This post provides an update on what we’ve learned about our top charities in the first half of 2016.
We continue to recommend all four of our top charities. Our recommendation for donors seeking to directly follow our advice remains the same: we recommend they give to the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF), which we believe has the most valuable current funding gap.
Below, we provide:
- Updates on our view about AMF, which we consider the most important information we’ve learned in the last half-year (More)
- Updates on other top charities (More)
- A discussion of the reasoning behind our current recommendation to donors (More)
Updates on AMF
AMF (www.againstmalaria.com) provides funding for long-lasting insecticide-treated net distributions (for protection against malaria) in developing countries. There is strong evidence that distributing nets reduces child mortality and malaria cases. AMF has relatively strong reporting requirements for its distribution partners and provides a level of public disclosure and tracking of distributions that we have not seen from any other net distribution charity. Overall, AMF is the best giving opportunity we are currently aware of. That said, we have concerns about AMF’s recent monitoring and transparency that we plan to focus on in the second half of the year.
Updates from the last six months
We are more confident than we were before in AMF’s ability to successfully complete deals with most countries it engages with. Over the past few years, our key concern about AMF has been whether it would be able to effectively absorb additional funding and sign distribution agreements with governments and other partners. At the end of 2013, we stopped recommending AMF because we felt it did not require additional funding, and our end-of-year analyses in 2014 and 2015 discussed this issue in depth. In early 2016, AMF signed agreements to fund two large distributions (totaling $37 million) of insecticide-treated nets in countries it has not previously worked in. We now believe that AMF has effectively addressed this concern.
AMF is in discussions for several additional large distributions. AMF currently holds approximately $23.3 million, and we believe that it is very likely to have to slow its work if it receives less than an additional $11 million very quickly. It is possible that it could also use up to an additional (approximately) $18 million more during this calendar year.
It may be more valuable to give to AMF now than it will be later this year or next year. AMF’s funding gap may be time-sensitive because:
- AMF is in several discussions about distributions that would take place in 2017. It has told us that it needs to make decisions within a month or two about which discussions to pursue. We don’t have a clear sense for how long before a distribution AMF needs to be able to commit funding, and note that, for example, AMF committed in February 2016 to a distribution in Ghana taking place in June to August 2016. That said, it seems quite plausible that AMF needs to commit soon to distributions taking place in 2017.
- We don’t know whether there will be large funding gaps for nets in 2018 and beyond. The price of nets has been decreasing and the size of grants from the two largest funders of nets, the Global Fund to fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria and the President’s Malaria Initiative, is not yet known. (The Global Fund is holding its replenishment conference in September, in which donor governments are asked to make three-year pledges, so we may know more before the end of the year.) It’s possible that these funders will fund all or nearly all of the net needs in countries other than those that are particularly hard to work in for 2018. If that happens, gifts to AMF in late 2016 could be less valuable than gifts in the next couple of months. (This could also mean that, if AMF fills gaps in 2017 that would have been filled by other funders in 2018, gifts now are less valuable than they have been in the past. We have added an adjustment for this to our cost-effectiveness analysis, but given the high degree of uncertainty, this could be a more important factor than we are currently adjusting for.)
Notwithstanding the above, we have important questions about AMF that we plan to continue to investigate. None of these developments caused us to change our recommendation about giving to AMF, but they are important considerations for donors:
- Monitoring data: We have new concerns about AMF’s monitoring of its distributions, particularly its post-distribution check-up (PDCU) surveys. These surveys are a key part of our confidence in the quality of AMF’s distributions. For Malawi, where most of the PDCUs completed to date have been done, our key concern is that villages that surveyors visit are not selected randomly, but are instead selected by hand by staff of the organization that both implements and monitors the distributions, which seems fairly likely to lead to bias in the results. We have also seen results from the first two PDCUs from DRC. We have not yet looked at the DRC results in-depth or discussed them with AMF, but there appear to be major problems in how the surveys were carried out (particularly a high percentage of internally inconsistent data – around 40%-50%) and, if we believe the remaining data, fairly high rates of missing or unhung nets (~20% at 6-months) and nets that deteriorated quickly (65% were in ‘very good’ or ‘good’ condition at 6-months).
