The GiveWell Blog

“Did it happen?” and “did it work?”

You donate some money to a charity in the hopes that it will (a) carry out a project that (b) improves people’s lives. In order to feel confident in your donation, you should feel confident in both of these.

In most areas of charity, we feel that people overfocus on “did it happen?” relative to “did it work?” People often worry about charities’ stealing their money, swallowing it up in overhead, etc., while assuming that if the charity ultimately uses the funds as it says it will, the result will be good. Yet improving lives is more complicated than charities generally make it sound (see this recent post of ours). This partial list of failed programs is made up entirely of programs that appear to have been carried out quite competently, and simply didn’t improve the lives of clients.

In international aid, the relative importance of “did it happen?” grows for a couple of reasons:

  • International charities work far away and often in many different countries at once. It often isn’t feasible for their main stakeholders (Board members, major donors, etc.) to check that projects are being carried out.
  • International charities are working within foreign political systems, cultures, etc. Materials can be stolen or misappropriated en route. Locals can take advantage of their superior knowledge and “game the system.”
  • Many of the activities international charities carry out are proven to work (though many are not as well). Using insecticide-treated nets will reduce risk of malaria (more); an appropriate drug regimen will cure tuberculosis (more); vaccinations will prevent deadly diseases (writeup forthcoming). These claims have been proven and are essentially not subject to debate. This is not the case in the developed world – most of the programs charities work on have not been shown to improve outcome measures of health, standard of living, etc. (See, for example, this guest blog post.)

“Did it happen?” is a question that can largely be answered by informal, qualitative spot-checks. That’s why we would like to see more and better qualitative evidence. By contrast, to know whether a program worked, you need to somehow compare what happened to clients with what would have happened without the program – something that is often hard to have confidence in without formal outcomes tracking and evaluation.

Therefore, we believe that the role of site visits, qualitative evidence, spot-checks, etc. is likely more important in international giving than in domestic giving. In international aid, delivering proven programs (particularly medical ones) is a large part of the battle. In the U.S., most reputable charities are probably doing what they say they’re doing; the question is whether what they’re doing is effective.


  • Saundra Schimmelpfennig on May 18, 2009 at 2:03 pm said:

    I agree that there needs to be more focus placed on evaluating “Did it Happen”. From my own experience in Thailand, after the tsunami, I found that only rarely did aid agency websites accurately reflect what was actually happening on the ground.

    Donors would be wise to remember that there is generally no confirmation of what is written in monthly, quarterly or annual reports. Coupled with the lack of confirmation is the inherent pressure to practice “creative reporting”. Field staff want to not cause trouble and keep their jobs. Country Managers are trying to meet goals and deadlines to keep headquarters off their back. Headquarters want to please donors and show positive results.

    Included in the cost of every project should be the expense of independent verification and evaluation of aid agency work. Unfortunately, this would increase administration costs which displeases donors, and so it is rarely done.

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