the unanimous disagreement of everyone else who has ever thought about charity.
  • Finally … don’t forget to join the online chat with me at noon ET. Anyone who asks me a stumper gets a free GiveWell hat.

Wanna help spread the word further, and get as many people as possible to give well this holiday season? Here are some ideas:

  • Comment/email on your favorite blogs about us, especially when they bring up charity.
  • Set your away msg or status msg (Facebook, gchat, Twitter) to .
  • Consider a GiveWell tattoo. What have you got to lose?

We’ll be back to ranting about Africa soon enough. Stay tuned.


  • Carl Shulman on December 11, 2007 at 10:15 am said:

    I assume you read yesterday’s WSJ section on charitable giving? There are discussions of several programs for evaluating philanthropic effectiveness, although of course most seem to be terrible.

    I noticed New Philanthropy Capital, a British organization started by 3 Goldman Sachs partners and still heavily staffed with investment bankers. They research charities in particular fields and publish 2 page reports endorsing 10-12 in each area, as well as providing ‘donor consulting.’

    Overall, while I am pleased that they publish their analysis online for free, I’m not vastly impressed. They explicitly disavow the (excellent) idea of creating charity ‘league tables,’ and their discussion of effectiveness is often too fluffy for me. On the other hand, they may have useful notes to compare with you folks.

  • We’ve seen both of those – soon going to email the WSJ with our own thoughts on the matter. Thanks. (And I agree with your assessment of NPC.)

  • michael vassar on December 11, 2007 at 12:47 pm said:

    “Nobody in the nonprofit sector, except Charity Navigator itself, thinks these ratings are a good idea. How can we get this across to the mainstream media?”

    Robin Hanson says a few things about this both in general and with respect to the low measured efficacy of medical treatment at or near the margin. Others frequently lament it with respect to the predictive utility of IQ.

    One relevant hypothesis is that newspaper readers don’t want to do intellectual work and interpreting any claim that isn’t a cliche is work. As a result, non-cliche claims loose readers so media sources won’t transmit them. The best you can do is identify the cliche that comes closest to being true and transmit it. A very few news sources are of a notably higher caliber and the above may not apply, but most news sources can only be used to transmit cliches.

  • I think it’s actually remarkable how many words it takes to explain the “program ratio” concept … every time a newspaper brings it up. It seems like the opposite of a cliche, in terms of what you’re talking about – it’s not snappy or simple, and it flies in the face of the normal way of thinking about charity (“everyone should give, all charities are wonderful”).

    Sure, by now it’s a cliche just in the sense that it’s repeated a lot, but 5 years ago, the exact opposite was true, and it still gained traction.

    The big question that is going through my head is “What do we replace it with?” What do we tell people about how to pick a charity? Obviously I want to say “GiveWell,” but we do too few causes to be “the solution” for this purpose. This is the one thing that makes me hesitate about trying to get the media to change their tune – maybe we should first build the alternative. The truth is that I really hav nothing to say to someone who doesn’t like the GiveWell causes and doesn’t have enough $ to hire an advisor. They may as well use charity Navigator, or a roulette wheel.

  • I am not a member of the philanthropic community but only approach as a layman with the idea of cost-effectively donating to the multitude of charities. In the Google searching on the subject I came upon your website about a month ago in anticipation of you shedding some light on the problem. I am especially focused on African needs because dying trumps art and education needs in my book.

    I agree that the Charity Navigator approach is not the complete answer to charity efficacy and I welcome your analyses. I have not spent much time with your African post because of the pressures of the holidays. My initial reaction is that the subject is highly complicated and will require much more work before we can separate out the best charities.

    Some of the charities you have discarded because they have not chosen to fill out an extensive data request. They should not be discarded on that basis.

    As an example I am a fan of Ashoka which supplies support(average $15,000) to social entrepreneurs who are having tremendous successes. However, they are a small, lean organization which likely did not have the resources to give you all your data.

    My general reaction to your posts is that you should quit sparring with Charity Navigator and continue your analyses. Charity Navigator’s work is not trash but should be factored into the bigger picture which is not yet available.

  • Hi Ken, thanks for the comments. A couple thoughts:

    1. My current belief is that Charity Navigator’s ratings are not useful (though, as we’ve written here before, their search feature can be). This isn’t me trying to be provocative or generate controversy; it’s what I believe. If you disagree, please share your thoughts on where our analysis goes wrong.

    2. It simply isn’t possible to evaluate organizations that don’t apply. We recognize this means we will generally be favoring charities with more organizational capacity, and we are fine with this – we are serving individual donors (for whom personal relationships with the organization are not an option), and need organizations that have the capacity not just to do their work but to document it.

    Our goal is not to do perfect, 100% comprehensive rankings. That’s impossible, especially when it’s up to each organization how much information to share. Our goal is to find proven, effective, transparent charities that we can confidently recommend, giving donors a far better option than what they have now.

Comments are closed.