- Transparency: Recently, AMF has been slower to share documentation from some distributions. AMF has told us that it has this documentation and we are concerned that AMF is not being as transparent as it could be. We believe this documentation is important for monitoring the quality of AMF’s distributions; it includes PDCUs, results from re-surveying 5% of households in during pre-distribution registrations (AMF has told us that this is a standard part of its process, but we have not seen results from any distributions), and malaria case rate data from Malawi that AMF has told us it has on hand. AMF attributes the delays to lack of staff capacity. We plan to write more about monitoring and transparency in a future post.
- Insecticide resistance: Insecticide resistance (defined broadly as “any ways in which populations of mosquitoes adapt to the presence of insecticide-treated nets (ITNs) in order to make them less effective”) is a major threat to the effectiveness of ITNs. Insecticide resistance seems to be fairly common across sub-Saharan Africa, and it seems that resistance is increasing. It remains difficult to quantify the impact of resistance, but our very rough best guess (methodology described in more detail below) is that ITNs are roughly one-third less effective in the areas where AMF is working than they would be in the absence of insecticide resistance. We continue to believe, despite resistance, ITNs remain a highly cost-effective intervention. See our full report for more detail.
Other updates on AMF
- To better understand whether AMF is providing nets that would not otherwise have been funded, we considered five cases where AMF considered funding a distribution and did not ultimately provide funding. We then looked at whether other funders stepped in and how long of a delay resulted from having to wait for other funders. We published the details here. In short, most distributions took place later than they would have if AMF had funded them (on average over a year), which probably means that the people were not protected with nets during that time. We feel that these case studies provide some evidence that nets that AMF buys do not simply displace nets from other funding sources.
- We’ve noted in the past that the delays in AMF signing agreements for distributions may have been due to AMF’s hesitation about paying for the costs of a distribution other than the purchase price of nets. For the distributions that AMF has signed this year, AMF has agreed to pay for some non-net costs, particularly the costs of PDCUs. The Global Fund to fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria is paying for the other non-net costs of the distribution. AMF’s willingness to fund some of the non-net costs may have made it easier for it to sign distribution agreements and put funds to use more quickly.
Updates on our other top charities
Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (full report)
SCI (www3.imperial.ac.uk/schisto) works with governments in sub-Saharan Africa to create or scale up deworming programs (treating children for schistosomiasis and other intestinal parasites). SCI’s role has primarily been to identify recipient countries, provide funding to governments for government-implemented programs, provide advisory support, and conduct research on the process and outcomes of the programs.
In past years, we’ve written that we had significant concerns about SCI’s financial reporting and financial management that meant we lacked high-quality, basic information about how SCI was spending funding and how much funding it had available to allocate to programs. We decided to focus our work in the first half of 2016 on this issue. We felt that seeing significant improvements in the quality of SCI’s finances was necessary for us to continue recommending SCI.
We believe that deworming is a program backed by relatively strong evidence. We have reservations about the evidence, but we think the potential benefits are great enough, and costs low enough, to outweigh these reservations. SCI has conducted studies in about half of the countries it works in (including the countries with the largest programs) to determine whether its programs have reached a large proportion of children targeted. These studies have generally found moderately positive results, but have major methodological limitations. We have not asked SCI for monitoring results since last year.
Updates from the last six months
We published a separate blog post on our work on SCI so far this year. Our main takeaways:
- SCI has begun producing higher-quality financial documents that allow us to learn some basic financial information about SCI.
- We learned of two substantial errors in SCI’s financial management and reporting. 1) a July 2015 grant from GiveWell for about $333,000 was misallocated within Imperial College, which houses SCI, until we noticed it was missing from SCI’s revenue in March 2016; and (2) in 2015, SCI underreported how much funding it would have from other sources in 2016, leading us to overestimate its room for more funding by $1.5 million.
