The GiveWell Blog

The best charity that no one has heard of: How would you tell its story?

We’ve spent years looking for the most outstanding organizations we can find – organizations with demonstrable, cost-effective, powerful impacts on people’s lives. As of now, out of hundreds examined with a systematic process, we’ve found one that we think is particularly outstanding. It isn’t just outstanding by our criteria – it’s also strong on a lot of the aspects we purposefully de-emphasize but others value, such as the chance to make a large-scale and sustainable contribution well beyond its budget (more). There’s only one problem: it’s in the sector of health system logistics.

It’s been observed before that fundraising seems to work best when you can connect a person’s gift to a tangible, emotional impact. Heifer International can tell you about the “cow you’re giving for Christmas” and how it (ideally) will affect its recipient’s life. Grameen Foundation has anecdotes (example) of women who’ve used a loan as a catalyst to pull themselves out of poverty. DonorsChoose can even arrange for you to get thank-you notes from the students you’ve bought supplies for.

VillageReach’s activities include

  • Training health system personnel to become logistics specialists, delivering medical supplies to all the hard-to-reach villages so that health workers working in remote health centers are no longer responsible for making the long journeys to collect their own supplies.
  • Developing logistics management information system software to enable more accurate collection and reporting of health data in remote communities.
  • Creating a social business to bring propane from south Mozambique to north Mozambique so that refrigerators in health centers can be more reliably powered, and can keep vaccines cold.

How do you tell that story?

One possible response is “Don’t.” In a world full of good causes, why worry about delivery systems, information management and propane in Mozambique, when we can focus on charities with more tangible, “sellable” work?

Yet we feel this response would be tantamount to defeat for the “smart giving” movement. VillageReach embodies the strengths this movement looks for – strengths that are all too hard to find most of the time. After all, if you’re bringing in tens of millions using a decades-old story, why bother with evaluation and accountability for the work happening today? What good is real impact if it isn’t rewarded with funding?

We want to see VillageReach turn its great program into a great pitch, but we’re no good at storytelling. So we’re asking for help.

If you are good at helping charities tell their stories, and you support the ideals of the “smart giving” movement, we’d like your thoughts on how VillageReach can better sell its work.

Give your advice via blog post, or blog comment, or email to us. If you make your own blog post, please make sure to notify us via email or by linking to your post in a comment here.

We’ll round up the best submissions in a future post.

Some basic materials to work off of:

Thanks to Katya Andresen for inspiring the title of this post


  • Very interesting concept. You are right that it can be hard to sell real solutions when donor-packaged ones can eat up the airways and people’s heartstrings.

    That said, there are always ideas and there may be ways to either tell the story or spice it up depending on your bent with such things. The importance imho is not to tell a false or different story, but to highlight the parts that might resonate.

    The initial question is: is VillageReach’s marketing really not that strong? I personally do like their tagline “going the last mile” although I admit that isn’t going to displace Heifer International.

    But then the second question is do you want or need to promote this good organisation to the masses for $5 and $20 donations or are there other funding channels that might be suitable and provide sufficient income? Certainly some donors like some of the bi- and multi-laterals or some corporations might appreciate the more sophisticated message, if told well. Do they need to be known? I guess that partially is a rhetorical question for this website though. But I guess it gets down to it, is their work something that can or needs to be scaled to every country? Do they need massive funding changes and therefore public exposure to do that? Just asking for the sake of it because it wasn’t clear in your posting.

    But if the answer is “yes” then, here’s a few random ideas.

    In general, I would split the activities and promote VillageReach’s work in them separately to the public or donor segments rather than trying to find one common thread that catches (and is catchy) them all.

    Just throwing out ideas quickly (so no hating them if they’re bad please!):
    – health personnel reaching hard-to-reach villages can potentially be sold on the rural healthcare angle. What end impact on the villagers does this improvement do? Surely it improves the access to needed medicine to the rural poor, or something similar. Or reference something people know, like FedEx and call them (this may be stepping too far) “barefoot logisticians”. Romanticize it a little. Anyway, one idea.
    – for the logistics management software, I would go for the tech-focused donors. There definitely is a smaller, but strongly interested niche for those interested in all things tech in development. ICT4D and other movements have quite a following and get a lot of attention on some sites and Twitter, etc. So selling the tech solution side of the work, tech software helping make medical care in poor communities better, I think could definitely find a market.
    – This last one should be much easier. You can definitely sell the idea of helping get vaccines to the needy. Plus some people like tech and people have heard the sad story before about villages around the world still being without power. So adding power to keep vaccines should go down well. Easy pictures of doctors in villages giving injections with a refrigerator soft focus in the foreground. Smiling kids.
    – And for that 3rd one also, there is definitely a niche investor/donor eating up anything social enterprise right now. If you told me this is a self-sustaining model where the investment could be a “self-playing piano” of local people making a business out of doing something good (selling propane for vaccines) we could definitely find you a line of people who would are eager for such things.

