The GiveWell Blog

Foundations and individuals

A new study sponsored by several major foundations (Gates, Packard, Hewlett, Irvine, and Robert Wood Johnson) found that among “engaged”* Americans, only:

  • 43% can name a foundation on their first try
  • 15% can cite an example of a foundation’s impact in their community
  • 11% can cite an example of a foundation’s impact on an issue they care about

Individuals – who don’t have access to information about how well charitable programs are working – donate over $220 billion dollars to charity every year. Foundations retain expert staff to evaluate programs and make grant decisions. If foundations want to increase their relevance to individual citizens (and those citizens’ awareness of them), one good start might be addressing this information gap: using their expertise to help donors make more informed giving decisions.

* U.S. adults aged 18 and older who have held a leadership, committee or board level role in a group or organization working on a community or social issue within the past year.


  • mbellotti on June 12, 2008 at 6:45 am said:

    Hey Elie, you know I’ve been following your and Holden’s work for a while now and this post just triggered a thought I want to share:

    How do you know that foundations are evaluating and making grant decisions based on how well their programs are working? Perhaps the resistance to sharing their information you found in the beginning of your work was because many grant decisions are based on arbitrary whims instead of facts or data?

    Example: I have a friend who runs a very successful NGO in Africa. When she got started she was turned down for lots of grants despite the fact that the program was tripling the standard of living of the people in it. One foundation even told her ‘this is such a great idea, we would totally fund it if you were black’

    On the surface it’s always better to have a program headed and guided by a local over a foreigner … but to the point where you turn down a good program? With hundreds of proposals coming in for grants, the deciding factors are rarely cold hard data or expert opinion.

  • Holden on June 13, 2008 at 6:29 pm said:

    mbellotti: I agree with your point of view on your friend (assuming you’ve described the situation accurately).

    We don’t believe it’s possible to make giving decisions based “purely” on cold hard facts, but we do believe in putting significant effort into considering whatever relevant facts are available, and filling in the gaps based on our best and most informed guess rather than on “arbitrary whims.”

    We don’t know which foundations agree with this approach and which do not; we’ve found most foundations reluctant to discuss their grantmaking procedures at that level of detail.

  • Jason R on June 26, 2008 at 9:26 am said:

    You know, we’re doing this in DC. The top foundations created a publication called Catalogue for Philanthropy that vets promising small non-profits that are doing good work. That way individuals benefit from the research and can learn about groups they might not be aware of, where their dollar goes a lot further than a contribution to, say, the United Way.

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