The GiveWell Blog

UNICEF Inspired Gifts: Revolution or donor illusion?

UNICEF offers you the chance to buy measles vaccines for 100 children for $27.10. And lest you complain that you’ve heard this one before, it assures you specifically that “while other organizations allow supporters to purchase ‘symbolic’ gifts, Inspired Gifts are actual items.”

Is this finally the “real personal connection” donors have been waiting for?

We can’t say for sure. Unlike Kiva, UNICEF provides no information about where the money goes and what projects are in progress. But we can ask a few critical questions:

  • There are many costs for vaccination programs besides the vaccines themselves. Who is paying these costs?
  • If some other party puts up the “fixed costs” for a given campaign (labor, logistics, etc.), but UNICEF’s catalogue only “sells” 1/2 the needed vaccines, will the other 1/2 of the relevant population go unvaccinated?
  • Or will other sources of funds cover the remaining need, making the cost of the campaign essentially fixed? If this is the case, in what sense is the donor “buying” the vaccine?

Our guess is that UNICEF has a large pool of funding allocated to these campaigns, aside from the money that comes in through “Inspired Gifts” (which seems to be paying for very small numbers of items). We would guess that UNICEF will “officially” match up donations through the “catalogue” vehicle to, for example, vaccines while shifting its other funds from vaccines to delivery costs.

Why does all of this matter? Because UNICEF is advertising immunizations for 27 cents apiece. In reality, it almost certainly costs more than that – all things considered – to deliver a vaccination. That would make this another case in which a charity misleadingly zooms in on “your” money rather than considering all costs – a subtle, but substantive, donor illusion.

There’s no smoking gun, though, because there is no transparency.


  • Jacinta on November 18, 2009 at 4:26 pm said:

    So, what would you like to see on these UNICEF pages? The converstation about Kiva shows the perceived necessaity for ‘conversions’. Does providing all this data reduce the conversions and therefore reduce the amount of money recevied that these people need?

  • James Edward Dillard on November 18, 2009 at 10:58 pm said:

    If it actually costs more than 27 cents to deliver, then that really annoys me.

    Why not just say what it actually costs to deliver a vaccination to someone? After all, many of us would gladly pay that real amount to be vaccinated ourselves (and therefore can sympathize with others wanting their children to be vaccinated).

  • Ian Turner on November 19, 2009 at 12:56 pm said:

    Inspired Gifts are pretty plainly a type of restricted donation. As with most restricted donations, they are fungible. In this case they’re pretty highly fungible.

    Personally, I think this is an extremely clever marketing concept, a positive thing to be praised. Maybe it costs $4-$20 to *deliver* a vaccine, but you still have to purchase the vaccines in the first place, which is where these funds are allocated. So donors who don’t care about marketing end up funding the delivery, while donors looking for a connection can buy the vaccines themselves.

  • I agree with James and disagree with Ian on this one. If UNICEF is exaggerating what you get for your donation, it’s interfering with donors’ abilities to make informed decisions.

    Jacinta, we would like to see what projects UNICEF is carrying out, where, how much they cost, and what the demonstrable results (if any) are. This information presumably exists somewhere within UNICEF, though it may not be centrally organized. The question of whether having good information would lead to less donations – and whether the “ends justify the means” – is a major debate around GiveWell’s work; for now I’ll just state that we feel the benefits of “giving better” are generally hugely underestimated relative to the benefits of “giving more.”

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