The GiveWell Blog

Guest post from Eric Friedman

This is a guest post from Eric Friedman about how he decided what charity to support for his most recent donation. We requested this post along the lines of earlier posts by Jason Fehr, Ian Turner and Dario Amodei.

In 2003, I decided that I wanted to increase the amount of money I gave away, shortly after a two-week trip to India. It was there that I saw a level of poverty beyond the scope of anything I had ever seen in America, and I privately vowed that I could not stand by idly.

When I returned home to Chicago, I tried to figure out the most effective way to give and the best organizations to support. Before my trip to India, I had made a few $100-$200 gifts that I later regretted, and this time around I was not going to give away a dime until I was convinced that my donation would be used well. Unfortunately, I was not able to find the information I needed to be comfortable making a donation. Despite the promise I had made to myself, I gave nothing.

Fast forward a year, and the big tsunami hit east Asia in December 2004. The images on tv motivated me to give $1,000 to an organization well-known for disaster relief, and that reminded me that I had not done what I planned on doing after returning from India. Although I restarted my research to find an organization I wanted to give more to, I couldn’t figure out which organizations were strong. Everything seemed like fluff, and there was no “Consumer Reports” for nonprofits. I barely gave anything in 2005.

By 2006, I came to realize that there wasn’t much high-quality information on which nonprofits performed best, so if I wanted to give, I’d have to make do without it. Inaction was unacceptable, so I developed a plan. I started with the American Institute of Philanthropy, which rates organizations on financial efficiency metrics such as percentage of costs that go towards fundraising and overhead. This provided a starting point to identify organizations that might be good, then I reviewed their websites to pick three that I liked. I knew that this was not a particularly rigorous screen, but it was the best I knew how to do at the time. In 2006, I gave $2,500 to CARE, $2,500 to Africare, and $1,000 to Freedom from Hunger.

I figured that donations of this size might draw enough attention to have a serious discussion with their staff. I spoke with each organization, but was unsatisfied with all of the conversations. Whenever I asked them about how to provide the most help for people or evaluate them against other organizations, their responses were inadequate. They were filled with anecdotes about individuals they’ve helped and inspirational stories, but not much information that would genuinely help answer my questions. I was quite surprised when some of them actually asked what I liked most among their set of programs (e.g. education, clean water, healthcare, emergency relief, etc). Weren’t they supposed to be more knowledgeable than me about which of these is most effective?

I asked if other donors asked these types of questions, and they said that it was rare. I asked if big, sophisticated foundations ask these types of questions. They didn’t either. I found that to be exceptionally odd. (Ed note: this was similar to GiveWell staff’s experience before starting GiveWell. See Elie’s blog post from February 2007) (Since then, I’ve asked several different nonprofits about the grant-making process and post-grant relationships they have with big foundations, and there appears to be a surprisingly small amount of value-added in the process. In some cases, the foundations are actually requiring the nonprofits to spend the grants on things the nonprofits don’t think will best help the intended recipients.)

I also spoke with a couple of philanthropy consultants, who I expected to be better at evaluating organizations and selecting priorities. I was disappointed. Usually they would turn the question on me and ask what types of programs and organizations interested me. I explained that I wanted to support programs that were most effective at helping people and organizations that were best at executing those programs, and I was looking for information on how to do that. Other than that, I didn’t really care what type of program or organization it was. While that seemed relatively basic to me, it appeared as if I was speaking a different language. One told me that I needed to figure out what my objectives were, though I thought I had stated them clearly. A couple were somewhat condescending—implying that they were the experts and I was the one who needed help. Their responses to my questions didn’t give me much confidence in their expertise. I wondered if I was the only donor trying to structure my giving around what the world needed rather than my personal interests. (Ed note: for more, see this Tactical Philanthropy post on the rarity of issue agnostic giving.)

Maybe I was being too critical. I knew that I wasn’t asking easy questions, but they also didn’t seem unfair. I wasn’t expecting an objectively perfect answer, but just something better than I got.