    So there’s some ideas to spark others. I’m sure their valuable work could be promoted to a larger audience.


  • I like McKay’s idea above of targeting marketing for individual projects – tech-savvy donors can get into the details of the logistics project more than a typical person-on-the-street, so they’re a great fit.

    VR’s current site (from a glance) definitely seems to be targeted towards people who already understand the problem – it leads with technical details and a fair amount of jargon. If they (or groups like them) *want* to go after the lower $ figure individual donors, I think that they need to start with the outcomes and the people whom they’re helping, as that’s the most accessible piece of their work.

    Having quotes from health workers about the before and after is a great emotional hook, so I say embrace the anecdote. Moreover, that language contains the seeds for the elevator pitch for work like this – “we support healthcare in remote areas; our ___ project has caused a ___% increase in vaccinations.”

    Details should absolutely be available, but not the first part of the pitch unless you’re talking to fellow experts or folks whom you know want that level of information.

  • Duane Kuroda on December 6, 2010 at 7:56 pm said:

    The question was a bit broad, so I tried to focus it for the response on my blog.

  • Ian Turner on December 7, 2010 at 12:37 am said:

    Develop an infomercial that explains the VillageReach model and farm it out to TV media outlets desperate for free, high-quality content.

  • Ian Turner on December 7, 2010 at 12:39 am said:

    Hrm, after reading Duane’s blog post above I see that that that’s essentially his proposal.

  • Vipul Naik on December 7, 2010 at 12:46 pm said:


    I’m a little concerned that this post and many others seem to be too much out-and-out promotion of VillageReach specifically. I’d suggest you avoid the impression that GiveWell is a forum or tool to raise money for VillageReach, and that you highlight your independence from them.

    The style of messaging is VillageReach’s problem, not yours. I think it’s best if GiveWell maintains its role as a critical evaluator of charities rather than trying to take on the dual role of helping them shape their messaging.

    What GiveWell could do is to invite more organizations (including professional and amateur news networks) to conduct their own independent investigations into VillageReach (which may result in the creation of videos) which GiveWell could then feature on its website and blog about.

  • Heifer International (HI) is an organization that claims to work against world hunger by donating animals to families in developing countries. Its catalog deceptively portrays beautiful children holding cute animals in seemingly humane circumstances. The marketing brochure for HI does not show the animals being transported, their living and slaughter conditions, or the erosion, pollution and water use caused by the introduction of these animals and their offspring.

    By definition, animals raised for food are exploited in a variety of ways. The animals shipped to developing countries are often subject to; water and food shortages, cruel procedures without painkillers, lack of veterinary care resulting in extended suffering as a result of illness or injury.

    A large percentage of the families receiving animals from HI are struggling to provide for themselves and cannot ensure adequate living conditions, nutrition, and medical care for animals they have been given. HI provides some initial veterinary training to individuals and the initial vaccines. But, long term care for these animals and their offspring is up to the individuals.

    To make matters worse, animal agriculture causes much more harm to the environment than plant-based agriculture. The fragile land in many of the regions HI is sending the animals cannot support animal agriculture. Although they say they encourage cut and carry feeding of the animals to avoid erosion, the reality is often quite different.

    The consumption of animal products has been shown in reputable studies to contribute significantly to life-threatening diseases such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and a variety of cancers. Regions that have adopted a diet with more animal products see an increase in these diseases. The remote communities supposedly served by HI have no way of dealing with the health consequences of joining the high-cholesterol world.

    While it may seem humane and sustainable to provide just one or two dairy cows here or there, the long term consequences are an increased desire for animal products in local cultures leading to an increase in production. These communities may be able to absorb the additional water use of one or two cows, what happens when there are hundreds or thousands of dairy cows, each consuming 27 to 50 gallons of fresh water and producing tons of excrement? The heavy cost to animals, the environment and local economies is not figured into HI’s business practices.

