As we’ve written before, we tend – deliberately – not to focus on charities that are small and/or “experimental” in nature. From what we’ve seen, these charities rarely can demonstrate that their program has “worked” (in the sense of changing lives) before, and so the only way to evaluate them is to have a deep understanding of the environment they’re entering, the history of similar projects, etc. Our basic response to such charities is: “Get funding from people who are better positioned to evaluate whether this risk is worth taking; evaluate yourself over time; once you can demonstrate impact, a GiveWell recommendation becomes possible.”
However, there’s nothing about our requirements that’s incompatible with relatively small, innovation-focused charities, and VillageReach is a case in point. VillageReach is not a global conglomerate working toward universal coverage of tuberculosis drugs or insecticide-treated nets; it is aiming to transform health system logistics, and to date has completed one pilot project in one district of Mozambique. But it has emphasized monitoring and evaluation from the start, and its pilot project has impressive (if not fully conclusive) results. That distinguishes it from any other “transformative” or “experimental” charity we’ve seen.
In this case, we feel that enough information is available to show us – and individual donors – that this particular risk is worth taking. We feel that VillageReach’s approach has most likely “worked” (impressively and cost-effectively) in the first area where it was tried, and that future attempts are likely to be thoroughly evaluated as well.
There are important differences between VillageReach and the larger charities we recommend. As with any small/innovation-focused charity, giving to VillageReach is a high-risk, high-upside proposition, and we don’t mean our endorsement to indicate otherwise. To date it only has results from one project in one area, and future settings could differ in any number of ways. (The flip side of this risk is hope – hope that if a still-experimental approach proves to be repeatedly and demonstrably successful, it will impact the way other organizations operate, creating effects far beyond its own expenses.)
The choice between VillageReach and a larger charity like the Stop Tuberculosis Partnership is not a straightforward one. There are inherent concerns both with small charities (limited track record; no clear “pattern of success”) and with larger ones (so many activities in so many places that it’s hard to be confident in the organization as a whole), and neither of our top-rated charities has a case ironclad enough to dismiss these concerns. But we feel that on balance, both are extremely “good bets” (and better than any other we’re aware of) for a donor.
This post is based on a discussion of these issues on our public email list.