The GiveWell Blog

Thoughts on “Money Well Spent”

I just finished reading Money Well Spent. (Disclosure: I was sent an advance copy.) The book gives a clear and public picture of how the authors conduct their grantmaking, something I believe is relatively rare in the sector; I’d like to see more people in this area laying out their approach and their positions on key debates (summarized below), as Brest and Harvey have.

Concise and example-backed arguments are given for many principles that we agree are important, including:

  • The importance of forming a clear theory of change (i.e., laying out where a given program fits in the causal chain necessary to achieve desired outcomes, and what evidence there is that each link in the chain works as hypothesized).
  • The case for providing general operating support (Brest and Harvey concede that there are times for restricted funding, but on balance feel that more gifts ought to be unrestricted).
  • The importance (and meaning) of rigorous evaluation, citing two of our favorite organizations – the Poverty Action Lab and KIPP – as examples.
  • Why “charity” can be as good a use of funds as “philanthropy” (something we discussed here and here).
  • The case for quantifying “cost-effectiveness” of different approaches (although we disagree with the authors’ emphasis on “social return on investment” as measured in dollars, for many of the same reasons that we take issue with the Disability Adjusted Life-Year metric).
  • Most importantly, a plea to “consider how failure can contribute to the knowledge base,” and publicly publish impact studies even of failed projects. (Good examples of such studies are scattered throughout the book.)

The authors also discuss many topics of more interest to larger funders; their emphasis is very much on creating and driving initiatives, rather than finding already-strong programs that just need more funds.

Overall, I recommend this book to grantmakers interested in an overview of good general practices in grantmaking. There are many interesting examples throughout the book, but its focus is general (grantmaking strategy in the abstract) rather than on specific issues (i.e., what the most promising programs are). We’d like to see more public discussion of the latter, even more than the former, but welcome both.