A turning point happened a few weeks later. My contact at Freedom from Hunger called me to see if I wanted to meet their CEO, who was going to be in my hometown for a conference. We had a great discussion for about an hour and a half in a hotel lobby, and it became clear to me that he understood what I was trying to do and thought about many of the same issues when running Freedom from Hunger. While I still didn’t know how to evaluate the quality of programs at different organizations, I found one that had shared many aspects of my philosophy. In 2007, I donated $25,000.

Based on the information I had at the time, there was no organization I believed in more than Freedom from Hunger.

In early 2007, my life took a turn for the better: I met the woman who is now my wife. In 2008, Freedom from Hunger offered us the opportunity to join them (at our expense) on a site visit to some of their programs in Ghana. During our time there, we spent a significant amount of time with some of their senior staff (including the CEO), three board members, program staff, and their clients. We saw the programs in action, which increased our conviction in what they do.

We gave another $28,000 to Freedom from Hunger in 2008.

I started following GiveWell in 2009. It was clear from their blog that we shared similar values, and I loved what they were trying to do. But I disagreed with some aspects of their approach. Their emphasis on measurement seemed excessive. This approach had a built-in bias towards smaller, single-program organizations that could measure their impact more precisely. I wasn’t convinced that there weren’t economies of scale in international development. And their focus on scaling up existing solutions and excluding funding unproven innovations seemed incomplete. While I liked what they were doing, I still had more conviction in my own ability to pick organizations.

We gave Freedom from Hunger another $27,000 in 2009.

As I continued to follow GiveWell’s blog in 2010, I became more persuaded toward their views on areas where I previously disagreed. There were still differences of opinion, but I was also coming to realize that their skill in selecting organizations far exceeded mine. It was humbling to realize that someone else is better at something I had put so much thought into.

At that time, GiveWell had not evaluated Freedom from Hunger. For the first time in several years, I wasn’t sure where to donate to. I had a very candid conversation with Freedom from Hunger about this predicament, and they offered to have GiveWell evaluate them. GiveWell was also willing to do the evaluation—they already wanted to learn more about Freedom from Hunger independent of me.

The evaluation resulted in a “notable” rating, which is better than the vast majority of the organizations GiveWell considers, but also not nearly as strong as Gold.

My wife and I liked the people at Freedom from Hunger and had become personally connected with them, especially with the site visit to Ghana. They are extraordinary people who have devoted their lives to helping others, and they are really good at what they do. They might be the best at their specific niche in the nonprofit world. Despite this, GiveWell’s review suggested that there might be organizations in different niches that have a greater possibility of generating results. If helping others was a sport, Freedom from Hunger is good enough to qualify for the Olympics, but it didn’t win the Gold.

My wife and I had several conversations about what to do. Freedom from Hunger did nothing wrong and we had no regrets about our prior donations. They were our friends, and we had enough of a relationship with them that if we shifted our donations elsewhere, we’d have to explain why.

Eventually, we decided that there was one fundamental principle we should apply: giving was primarily about helping the less fortunate, not our friendships or personal interests. Breaking up with Freedom from Hunger would be hard. I explained our reasoning and they took it in stride, demonstrating that they care more about the less fortunate than their own institutional growth. They are a good group. But in 2010, we gave about $31,000 to GiveWell’s donor advised fund to ultimately be distributed as they recommended.

I imagine that there are other donors who read this blog, but donate to many organizations that are not recommended by GiveWell. While I don’t want to oversimplify the decision-making involved with large charitable gifts or pretend that I have all the answers, I will offer two pieces of advice.

First, know what you’re trying to do. I’ve heard many people say that philanthropy is very personal. I understand that view, and my own giving is close to my heart. But if giving is primarily about helping others, then that the most important component of giving should be about other people. That is, the donor’s personal friendships, interests, and passions should take a back seat. Although you may feel a close connection to a school you attended, an illness that affected a family member, or a community you live in, those may not be the areas positioned to provide the most help for others. Instead, donors primarily focused on helping others should identify the greatest areas of need and the most effective solutions. It can be tough to put other people’s needs over ours, but, ironically, it makes most donors feel better about giving in the end. I certainly do.

