Here’s a grant idea we’d probably pursue if we had the funds to do so. I’d be interested in what other grantmakers think of it. I believe enormous good could be done by offering grants to charities that can prove their programs don’t work.
Proving a program’s ineffectiveness is difficult and expensive – just as much as proving its effectiveness. Few charities have done either. As a result, the world knows extremely little about what programs do and don’t work, and thus about how to change people’s lives for the better.
You should consider this a serious problem unless you think that nearly all charitable programs are effective. (If you think this, you should consider this list of duds).
Of course, one solution is to reward charities that are effective and can demonstrate it. That’s the approach we generally take. But there are problems with the incentives this approach (by itself) gives to unproven charities.
We’d like an unproven charity to examine its programs rigorously, and get our recommendation if the results turn out positive. But what if the programs it’s running turn out not to work (i.e., change lives)? Then the charity will have spent money and time to weaken its own case. Something of a scary proposition – and a reason to be less than evenhanded in conducting evaluations.
But what if a foundation said the following? “If you can really prove that your program isn’t working – not just that it’s underfunded or has room for improvement, but that it fails to change lives when carried out correctly – that’s valuable. That improves our collective knowledge of what works, and demonstrate a true commitment to your mission, not just your activities.
“For a charity that can prove its programs aren’t working, we’ll provide you with the funding to redesign what you’re doing. If you have the right mission and the wrong tactics – and the guts to admit it – we’ll help you change those tactics, so you can accomplish the goal (saving lives, promoting equality of opportunity, etc.) that you really care about.”
If there were enough funding along these lines, carefully examining effectiveness – with no preconceptions or manipulation, just an honest desire for better knowledge – would be win-win for a charity. As it should be.