  • Alexander on December 7, 2010 at 5:56 pm said:

    I guess I disagree with Vipul – I see part of GiveWell’s mission as getting more funding for the organizations it recommends, and it seems to me that this post is in line with that goal. GiveWell could try to do the same thing for NFP, for instance, but they don’t have as much of a funding gap, and have a larger resource pool already.

    That said, I think that some answers to this question might not be in line with GiveWell’s overall mission. Cute pictures are fine, but some infomercials, for instance, probably do more harm than good because they train donors to expect the wrong information. There may be a fine line between meeting potential donors where they are and sending the wrong messages, but I don’t think we have a choice but to confront it.

    I’m still thinking about how VillageReach might do so – my intuition is that it is about relationships more than any particular pitch.

  • Carrick on December 8, 2010 at 2:39 pm said:

    I agree that it’s really VillageReach that has to ask this question, since I, too, like the idea of GiveWell maintaining its image as an independent, unbiased source.

    Additionally, as much as I love the opportunity to answer this question (given that story-telling does happen to be my area of expertise), I would think that both GiveWell and VillageReach would surely be able to get an advertising, PR, or marketing agency to do some pro bono work for them. Just as international aid should be left to the experts, so should advertising and marketing.

    But since you asked, I concur with everyone else: keep it as personal and as anecdotal as possible. You say that telling the story of health system logistics is a problem, but there are lots of complex industries that have effective, simple advertising campaigns. Personally, I would just tell the before and after stories of a few individuals—not the health workers, but a member or two of the communities your serve—then just assert that this program is the most effective means of creating more “after”’s than any other. If people really care how, they’ll investigate on the website, but for advertising purposes, I’d keep statistics to a minimum (think “Four out of five dentists recommend Colgate!”).

    You might think this it’s “dumbing it down,” but it’s really just making it emotional, and that’s how we’re wired as humans. As Mother Theresa said, “I never look at the masses as my responsibility; I look at the individual.”

    In shaping the stories of the individuals, I would err on the side of making them as harrowing as possible, like Slumdog Millionaire, which prompted a huge outpouring of donations to Indian charities. I know this makes aid workers cry “poverty porn,” but I’m sorry; I don’t see how telling the truth is exploitative. The fact that citizens of developed countries are so far away from how much of the world lives is precisely why we’re so cavalier about their suffering—and thus ungenerous with our donations. Plus, I would think there’s at least one person in one of your communities who wants their story to be told. But if you guys are sensitive about this issue, you could even do fictional stories—just like most commercials.

    As for how to tell the stories, I would remember the usual guideline: establish a character who is striving for an objective against enormous odds. For instance, the VillageReach website contains a story about a woman they serve, and although her circumstances certainly sound terrible, they’re not described in a compelling way—nor does it describe the tremendous benefit VillageReach has to her life. If anything, it suggests that VillageReach isn’t doing enough for her, since she still has to walk two hours to get to the health center. Personally, I would tell the story of someone who suffered and struggled, and then finally found VillageReach, which saved them or their child’s life. (Seven Samurai is a great example of a story like, I think.)

    I think it’s important to tell a story like that because we’ve all become inured, unfortunately, to mere photographs of poor, even starving children. I think it best to take the next step and establish a character that we’re on a journey with, whom we can root for with all our heart.

    The shape that all this takes really depends on what your outlet is, i.e. the form of media it takes. Commercial? Website? YouTube videos? I would keep the personal and anecdotal no matter what form it takes, but an expert would have to tell you which format(s) would be most effective.

  • Carrick on December 8, 2010 at 3:09 pm said:

    Sorry, just one more thing: in terms of different incentives for people to give, beyond telling stories, why not rip off the very examples you mentioned? Give donors the option to “buy a vaccine” for a child for $30 (or whatever). (Yes, I know it’s misleading, but if that’s the literal cost of a vaccine, it’s still truthful). Arrange for thank you notes from mothers or children who got the vaccines. (Yes, I know some people find that exploitative, but hey, you were the one who mentioned it as an example.)

  • Ok, bunch of thoughts that were way too long for a comment so I put it in a blog post:

  • Susan Schindehette on December 14, 2010 at 5:17 pm said:

    I recently left Time Inc. after a 32-year career– the last 15 as top human-interest writer at People magazine, where I wrote for a weekly audience of 43 million.

