The GiveWell Blog

When is a charity’s logo a donor illusion?

When the charity is Nothing But Nets.

Peter Singer has explained the problem with the “net = life” equation, and any other serious analysis we’ve seen of insecticide-treated nets agrees.

Why does this matter? Because Nothing But Nets also prominently states that the total cost of each net is $10. For donors looking to maximize “bang for the buck,” $10 per life saved would probably be the best option available – if it were a real option.

As it happens, distributing bednets is one of the most cost-effective programs we know of (at least when it works) – it’s just nowhere near the $10 figure.

There are probably many reasons that impact-focused giving is so rare, but we think that at least one factor is that when a donor does go looking for information, so many of the “numbers” and “facts” they run into are exaggerations and illusions. It’s a frustrating experience that leaves some jaded about the whole endeavor, and thus missing out on real chances to have an enormous impact.


  • David Geilhufe on December 4, 2009 at 11:09 am said:

    This entire meme of impact-focused messaging by nonprofits in fundraising is not so cut and dried, I fear.

    If our goal is to empirically save more lives and to do that we need to raise money, lets look at the marketing messages of your recommended charities.

    From the headlines of the donation pages:
    (1) Nurse-Family Partnership is one of the few social programs that has demonstrated proven scientific results in improving birth outcomes, reducing childhood injuries, reducing child abuse and neglect, reducing welfare dependency, and reducing the involvement of low income mothers and their adolescent children in the criminal justice system.

    (2) VillageReach: Your tax-deductible contribution will directly support the rapid expansion and improvement of essential services in the hardest-to-reach communities. Donations will be used where they are needed most to help increase community access to health care and other essential services in developing countries. Click here for more information.

    If we do A-B testing on messages, I suspect VillageReach will raise more money from small individual donors with a “Just $10 could save a life” than with their current messaging.

    Going back to our goal, if we want to save more lives, we want VillageReach to raise more money and to do that they need to use the types of marking messages that work — the marketing messages that work seldom are empirically accurate — the recent hubub about Kiva is a good example.

    This is the paradox of the charity world… program effectiveness is not rewarded. I really doubt many donors are out looking for effectiveness information… the act of charitable giving is not an ROI decision.

    For GiveWell, that raises the question of whether you can achieve your goals better by building a global brand (which is an emotional not intellectual process) and lending that stamp approval to effective charities, or continuing to publish intellectual arguments for the small segment of donors that are looking for impact data.

    Keep up the good work, it is really needed in the sector.

  • Ian Turner on December 4, 2009 at 10:00 pm said:


    People give for a lot of different reasons. I’m sure Holden and Elie have their own opinions, but I think most donors don’t give to make an impact but rather for a variety of other reasons: To assuage the guilt of success, to satisfy religious obligations, to maintain relationships with friends and business partners, for social status, and for other reasons.

    Yours is a common and an easy accusation to make against Givewell: Isn’t it possible that by demanding clear-cut accurate messages of impact, the overall amount of money donated will decrease? I think it is hard to argue otherwise. But a more interesting analysis would ask, would the overall amount of impact increase or decrease in such a scenario? I think the answer is unclear, but the Givewell folks have taken their position.

    Do you think that reduced giving is likely to outweigh increased impact or not, and what leads you to that conclusion?

    The idea of a brand or a stamp of approval is an interesting one, and I can see it possibly working. In my opinion, though, Givewell’s core competency lies elsewhere — these guys are ex hedge fund analytical smarties, not touchy feely message marketers. (No offense to Elie and Holden, of course, who I highly admire and who are doing excellent work.) Perhaps the new Charity Navigator would be in a better position to take that particular mantle.



  • David, thanks for the comment. I agree with much of it.

    If GiveWell is going to build a brand, it is going to be by making intellectual arguments. The only alternative would be to build our brand and our views completely separately – privately deciding which charities are best, then publicly using unrelated means to raise money for them. We wouldn’t be comfortable with that. What bothers us so much about the nonprofit sector is the seemingly broken link between success in raising money and success in changing lives. We’d rather fail than become a part of that problem.

    I also generally agree with Ian about our core competency.

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