One of the goals we do not have is the goal of being “fair” to charities, in the sense expressed in this comment:
You are right on in your focus on provable results, but some areas are much easier to evaluate than others … A bad charity to me is one that is misleading, not transparent, or ineffective in comparison to its peers.
It seems common that people wish to be “fair” to charities, focusing on merit (how well they do what they do) rather than results. (Objections that our process favors large charities often come from a similar place.) How do people trade off merit vs. results in other domains?
- Investing: if company A looks more likely to be profitable than company B, most people will invest in company A. They won’t give a second’s thought to considerations like “But company B is in a more difficult sector.”
- Consuming. If you’re buying an iPad, I doubt you’ve worried much about how unfortunate Notion Ink is for not having the brand name, marketing budget and sheer size to compete for your dollars.
- Sports. Here we take significant steps to “level the playing field.” We are very careful about which advantages (strength, speed) we allow and which (equipment, performance-enhancing drugs) we do not.
We feel strongly that charity evaluation should not be seen as a contest, bringing glory to meritorious charities and dishonor to scams. Instead, it should be seen as a pragmatic way to get money to where it can do as much good as possible. “Merit,” “A good attempt given the difficulty of the problem,” etc. should be left out of the picture.
That’s why we’ve always taken more care to eliminate “false positives” than “false negatives” in our recommendations. If there’s an ineffective charity we recommend, that’s a real problem. If there’s a good one that our process has failed to identify, that may be bad from a “fairness” perspective, but it’s not nearly so problematic for the goal of helping donors accomplish good. Evaluators that are more inclined to give charities the benefit of the doubt probably “wrong,” and anger, fewer charities – but they’re less effective in directing funding to where it will accomplish a great deal of good.
And that’s why we’re unapologetic about our bias toward charities working on tangible, measurable goals. Health is an “easier” sector than economic empowerment for clearly defining goals, tracking progress toward them, learning from mistakes, and ultimately making a positive difference. That’s a reason to prefer health charities, not a reason to “handicap” them. (Note that we do think there can be good reasons to give to “less measurable” causes, including philosophical preferences; more on this in a future post.)
When we spend money on ourselves (investing or consuming), we think exclusively about meeting our own needs and wants. It’s only fair that when we spend money on others (charity), we should think exclusively about meeting theirs.