The GiveWell Blog

Too much attention on the giver’s experience; not enough on the recipient’s

From the recent discussion on Tactical Philanthropy:

As philanthropists/donors/funders, we spend so much time thinking about how to maximize social benefit through our activities, that often we lose sight of the personal benefits that we experience from these endeavors.

We disagree. Consider the current state of the nonprofit sector.

Bottom line: giving today is all about the giver. The sector revolves around telling donors great stories, while charities’ actual impact is unexamined and essentially irrelevant.

We do believe that the benefits of giving for the giver are important, particularly from a fundraising perspective, but we think the current level of attention to them is out of control.


  • jsalvatier on November 6, 2009 at 4:13 pm said:

    This definitely fits with my limited experience of the charity world.

  • Jeff Mason on November 6, 2009 at 5:27 pm said:

    Right on Holden! Focus on the experience of giving is at the core of the sectors ineffectiveness.

  • I so agree with that there is no adequate information about charities’ effects on the people they serve. Or simply put, some charities and non-profit organizations failed in disclosing their “true charitable activities”. It would be better if there are transparencies about the people/community they are helping.

  • Sean Stannard-Stockton on November 7, 2009 at 3:54 pm said:

    Holden, as you know, I’m totally with you on the need to focus on how best to help the beneficiaries. However, I also think that it is just fine to enjoy giving!

    Let’s say someone came to you and asked for your advice on finding a job that would benefit society. Would you suggest they take the job that has objectively the highest impact, or would you encourage them to take an impactful job that they also loved and were passionate about?

  • Right on, Holden!

    I 100% agree. Charitable and humanitarian activities impact society, but how much? Are lives changed really? Did the recipients become truly independent, or more dependent?

    As agents of social change, charitable groups should first focus on the level of positive change they’re making in the lives of the underprivileged, since that’s what they were established for.

  • Thanks for the comments & support.


    I don’t think there is anything bad about the joy of giving. What I have a problem with is the idea that we need to pay “more attention” to it. I think it gets excessive attention now and the sector would benefit from a change of topic.

    I would advise people to find work that they love doing, and to give this a heavy weight relative to the pure “impact” of their work. But work is different from giving:

    • Work is 50%+ of many people’s waking hours. Choosing any job other than your favorite is a HUGE sacrifice. Aside from Zell Kravinsky, I doubt that anyone has anywhere near as prominent a role in their life for giving.
    • Your feelings about your work affect your ability to do it well and impactfully. By contrast, a check for $X made out to charity Y has the same impact regardless of the feelings and motivation behind it (at least if the donor is taking the “passive investor” approach that both you and I favor).

    I do think there is room for some selfishness in giving, but the level we see today is unreasonable.

  • philippe on November 9, 2009 at 2:18 pm said:

    There is no more transparency at the Gates Foundation, maybe even less: because it is so big and because it does not seem to care much about transparency, there is very little information available (compared to the amount of money invested). The absence of transparency (how the money is used) could easily be solved as all the information is available on a digital form BUT the organizations don’t want to share it. It is a real struggle to obtain some very basic info and you are almost immediately tagged as a trouble maker (and ostracized). At least it has been my experience.

  • Katya Andresen on November 9, 2009 at 2:53 pm said:

    Hi there. This debate makes me think of Eric Foley’s recent post, which states: “The consensus of our age (among charitable foundations and nonprofit execs, anyway) is that nonprofits impact causes and donors support nonprofits. The only question being discussed is whether, in the end, donors are flibbertigibbets or hard-nosed impact calculators who will vote responsibly for the best nonprofits with their giving dollars. Such a view is hardly flattering to individuals. And it’s far too kind to nonprofits.”

    You know I’m a fan, Holden, and I LOVE what you are doing, but I’m also steadfast in my donor-centric outlook. Giving inevitably derives from some MIXTURE of the personal and the broader impact (the desire to make a difference). To try to extract the personal from the act of giving is fruitless – we are human beings with interests, after all – but also likely takes away an essential component of the act of giving and the field of philanthropy – emotional investment. The idea that donors should only give to “effective nonprofits” might have worked in an older world order where there WAS order, but in today’s decentralized, distributed, democratized disorder of philanthropy, that’s a big challenge – which makes giving to what you know – personally – seem more appealing.

    I welcome debate with you, as always!

  • Clarissa on November 9, 2009 at 3:04 pm said:

    I have to totally disagree that charities aren’t surveying themselves and reporting outcomes. As someone who has worked in nonprofits for decades, I can tell you that development and program staffs are constantly surveying and counting constituents for the express purpose of giving donors the fact based evidence that an organization is worth funding. In fact, many donors require very detailed outcomes reports on an annual basis. So detailed in fact that you are reporting Age, Race, Zip Code, # of Classes Taken, Days Classes Taken, Hours Classes Taken, etc. I have never worked for an organization that got away with just telling warm fuzzy stories in exchange for donations. I agree that the focus on what donors want is a little out of control. Especially with program centered giving. Program centered giving has resulted in organizations not being able to pay their light bills and phone bills and toilet paper bills. And all those bills may not be the sexy thing to fund, but they are necessary to operating an organization.

