The GiveWell Blog

The best charity that no one has heard of: Response roundup

Two weeks ago, we issued a challenge for people to help our top-rated charity, VillageReach, tell its story in a more compelling way. We got a lot of responses, many of them very thoughtful and interesting. Here’s a summary.

Making it personal (and tangible)

Many of the suggestions revolved around telling tangible, personal stories of individuals, something that there isn’t much of in VillageReach’s current website content. As Carrie (who emailed in) said, “Individual givers want to save kids and moms and dads with faces and names; and hear their stories in not just facts, but feelings.”

Katya Andresen of Network for Good suggests telling the story of a health worker:

if UPS can build a brand around its brown-clad delivery folks, surely VillageReach can spin some amazing tales about the brave people driving trucks into the middle of nowhere with life-saving vaccines on board. Go out and interview everyone who moves supplies around Mozambique and ask them what it’s like to be behind the wheel of hope. That’s a story I want to hear – and a cause I want to fund.

Commenter Susan Schindehette makes a similar proposal, with specific ideas for how to create a compelling video. Excerpt:

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.”

Commenter Robert Mundy also supports this idea, writing, “I want to hear from the people that make VillageReach possible.”

Commenter Carrick prefers to hear from the beneficiaries of improved health systems (i.e., the people whose lives/family members’ lives were saved), rather than the workers. Carrick critiques the story currently on VillageReach Focus, writing:

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.

On the tangibility front, Katya wonders if VillageReach’s emphasis on tracking could help:

Because VillageReach is about logistics, what if you used that as a huge advantage? You can put a map up and show, in near real time – what supplies are being moved where thanks to donor support.

Keeping it simple

Several critiqued the complexity and difficulty of VillageReach’s current web content. Jeff Brooks of Future Fundraising Now writes:

The website resolutely refuses to speak the language of ordinary people. It’s squarely aimed at experts and insiders … VillageReach is like a smart, geeky, promising adolescent; they are apparently not interested in connecting with people outside their circle …

Complexity may be necessary to accomplish program goals, but it kills fundraising. Simplify! …

If the “smart giving” movement is going to be any more than a euphemism for the “stupid marketing” movement, nonprofits like VillageReach are going to have to grow up, go beyond themselves, swallow their pride, and enter the world of real-life donors.

Commenters Robert Mundy and Alice agree that the current website comes off as technical and jargony. So does emailer Carrie:

Cold chain supply? rMIS? openLMIS? Great system names, but they leave a black hole in the reader’s mind. Descriptive names would have more appeal and create understanding. Your corporate donors on the other hand may be fascinated by the buzz words. Save it for them in – speeches or special collateral outreach.

On the topic of simplicity, I was particularly intrigued by Duane Kuroda’s claim:

Impact and results by a charity satisfy something I call the minimum logic requirement – that minimum about of proof where a donation is not a bad idea, and the charity has more or less equal footing for donation $. Then, the emotional aspect can kick in. If a donor has to choose from charity A or B after the logical stats have been evaluated, then the one with the biggest emotional response has the best chance.

Obviously, I don’t see myself – or most GiveWell donors – as following this pattern. But it may be true that the vast majority of donors do, and this would pose a substantial challenge to the “smart giving” movement.

Putting the emphasis on donors & fundraising

Brigid Slipka feels that the website is not aggressive enough in soliciting donations:

ASK. ASK. ASK. Go through website page by page and every time you are making a case for what VillageReach achieves, end it with an ask. Be specific: “Be a part of our success story by giving a donation today” and link directly to donation page. After a while, you can use Google Analytics to see which donation links are clicked on the most. Keep those and remove the others.

She makes a large number of specific suggestions throughout the website, which we recommend that anyone interested in the details of this case check out.

Sean Stannard-Stockton writes:

My suggestion for Village Reach, and for any nonprofit struggling to raise money in support of effective programs, is to realize that donors want to become a part of your story. As consumers, people buy products which help them be the person they want to be. I believe that donors want to do the same thing. We donate as a way to “self-actualize”, to most fully become the person we believe we are.