    This single story in 2005 on a pediatric hospice in San Leandro, Calif. brought in $2 million in unsolicited donations, 5,000 inquiries– and a two-hour phone call to the story’s subject from Johnny Depp. Here’s the case study:

    Certainly the story’s impact was at least in part due to People’s juggernaut PR and marketing expertise. But not EVERY People human interest story drew response of that magnitude. Its success also had to do with the quality of the story– and the storytelling.

    There’s a reason that the country’s most profitable magazine was named “People” instead of “Organization.” It’s through storytelling that we humans come to know and really connect with each other. The People edit staff stuck– relentlessly– to our brand, and a proven formula: Want to publicize Breast Cancer Awareness Week? Find the compelling story of a young mother of triplets who’s grappling with the prospect of a prophylactic double mastectomy.

    Of COURSE donors need to know about the metrics and mechanics of even the best NGOs. But first, as PT Barnum said, you have to get the folks into the tent.

    Village Reach says that it trains “health system personnel to become logistics specialists, delivering medical supplies to all the hard-to-reach villages so that health workers working in remote health centers are no longer responsible for making the long journeys to collect their own supplies.” HELLO!!? That’s what, in the business, we call a “story”!

    Find one of these workers who’s from humble beginnings herself, get her a Flipcam and have her shoot away. See the world through her eyes, from her own hardscrabble home, through her journey for Village Reach, and then end the story with a little baby in her lap who’s going to live because of the medical supplies she just delivered. Voiceover: “I know what it means to be sick with no medicine. And it’s a good thing to make sure that won’t happen to her.” Voila!– a beginning, a middle and an ending. That’s what stories are. (AND NO TALKING HEADS– at least not here!)

    Another caveat: NEVER “LEAD” WITH MISERY. It turns people off. If you want to engage someone emotionally (and that’s the Holy Grail), don’t tell them about how hard someone’s crying. Show them how hard that person is trying NOT to cry.

    Importantly, this Village Reach worker doesn’t have to be a professional journalist or videographer. In fact, it’s better if she’s not– more AUTHENTIC. Here in the US, find a tech-savvy kid who’s in filmmaking school, or starting out at an ad agency– (run a listing on and you’ll be inundated) to volunteer to edit, add a soundtrack and “produce” the content. Won’t cost you anything, and the kid gets a nice jewel for her resume: production of a globally-distributed multimedia piece for a respected international aid organization. Everybody wins.

    Here’s an example that you can almost use as a template: This 5-minute video is the product of a trip that some friends and I took to Guatemala in ’09. We had a Flip, passed it around to a bunch of little Mayan kids who’d never seen a wristwatch before, and then “produced” it into this final product.

    Village Reach should do the same thing: use personal elements to sell an organization– in our case, it was Lead with your new video on your site, and THEN link to the more programmatic info, or whatever else you want. In People parlance, this structure is called the “lead,” and the “sidebars.” (Note that the hospice story above also was about an institution—but told through the interweaving of a bunch of personal stories, including Caitlin.)

    This challenge is very close to my heart, since I’m currently working on the start-up of– a global portal designed to provide top-tier, professional-quality storytelling not just about NGOs, but about the 3 billion people in the world whose lives are largely ignored by mainstream media.

    Village Reach could absolutely do what we did in our Guatemala module to bring attention to the local NGO, volunteers, issues of water, sanitation and health. We did it by starting with the story of one little girl who’s going to the dentist for the first time in her life– take a look at where you can go from there. Here’s the Guatemala module on MiWorld:

    Check the “The Stories” link and you’ll see what I mean. Also, the video segments on the Video Wall were all shot & uploaded within 24 hours by the head of the stove project NGO after I Fedexed her a Flip!

    [FYI, the Coca-Cola logo is featured because we’re going to be self-monetized through corporate advertiser partnerships– you’ll be able to one-click appropriate goods, baby shoes, tractors, whatever– anywhere in the word. After-tax profits derived from ad revenues will be directed to sustainable development initiatives in underserved regions, foreign and domestic.]

    Seth Godin says that in this over-branded world, the only way to get anybody to buy anything is to make them feel part of a “tribe.” Listen to him. Figure out who your people are, and reach out to them. Tell them about yourself, sure. But nobody likes a self-promoting gabber at a cocktail party who’s only talking about himself. Everyone flocks to the guy who’s telling the marvelous stories.

    I’m working on start-up funding for MiWorld at the moment, and am strapped. But if you DO decide to go this route, we might be able to help you shape it– and get it up as another pilot program on our site.