Second, know when someone else has more expertise than you. I originally viewed Freedom from Hunger as the best organization I could identify based on the information available to me at the time. And I had thought about it a lot. So it was personally challenging for me to acknowledge that GiveWell is better at evaluating charitable organizations. Neither my wife nor I agree with every aspect of GiveWell’s philosophy and approach—I doubt there is anyone who does—but the strengths they have seemed more than enough to outweigh any weaknesses we perceived. There is a certain pride of ownership many donors (including me) have as they develop their own philanthropic paths, and I’d encourage them to critically self-evaluate to make sure pride of ownership doesn’t get in the way of incorporating the expertise of others.

I am extremely appreciative for the work GiveWell has done to provide resources that were not available at the time I started giving. I get more personal satisfaction from knowing that my giving is doing more to help others, and I will have fewer reservations about opening my wallet wider in the future. To be completely frank, one thing that confuses me is why foundations and mega-donors making million-plus dollar gifts apparently make little use of GiveWell. I hope and expect this to change over time.


  • Vipul Naik on June 23, 2011 at 9:39 am said:

    Spelling error in your first Ed Note: you wrote “staring” instead of “starting”

  • Chuck S'r on June 26, 2011 at 12:41 pm said:

    Dear Mr. Friedman, the human and intelligent description of your frustrations following your donations in 2006 is very plausible and is for me somewhat touching.

    Throughout your post there are expressions of a gracious human being.

    Thank you.

  • Chris Dunford, Freedom from Hunger on July 1, 2011 at 8:57 pm said:

    Dear Eric,

    You and I already have had a deep discussion by phone about this matter long before you wrote this blog post, but I would like to state publicly my personal admiration for both your thoughtful, careful approach to philanthropy. Too often, donors (even institutional grantmakers, as you suggest) act on what seems like whimsical emotion rather than rational calculation. You two are to be applauded for putting evidence before personal relationship as the decisive factor in your decision-making. And it is true that GiveWell appears to offer the most evidence-based approach to determining which organizations are most effectively helping the less fortunate.

    However, “helping the less fortunate” is a multi-dimensional task, and I do not believe GiveWell has yet captured this complexity in its assessments of organizational effectiveness. What GiveWell is especially good at is identifying organizations that have built programs based on solid evidence of impact and then have used that scientific evidence to construct meaningful quality assurance systems to make sure that their programs consistently deliver services in the way that the impact research has shown to be effective.

    That there are so few such organizations identified by GiveWell is troubling, however. One could say this is a very poor reflection on the state of international development efforts. But it may also be a negative reflection on the suitability of the GiveWell approach. That is, only the Cadillacs and Rolls Royces can capture the gold, and there are few of these on the road for some good reasons, not just because international development practitioners are sloppy stewards of donor funds.

    GiveWell’s system overweights the one dimension of impact and seems to ignore two other key dimensions — scale and sustainability. The Cadillac programs in international development typically are small in scale of outreach to intended beneficiaries, because they are expensive. There is a trade-off between the high cost of proving and constantly assuring impact (though I believe this is crucial and therefore applaud GiveWell’s attention to this dimension) and the abilty of organizations to reduce their costs per person served in order to reach large numbers of people in need. Moreover, this trade-off is even more pronounced if the organization is trying to sustain its outreach over years or decades without endless dependence on philanthropic subsidy. I would argue that Freedom from Hunger does not qualify for better than “notable” rating by GiveWell, because we are trying to support a variety of local organizations to pursue a multi-dimensional balance between assurance of impact, scale of outreach and sustainability of operations over long periods of time. Being “notable” in each of these dimensions would be high praise indeed.

    Personal relationships may not be valid determinants of philanthropic action, but personal interests cannot be eliminated. In fact, they are indispensable for making the very tough, stubbornly intuitive decisions about one’s philanthropic strategy in a multi-dimensional and still uncertain world of people striving both to do better (the poor) and to do good (the better off who would help the poor). A donor should have a theory of change, but each theory comes with some assumptions and biases about what will help most. There is no one theory and certainly no absolutes–development is all about people, and therefore harder than rocket science.

    By depending solely on GiveWell’s assessments (which is a reasonable decision), you are choosing a particular bias and set of assumptions constituting a theory of change that overweights impact at the expense of scale and sustainability. This is a subjective rather than an objective choice, and I deeply respect your transparency and thoughtfulness in making that choice.