If the smart giving movement wants a world full of robust nonprofits, we need to recognize that sales and marketing is just as critical of a business function as program development and delivery.

How important is it to improve the messaging?

Commenters Alexander and McKay question the premise of our challenge, asking whether VillageReach really wants to be targeting the masses and saying that relationships – including with larger funders – may be more key to VillageReach’s fundraising than how it tells its story.

On the flip side, commenter Susan Schindehette on our blog and commenter Bo on Katya’s blog express conviction that there is a strong, emotionally compelling story here if it can be told right. Susan writes:

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”!

Bottom line

We really appreciate all the feedback, although it’s going to be up to VillageReach whether and how it ultimately wants to change its storytelling.

Overall, I think these responses are an interesting illustration of the challenges faced by the “smart giving” movement. We want to help donors give to projects that are more impactful, and more in need of funds, than where they give now. Yet for the vast majority of donors, the most compelling pitches are likely to revolve around the tangible, the specific and the simple – all of which describe the opposite of a good impact evaluation.

To my mind, that’s a substantial tension, and a good reason for those interested in “smart giving” to think of themselves – at least for the foreseeable future – as targeting a niche market, not the general population.


  • Bradley Monton on December 20, 2010 at 12:55 pm said:

    There are many great thoughts in this post. For the record, though, it doesn’t have to be up to VillageReach to tell stories in the ways suggested. Just as independent 527 organizations promote certain political candidates in the U.S., anyone could decide to promote VillageReach by following one of the suggestions above.

    Of course, there’s a sense in which GiveWell is already an independent group supporting VillageReach. That leads to a kind of meta-way to promote VillageReach: tell GiveWell’s story. “Two pessimistic guys from the hedge-fund industry go looking for a charity that has actual evidence that it’s doing good, and after a lot of sifting they find something that works.” I wouldn’t be surprised if that sort of story ends up doing more for VillageReach than whatever personalized stories start getting told based on the suggestions above.

    There are lots of personalized stories out there, and charities like Heifer International and Smile Train have done a really good job telling them. I worry that VillageReach will be competing in an already crowded marketplace if that’s the marketing route that they take. Perhaps it’s just a fact about human psychology that that sort of marketing has to be done if one wants to be effective. But there has to be something that can distinguish VillageReach from those other sorts of charities, and a least part of the pro-VillageRearch marketing has to focus on what’s distinctive.

  • Carrick on December 20, 2010 at 7:48 pm said:

    Holden, I totally sympathize with your chagrin that donors are run more by their hearts than their minds. Personally, I would say that it’s my heart that kick-starts my motivation to give, but it’s my mind that decides whom I should give to, and I, too, am perplexed that most people apparently don’t do the same.

    On another note, as Bradley mentions above, we can promote Village Reach ourselves, as individuals, and this exercise has inspired me to do just that.

  • K Harmon on December 21, 2010 at 12:48 pm said:

    I am so curious to know if VillageReach asked you to solicit feedback?

  • Andrew S. on December 21, 2010 at 7:30 pm said:

    These points bring to mind the recent book by economist Bryan Caplan, “The Myth of the Rational Voter.” To Caplan’s view, voters often express “preferences” (which are largely about self-image and group membership) over “factual views” when voting. Caplan argues that this is unsurprising, given that the “price of irrationality” in a large-scale election is so low. That is, the chance that one’s vote will be decisive in bringing about a policy that one prefers emotionally, but that is actually harmful to one’s self-interest, is effectively zero. In other words, being a moron because it feels good is free. Thus, he says, one observes consumers displaying highly acute (if implicit) judgment when it comes to personal market decisions that affect their well-being, but turning into highly irrational voters on election day.