    In any case, GREAT blog, TERRIFIC Village Reach, and thanks beyond words for allowing us to share.

  • Robert Mundy on December 15, 2010 at 9:33 pm said:

    I agree that VillageReach has something of an image problem. As Alice points out, their website comes off as business-oriented and exceedingly technical. Even though I had already read GiveWell’s glowing review by the time I found their site the first time, I was still bored. I found myself supporting their work on principle, but I couldn’t exactly feel inspired by what they were doing.

    That being said, let’s take a hypothetical. If VillageReach decided today to create the most esoteric, technical, arcane lifesaving program ever to exist—but still succeeded in saving lives at a low cost—then that program would still objectively be a great thing. Lives saved are still lives saved. We accept this. And so do donors. So even if VR engaged in significantly more complex work than it already does, that fact alone wouldn’t necessarily stop people from donating. The trouble is convincing people to notice that lives are being saved, and then convince them that additional people can be saved by a specific endeavor that anyone can support.

    It’s much more fun to imagine that something beautiful and simple leads to great progress. We can intuitively “get” what a cow means, or a laptop, or a bednet. I think we lack a conceptual categorization for the vast network of health logistics, though. So we don’t notice when such a concept is saving lives by the hundreds, perhaps even the thousands.

    But while I can’t “feel” what logistics can accomplish, I can still appreciate it. For one, I can read GiveWell’s review. That deals with the “convincing” part. But what can VillageReach itself do to encourage donors to appreciate their work and support it?

    While we can rationally assume that VillageReach is saving lives (thanks in large part to GiveWell), feeling that significance is probably the real problem. I don’t think very many people are good at envisioning what a life saved actually means. I know I’m not. How can I envision the feeling a doctor gets from saving a patient’s life? Or an aid worker’s elation at watching hospital mortality rates decline? I don’t now. I’m not a doctor, and I’m not an aid worker. Most of us aren’t. But I want to know. In large part, that’s why I donate. I would listen very carefully if someone told me.

    I want to hear from the people that make VillageReach possible. They can explain how they themselves benefit from their work—and how if you contribute to the cause, you can benefit too. This isn’t to say that charity is about getting, not giving. It’s to say that charity is quite obviously both. If VillageReach wants to tell a story, it should tell its own: the story that begins with a group of compassionate people who wanted to take the technical artform of health logistics and transform it into a potent lifesaving model. It’s a story that includes lots of successes, but it hasn’t ended yet. It needs donor support if anyone wants to get to the conclusion. If VillageReach staffmembers can leverage their experience to explain why health logistics matter to them, and GiveWell can prove that whatever health logistics is, it sure as hell is working, I think donors will be able to connect to VillageReach’s project.
    I think brief interviews with VillageReach founders will dispel the cloud of complexity that surrounds the charity’s programs and remind donors why anyone started VillageReach in the first place—and why that work deserves to continue.

  • VillageReach does have a photo and video gallery on their site,, as well as a youtube channel:

    Multimedia presentations are not the end-all, be-all of nonprofit marketing. Especially for niche nonprofits, relationship building with donors is probably the most important way to bring in funds. Marketing and communications are always an important piece of the puzzle, but are often sacrificed when time and budget constraints are tight.

  • Thanks for all the responses. We summarized responses at our roundup.

    Vipul, I see where you’re coming from, but I stand by this post. The reason that we, instead of VillageReach, issued this request is that

    • We have a different readership & community than VillageReach, one which may turn up some interesting insights. We feel we should be using every resource at our disposal to help our top-rated charities raise more money.
    • We’re interested in the topic ourselves, perhaps more than VillageReach is (though they signed off on the idea and informed us that they welcome the feedback). The question of how to turn an effective but “unsexy” program into a story that can spread has general implications for our work.

    More broadly, when we see a real funding gap for an outstanding charity, we feel we ought to do what we can to close the gap. Our reason for existence is to change the incentives for charities so that they are rewarded for doing demonstrably outstanding work; the more money we can drive (in any way) to our top charities, the further we move on that goal. There are major short-term stakes as well: the more we can demonstrate the charities benefit from our recommendations, the better our access to information.

    Our support for VillageReach is wholly contingent on our assessment of it as our top-ranked charity, and this assessment comes under constant review. As long as it is our top-rated charity, though, and as long as we are clear about who is supporting it and why, I don’t see why any particular form of support – press releases, personal appeals, asking relevant contacts for advice on fundraising – should be off limits.

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