We haven’t written much about mega-charities: extremely large international charities (budgets of $250+ million per year) carrying out a very wide range of activities, and commonly recognized as household names. We’re thinking of groups like UNICEF, Oxfam, Mercy Corps, Catholic Relief Services, Save the Children, World Vision, and CARE.
The main reason we haven’t written much about these groups is that we still know very little about them. They tend to publish a great deal of web content aimed at fundraising, but very little of interest for impact-oriented donors. On the occasions when we’ve engaged with these groups, we’ve come away with the feeling that they engage in a wide variety of activities, and we can’t get a concrete sense of (a) the specifics of the activities; (b) the organization-wide track record; (c) likely uses of additional funding. (We wrote in 2007 about our inability to put together bird’s-eye views of their activities).
Below are general impressions from our limited information on, and interactions with, these groups. Note that in preparing this post, we examined the websites of the 7 organizations named in the first paragraph, looking for whatever information we could find on specific projects (as opposed to broad characterizations of activities), results (technical writeups, not narratives), and financial information (any budget breakdown by project or program type, or revenue source – we tabulated our findings in this spreadsheet).
- Mega-charities tend to provide only very broad-brush information on their activities, and next to no information on their results. Budget breakdowns are extremely broad (see our spreadsheet). Even the “papers” or “publications” sections of these websites tend to focus on papers giving general advice, rather than on details of past executed programs. (Examples: UNICEF, World Vision.) We have seen evaluation databases from Oxfam and CARE, and wrote about our impressions on the latter (similar to our impressions on the former) in 2009.
CARE is, as far as we can tell, the only one of these organizations that publishes descriptions of its many specific projects, though these descriptions are still relatively broad and do not include budgets.
- Mega-charities tend to have extremely diverse activities, with relatively small amounts spent on health and large amounts spent on disaster relief (see our spreadsheet). We’ve reviewed what we can of these groups’ disaster relief work, and in general we view it unfavorably from a transparency/accountability standpoint. The relatively low amount of resources going to health is a negative for us, due to our view that this is the most promising area for individual donors. UNICEF appears to be more health-focused than the others discussed here.
- Mega-charities tend to get large amounts of money from governments, particularly the U.S. government. While the “percentage of support coming from the U.S. government” is not always clear and depends on how one counts cash vs. in-kind contributions, government support seems to generally be at least 20% and sometimes closer to 70% of total revenues. An exception is Oxfam; we couldn’t find a specific statement of revenue sources to address this, but in a recent conversation Oxfam representatives stated to us that Oxfam takes very limited funding from governments and no funding from the U.S. government.
- Mega-charities appear to us to often act as “contractors” for governments and other mega-donors. Scanning CARE’s projects provides some illustration of this idea, which is largely based on informal conversations we’ve had about these organizations (as well as the significance of government funding to these organizations). While these organizations often have substantial unrestricted funding as well, it isn’t clear to us whether this funding is used to supplement big-funder contracts or to run projects at mega-charities’ discretion. One thing we generally don’t see when examining these mega-charities is any indication of an overarching strategic plan, another sign that they may see themselves as essentially contractors (Oxfam is again an exception.)
Overall, our impression is that your donation to these organizations is very hard to trace, but will likely supplement an agenda of extremely diverse programming, driven largely by governments and other very large funders. We feel that when donating to these groups, you’re unlikely to get the sort of impact-per-dollar that you can with our top charities, which focus on some of the most proven and cost-effective interventions.
One organization we haven’t mentioned in this post is Doctors Without Borders. We perceive this group as more strategic, more transparent/accountable, more focused on health, and more promising overall than the organizations discussed here, and we intend to investigate it further in the coming year. We will also likely be investigating Oxfam, which we perceive as being the most independent and strategic of the organizations listed above, largely due to its lack of reliance on government funding.