    Charitable giving isn’t voting. For one thing, it’s one person, one vote; it isn’t one person, one dollar/donation. For another thing, giving isn’t a winner-take-all system like voting can be: even the possibly small percentage of donor dollars that are susceptible to good data is worth a lot.

    But Caplan’s point still seems pretty apt: since most donors do not see a direct and immediate connection between their donation and some modest additional good in an often massively un-good world, the implicit “price of irrationality” is extremely low. And, to the extent that donors are “buying” into self-image and group membership, rather than an objectively maximized diminution of bad things, factual analysis does little to sway them.

    In the case of politics, the good-hearted and skillful politician identifies the rationally optimal policies, but then sells those policies with emotional appeals that have little to do with the underlying data. The good-hearted and feckless politician tries to appeal to voters with charts and reason.

    These views lead Caplan to some disturbing and (to me) objectionable conclusions. But they also make some powerful arguments about voting behavior…and possibly about giving behavior. A traditional economist or good government advocate would argue that bad policy is the result of woeful voter ignorance, which can be addressed with more education or improved turnout or something else. Caplan argues that bad policy is structural and persistent. He might say the same about bad giving.

  • Posts like this make me even more excited about GiveWell. I love what you do.

    @Bradley, great points.

  • K Harmon: we had the idea for this appeal for advice (it came from conversations with Sean Stannard-Stockton and Katya Andresen). We asked VillageReach how they felt about it and they said they signed off and said they were open to feedback.

    Thanks to the other commenters for your thoughts as well. Re: whether getting donors to give based on impact is futile – my current view is that we can definitely get some donors to give based on impact, even if they’re a small minority. These impact-focused “early adopters” may provide other forms of support such as marketing advice and – very importantly – personal relationships with other donors. We won’t change the way everyone gives, but we don’t need to in order to have a substantial impact and help a lot of people. That’s the goal.

  • You guys are funny. Get back to work.

  • There is a standard,specific and completely accessible structure for developing case statements. They need to understand that what they have on their website are their programs, and how you raise big bucks is by generating appeal. If their target audience is say surgeons and they are only going to solicit funds from surgeons and medical professionals (seems silly, but maybe that’s the case), then they need to capture real life narratives about a medical professional or an acute patient including names and circumstantial details that illustrate a real time impact their program had in the world. Statistics also tell a story. 1,000 human beings in Somalia lived last year because we were able to supply them with these (show a picture of some medical device no one would recognize) and say you specialize in providing remote villages with specialized medical products. They also don’t have the simplest of simple outreach programs. A Facebook Page and a blog. Please. Care a little bit about your donors and prospective donors. Let me into your world. Another statistic: (Foreign Country)has 90 more doctors today than it did last year because Village Reach moves medicine to where its needed. A simple statistical narrative with catchy memorable appeal phrase. Come on people. This ain’t rocket science. Where is their fundraising committee?? Development Professional??

  • Natalie on January 17, 2011 at 11:10 am said:

    The following comment is from a reader from Ann Arbor, MI.

    I love the ideas contributed by the Time Mag. Retiree. The only thing I could add to his suggestions would be to explain it this way:

    ‘Remember when local doctors were the only ones with reliable transportation, and they aided the rural communities by making house calls? It is still that way in many parts of the world. With 11% of the world’s population and only 3% of the world’s doctors, these brave doctors and nurses need your support to help complete their mission. Help them by enabling the delivery of valuable medicines where they are most needed.’

    (Show images of the doctors in the facilities and the people leaning out the doors to their homes, even a helicopter delivering to a village). Also use donation categories like those suggested by another reader, not sure of their expenses, but possible categories:

    One Time Contribution:
    $30 Vaccine
    $50 Vehicle Maintenance

    Monthly Contribution:
    $15 per month to support a village health care facility
    ‘With only 50 cents a day you could bring life saving medicines to these remote communities.’

    I remember hearing that there are over 1 million charities in the US alone. You have to make it personal.

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