If a charity demonstrates that its core program has changed lives in the past, is likely to change lives in the future, and gets great “bang for your buck,” is this enough reason to donate to it? We say no.
The missing piece: Will more funding lead to more of the good program(s)? We generally call this the “room for more funding” question, and we’ve seen next to no helpful discussion of the issue within academia, within the nonprofit sector, or anywhere else.
Often, when I raise this issue, the response I get is “But is that a real problem? Are there charities that have great programs they can’t or won’t expand with more funding?” The answer is yes. Examples:
- Our analysis of Smile Train strongly suggests that its core program of directly funding doctors has “more money than doctors.” Thus, over 50% of Smile Train’s funds go to activities far from what their fundraising focuses on, including grants to other organizations, research, and “provid[ing] materials on cleft lip and palate for free to anyone interested in this birth defect.” Perhaps these activities have value, but it would be a mistake to donate to Smile Train just based on their headline program.
- The Aravind Eye Care System is one of the more impressive humanitarian organizations we have seen, performing vision-restoring surgery extremely cost-effectively. They have been so successful, in fact, that their core program doesn’t need donations – as they have explicitly told us. Revenue from for-pay surgeries subsidizes free surgeries, and donations are used on entirely and substantially different programs such as distribution of spectacles and free food.
- Today’s Aid Watch post gives an excellent picture of why it’s so important to be wary:
according to Fred Martin, Communications Director at CHF, “In fact our Food Pak program is a small portion of what we do. We highlight it because it is our flagship program that we’ve seen work very well in building relationships with the poor so that deeper needs can be uncovered and responded to.” I learned from Fred they also provide beds in eastern Europe and medicines in Asia …
As long as charities can get away with it, their incentive is to advertise the best program they have, even well beyond the point where that’s the program that needs more money.
There can be many bottlenecks to expanding a program besides money (skilled labor, environments that are conducive to the program, etc.) If you want to fund great programs, you have to ask not just “What have you done and has it worked?” but “What will you do with more funds than you’re currently expecting?”
We haven’t identified any easy answer or simple formula for this question. We believe that “restricting” your donation to the program you favor is generally a futile endeavor (more on this in a future post).
We have developed some relevant ideas. In addition to some rules of thumb for avoiding the most tangled cases, we ask the strongest charities for documents that speak to the “room for more funding” issue directly, such as examples of un-funded but strong project proposals and financial “scenario analysis” (details to come in future posts).
However, we have found that requesting such documents is an uphill battle because the request is generally so foreign. You won’t see financial scenario analysis on any standard list of “documents a charity should be sharing” (from the IRS or anyone else).
Foundations arguably don’t need to deal with the challenge discussed here, because they can give money in large enough chunks to dictate which projects get carried out. (The extent to which this practice is wise is another question). This may be why no one else seems to be asking for information on “room for more funding.” Whatever the reason, it’s an issue that needs much more attention than it’s getting.