    Your donations have done and will continue to do a great deal of good for the very poor of this world (even if you cannot always be sure of that!). Thank you!



  • Samuel Lee on July 2, 2011 at 3:21 am said:

    Eric, thanks for sharing. I also wrestled with rejecting my own work in favor of GiveWell’s analysis. But I did, and I think the world is a tiny bit better for it. And that’s all that matters.

  • Jonathan Lewis on July 3, 2011 at 12:32 am said:

    Hi, Eric. Let me salute your very thoughtful, considered blog post. An eye-opener for many, I am sure. And, so reflective of the process that so many of us experience as well.

    I am in the process of blogging at the Huffington Post on this very subject ( I won’t duplicate that effort. Please do read my thoughts.

    My only caution is that you have elected to outsource your own judgment as well as your trusted confidence in programs you know in favor of robotic analysis. Poverty is multi-disclinary in nature, and narrow analytics may not be the evalution cure-all you seek. Think about it.

    Best of luck, and thanks for your heart and your goodness.

  • Holden on July 6, 2011 at 10:42 am said:

    Chris, thanks for the thoughtful comment. We agree that some of the key decisions here come down to one’s subjective worldview rather than simply to facts, and we’re glad that you’ve highlighted this and shared your own perspective.

  • Boris Yakubchik on July 6, 2011 at 12:14 pm said:

    Eric, thank you for sharing your story.

    I wholeheartedly agree with your advice: “But if giving is primarily about helping others, then that the most important component of giving should be about other people” and I too am very thankful that GiveWell provides support to those with a similar mindset.

  • mtporter on August 16, 2013 at 2:54 pm said:

    I found my way to this essay after reading about Friedman’s forthcoming book on this topic. I’m a follower of Peter Singer’s work, and I’ve seen comparisons between his work and Friedman’s utilitarian-rationalist analytic approach.

    Based on this essay (though I look forward to seeing these points developed further in the book itself), what I suspect may be missing from the utilitarian assessment is the role that personal gratification may play in influencing individuals’ willingness to commit more of their resources to philanthropy. As Friedman says above, philanthropy is principally about helping others — but for most donors, it is rarely exclusively so. Furthermore, sudden “conversions” like Friedman’s, from a low level of interest in giving, to a much larger commitment, are relatively rare. Instead, most individual givers begin at low levels, and their generosity increases over time in a manner commensurate with their personal enthusiasm for the work their money is doing.

    Given that, while it’s valuable to encourage well-established givers to rely more heavily on resources like GiveWell, in order to link their efforts to sound empirical analyses of the results they’ll achieve, it may be counterproductive to counsel Friedman’s own exclusive commitment to impartial impact analyses within the larger community of casual philanthropists. Expert empirical assessments are a valuable tool for inexperienced givers, but so is passion, and that sense of personal connection that may create the motivation to give in the first place.

    Encouraging prospective donors to dispense with these latter motivations altogether may mean a higher impact at the initial level of contribution — but it may also mean contributions that grow much more slowly over time, if donors are less likely to develop the same level of interest in and engagement with the work their money is doing. In the end, someone who gives 10% of their impact to a charity whose impact is only 50% of the optimum still does more good than someone who makes more efficient choices but whose commitment to giving stagnates at only 3% of income.

    With a view to nurturing sustained and increased philanthropic commitments in the longer term, advice to would-be charitable givers must teach them to consider efficiency, but should not push them to disregard passion. Notably, GiveWell’s own site does contain some tools for accommodating a more balanced approach, providing information about charities operating in a variety of regions and issue areas, and offering best recommendations for users committed to a particular focus — even while also highlighting greater needs and opportunities that may exist elsewhere, so as to potentially engage donors’ interests in additional or alternative charitable projects. The approach of offering information about “notable” as well as “gold” charities also recognizes that donors may have their own reasons for wishing to select from a larger pool of options, and makes it easier to balance personal gratification with some degree of efficiency in giving. Moreover, striking that balance may well result in most donors’ doing more good with their money in the long run.

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