  • Eric Foley on November 9, 2009 at 3:54 pm said:

    Holden, what if the problem is that we’re not focusing enough on the giver? What if we’re focusing on the wrong parts of giving? What if the key to great income growth AND causal impact comes through increasing our focus on the giver?

    Now please understand: I totally agree that nonprofits and donors both like anecdotes too much–no question.

    But there are other things to measure about givers.

    Take Atul Tandon at World Vision. When he arrived there in 2000, income stood at $469 million. He then recognized that World Vision was placing a lot of emphasis on field metrics…and very little emphasis on donor self-assessment. He intuited that if he made donor self-assessment the PRIMARY metric, then other metrics–from income to field impact–could follow.

    He instituted an annual survey that, through a range of questions, essentially asked World Vision’s donors, “Are you better equipped to impact child poverty now than you were before you partnered with World Vision?”

    In the first year of the survey, 59% of WV donors said yes.

    By 2008, that number had risen to 76%…and WV’s income had increased to over $1 billion.

    (You can check out all the numbers at .)

    Did Atul and WV focus too much on the giver? Not at all. They treated donors as subjects capable of impacting the cause of child poverty, and they trained them as such.

    The end result? Win/Win/Win. WV wins, as their income increased dramatically. The cause wins, as now millions of individuals are being trained by WV to impact it more fully. And the donor wins, since the experience that most individuals want is not simply to feel good, but to genuinely make a difference.

  • Ian Turner on November 10, 2009 at 9:59 am said:


    Care to share with us some examples of organizations that publish evidence of impact?



  • Thanks for all the comments.

    Philippe: interesting observation about the Gates Foundation. We don’t have the inside view that you seem to be describing, but agree that the Foundation isn’t very transparent.

    Katya: it isn’t clear to me why the trends you describe ought to be leading donors to care less about impact. It seems to me that you are saying that donors have access to more information than before, so they no longer are stuck with giving to the charities that call them or following the recommendations of their local paper. I’d respond that they can use their increased power to find more “personal” fits, or to raise the bar for doing the “most good possible,” or anything in between. It all depends on how much a donor values doing good vs. feeling good, and different donors will answer that tradeoff differently.

    Some donors, including myself, want to help people as much as possible with their donations. This isn’t because I have “removed the personal” or “removed the emotion” but because my personal, emotional preference is to help others rather than to hear a heartwarming but misleading story.

    As I’ve written before, I think the idea of a tradeoff between reason and emotion is misguided.

    Clarissa: I don’t feel that the measurements you’re describing are sufficient to determine whether you’re positively impacting lives. I also don’t feel that the metrics you’re describing would count as “very detailed” in many settings (including for-profit situations) where people are held accountable for progress on a difficult problem.

    I agree with your comments on “program centered giving.” We are strong opponents of the idea of judging charities by the “percentage of funds spent on programs.”

    Eric: if a charity serves donors by doing a better job on its programs, I’m all for that.

  • Katya Andresen on November 12, 2009 at 2:51 pm said:

    I would like to know your reaction to the work of Paul Slovic. I feel we NEED to focus on the donor experience and feeling or we’ll never generate sufficient resources to make real change.

  • Katya, we are not saying that the donor experience should be ignored (although I’m personally happy to give to a charity that ignores my experience). What we are saying is that the balance is too far in that direction currently.

    Currently, the nonprofit sector has much more success raising money than success demonstrating impact (and, probably, having impact).

  • Nadine Riopel on April 14, 2011 at 3:13 pm said:

    Hello, everyone,

    I’m sorry to come late to this party, as I just discovered this article, but I would like to comment on it.

    First, a quick note – Clarissa, you are describing output measurements, not outcome measurements. Indicators like “Hours Classes Taken” does not measure whether an activity is effective, only that it was carried out. I agree there is too much activity measurement, and it’s a burden. But I also agree with those who bemoan the lack of impact measurement.

    Now to the main point. I believe that the problem is not that we focus too much or too little on what donors want. I think the problem is that we take what donors say they want at face value.

    When you get right down to it, what most donors actually want is to do good. Which is what nonprofits want, too. The problem is that donors are constantly bombarded with requests to give, and have almost no tools to help them narrow the field to the best opportunities.

    So they fall back on overly simplistic tactics like focusing on admin cost ratios, or trying to limit their giving to specific programs.

    When a donor tells you that they only want their dollars to go directly to poor children, that may not be what they really mean. What they may actually want is for their dollars to benefit poor children. The best way to do that may be, for example, financial literacy programs for low-income parents. But the donor won’t ask for that, because the donor doesn’t know that. The people who work every day in the field of child poverty know that. That’s us.

    It’s our job to be the bridge between the well-intentioned motivations of donors and the realities of making impact.

    It’s our job to poke away at their erroneous assumptions, to tactfully work with them, to help them find the strategies that will achieve what they really want, and keep them informed about the results.

    Donors are not stupid, but they are often the victims of fundraising practices that try to keep them happy and giving at the expense of openness and honesty.

    It’s not easy to tell an enthusiastic donor that what he/she wants to do is not the best way to achieve results, and it may lose you some donors in the short run. But it’s a far more respectful and engaging approach that will build trust and loyalty in the long run.

    And if it is done well, it will produce more satisfying results for the donor AND the recipient.

    Nadine Riopel

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