The GiveWell Blog

Emergency assistance for donors

In the wake of the cyclone in Myanmar, donors need help.

Google “Myanmar” and you’ll see a huge list of organizations advertising for donations. I don’t know whether they’re coordinating on the ground, but they’re certainly competing when it comes to raising money – and donors, including myself, have virtually nothing to go on in picking one.

Today’s conference call, hosted by Arabella Advisors, had so much interest that it ran out of phone lines (there were hundreds of people listening in). During the Q&A session, they announced that “The single most common question that’s coming in is ‘Tell us who to give money to.'” Their primary answer was to point to a list of list of “vetted” charities – a whopping 46 “recommended” charities, including practically every big name, alphabetically arranged, with small blurbs provided by each charity. (The vetting standards themselves are familiar for their emphasis on accounting and governance; these are important things, but there is absolutely no mention of, for example, charities’ track record in past disasters.) It’s a familiar sight: a generic, non-judgmental set of standards has been used to try and avoid the worst, not to help find the best.

Arabella also brought up the option of consulting “community foundations and other organizations you already trust.”

While I appreciated much of the content of the call, their way of handling this question sounded to me like “Donors, you’re on your own.” I’m guessing the reason the question was so popular is because donors don’t have “already trusted organizations”; they don’t know where to give. That’s certainly the case for our donors, who have been emailing me for advice and even using words like “helpless” and “desperate” to describe how they feel – wanting to help, deluged with appeals, and entirely without means to answer the simple question: “where should I donate?”

Right now, I believe that donors need emergency help. I don’t mean this the way that fundraisers sometimes mean it, i.e., as a plea to help donors feel better about themselves by providing emotional reassurance about their donations. I mean that we need to help well-meaning people help others, by understanding that they don’t have a pre-existing wealth of knowledge about Myanmar, that they don’t have a pre-existing commitment to and knowledge of the best aid organizations, by understanding that they just want to help in the best way possible – and, therefore, by giving substantive, well-supported, specific recommendations for where to give.

We’re looking into whether we’ll be able to provide such recommendations, in a relevant time frame. In the meantime, I haven’t found any philanthropic experts giving donors the help they need.


  • Day R Able on May 13, 2008 at 5:46 am said:

    I already gave you specific recommendations, Holden. Did you not like them or are you now raising the bar? Save the Children and World Vision and MSF (Holland) and CARE. They are able. And I have no conflict of interest in recommending them.

    Day R Able


    The news from the press release is welcome and I note that PSI did not ask for funds in it. Save the Children and World Vision both have experienced national staff on the ground ready to work on the emergency response and will be there for longer term rehabilitation as well. I need to point out that I have no personal connection with either of these institutions.

    R Dey Able

  • John J. on May 13, 2008 at 9:13 am said:

    It’s not as if people who donate, or people in the business of helping people, have no information at all. There are many long-standing organizations with good track records. One does *not* have to start from scratch, unless you want to “raise the bar,” as the post above so perceptively suggests, to the point where you are omniscient and have perfect knowledge–a goal the pursuit of which is of course a waste of time and energy. But apparently it’ll keep you in business as long as you want to be, and “earning” a great (for most people) salary of $65,000 a year.

  • Elie on May 13, 2008 at 10:03 am said:

    We believe that there are likely significant differences in the effectiveness of different organizations on the ground. We see no reason to believe that all big-name organizations who have people on the ground have the same impact.

    For that reason, our aim is to find the best organizations, meaning organizations that will accomplish the most good with additional funds. (That search doesn’t stop us from donating in the meantime to the organization in which we have the most confidence.) We don’t believe that this question can be answered objectively and definitively, but given the dearth of information we’ve seen about different organizations’ activities and impacts, we believe that merely starting this conversation and pushing for specific answers would add value to a donor’s giving decision.

  • Eric Kessler on May 13, 2008 at 10:03 pm said:

    Thanks for taking note of the Emergency Donor Briefing we had on Monday, and apologies to those readers who didn’t make it onto the call. We didn’t expect to be so oversubscribed. As a result, and because new information is coming on every minute, a second call is scheduled for Friday. Details at

    In answer to your understandable commentary about our reluctance to more decidedly point people to specific organizations, I want to explain that that was deliberate at the time. On Monday it was not at all clear who had the biggest and most effective footprint on the ground and, more importantly, the INGO’s had not yet begun to develop robust long-term recovery plans. These can be difficult for even the most seasoned donor advisor, including our two disaster philanthropy experts, to navigate on the fly.

    With more information and aid now flowing out of Yangoon, the call this Friday will focus more heavily on effective grant-making strategies, and will point to specific places where, in our analysis, donor resources can be best placed.

    Any donor advisor offering more rushed assistance than the timeframe that we and others are working on, given the limited information flow, would be doing their clients and Myanmar a disservice.

  • Holden on May 14, 2008 at 12:09 pm said:

    Hi Eric,

    Thanks for the clarification. I was under the impression, from the call, that Arabella was pointing donors to Interaction’s list, not that it was still sorting the situation out and planning to make a recommendation later. Your explanation makes sense, and I’m looking forward to attending the next conference call.

  • medical advice on September 1, 2008 at 11:30 am said:

    Giving substantive, well-supported, specific recommendations works well on paper but could be a bit tricky. Not all organizations are open to such assistance.

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