Imagine that someone came to you with an idea for a startup business and offered you a chance to invest in it. Which of the following would you require before taking the plunge?
- Familiarity with (or at least a lot of information about) the people behind the project
- Very strong knowledge of the project’s “space” (understanding of any relevant technologies, who the potential customers might be, etc.)
- As much information as possible about similar projects, both past and present
Unless you’re an unusually adventurous investor, you probably answered with “All of the above.” After all, there’s a risk of losing your investment – and unlike with established businesses (which have demonstrated at least some track record of outdoing the competition), here your default assumption should be that that’s exactly what will happen.
Now what is the difference between this situation and giving to a startup charity?
One difference is that with a charity, you know from the beginning that you won’t be getting your donation back. But this doesn’t mean there isn’t risk – the risk just takes a different form. Presumably, your goal in donating to a charity is to improve the world as much as possible. If the startup charity you help get off the ground ends up being much less impactful (on a per-dollar basis) than established charities, then your support was a mistake. If it ends up having no meaningful impact, you’ve lost your shirt.
And in my opinion, the worst case possible is that it succeeds financially but not programmatically – that with your help, it builds a community of donors that connect with it emotionally but don’t hold it accountable for impact. It then goes on to exist for years, even decades, without either making a difference or truly investigating whether it’s making a difference. It eats up money and human capital that could have saved lives in another organization’s hands.
As a donor, you have to consider this a disaster that has no true analogue in the for-profit world. I believe that such a disaster is a very common outcome, judging simply by the large number of charities that go for years without ever even appearing to investigate their impact. I believe you should consider such a disaster to be the default outcome for an new, untested charity, unless you have very strong reasons to believe that this one will be exceptional.
So when would I consider appropriate for a donor to invest in a small, unproven charity? I would argue that all of the following should be the case:
- The donor has significant experience with, and/or knowledge regarding, the nonprofit’s client base and the area within which it’s working. For example, a funder of a new education charity should be familiar with the publicly available literature on education, as well as with the specific school system (and regulations) within which the project is working. A funder of a project in Africa should be familiar with past successes and failure in international aid in general, and should spend time in the area where the project will be taking place.
- The donor has reviewed whatever information is available about past similar projects and about the assumptions underlying this project. If similar, past projects have failed, the donor has a clear sense of why they failed and what about the current project may overcome those obstacles.
- The donor has a good deal of confidence in the people running the nonprofit, either because s/he know them personally or because s/he has an excellent sense for their previous work and past accomplishments. (Enough confidence in the people can lower the need for the above two points, to some extent.)
- The donor feels that the organization is doing whatever it reasonably can to measure its own impact over time. The donor is confident that– within a reasonable time frame – if the project succeeds, it will be able to prove its success; if it fails, it will see this and it will fold. Until impact is demonstrated, there is no need for the kind of scale that comes with taking many donations from casual donors. As stated above, I believe that the overwhelming majority of charities do not meet this criterion.
If you know a lot about cars, you might try to build your own car. But if you don’t, you’re much better off with a name brand. Likewise, casual donors are better off funding charities that have track records; experimental charities should start small and accumulate track records. This is why we are comfortable with our bias toward larger charities.