- The clarity of our communication with SCI about its finances has improved, but there is still substantial room for further improvement.
We feel that SCI has improved, but we would still rank our other top charities ahead of it in terms of our ability to communicate and understand their work. Given this situation, we continue to recommend SCI now and think that SCI is reasonably likely to retain its top charity status at the end of 2016. We plan, in the second half of 2016, to expand the scope of our research on SCI.
We have not asked SCI for an update on its room for more funding (due to our focus on financial documents in the first half of the year). It’s our understanding that funds that SCI receives in the next six months will be allocated to work in 2017 and beyond. Because of this, we don’t believe that SCI has a pressing need for additional funds, though our guess is that it will have room for more funding when we next update our recommendations in November and that funds given before then will help fund gaps for the next budget year.
GiveDirectly (full report)
GiveDirectly (www.givedirectly.org) transfers cash to households in developing countries via mobile phone-linked payment services. It targets extremely low-income households. The proportion of total expenses that GiveDirectly has delivered directly to recipients is approximately 83% overall. We believe that this approach faces an unusually low burden of proof, and that the available evidence supports the idea that unconditional cash transfers significantly help people.
We believe GiveDirectly to be an exceptionally strong and effective organization, even more so than our other top charities. It has invested heavily in self-evaluation from the start, scaled up quickly, and communicated with us clearly. It appears that GiveDirectly has been effective at delivering cash to low-income households. GiveDirectly has one major randomized controlled trial (RCT) of its impact and took the unusual step of making the details of this study public before data was collected (more). It continues to experiment heavily.
Updates from the last six months
- GiveDirectly announced an initiative to test a “basic income guarantee” to provide long-term, ongoing cash transfers sufficient for basic needs. The cost-effectiveness of providing this form of cash transfers may be different from the one-time transfers GiveDirectly has made in the past.
- GiveDirectly continues to have more room for more funding than we expect GiveWell-influenced donors to fill in the next six months. Its top priority is funding the basic income guarantee project.
- In late 2015 and early 2016, when GiveDirectly began enrolling participants in Homa Bay county, Kenya, it experienced a high rate of people refusing to be enrolled in the program. The reason for this is not fully clear, though GiveDirectly believes in some cases local leaders advised people to not trust the program. While GiveDirectly has temporarily dealt with this setback by moving its operations to a different location in Homa Bay county, it is possible that similar future challenges could reduce GiveDirectly’s ability to commit as much as it currently projects.
- GiveDirectly has reached an agreement with a major funder which provides a mechanism through which multiple benchmarking projects (projects comparing cash transfers to other types of aid programs) can be launched. The major funder may fund up to $15 million for four different benchmarking projects with GiveDirectly. GiveDirectly plans to make available up to $15 million of the grant it received from Good Ventures in 2015 to match funds committed by the major funder. GiveDirectly and its partner have not yet determined which aid programs will be evaluated or how the evaluations will be carried out.
- We are reasonably confident that GiveDirectly could effectively use significantly more funding than we expect it to receive, including an additional $30 million for additional cash transfers in 2016, though scaling up to this size would require a major acceleration in the second half of the year. We have not asked GiveDirectly how funding above this amount would affect its activities and plans (because we think it is very unlikely that GiveDirectly will receive more than $30 million from GiveWell-influenced supporters before our next update in November).
Deworm the World (full report)
Deworm the World (www.evidenceaction.org/deworming), led by Evidence Action, advocates for, supports, and evaluates government-run school-based deworming programs (treating children for intestinal parasites).
We believe that deworming is a program backed by relatively strong evidence. We have reservations about the evidence, but we think the potential benefits are great enough, and costs low enough, to outweigh these reservations. Deworm the World retains monitors whose reports indicate that the deworming programs it supports successfully deworm children.
Updates from the last six months
- We asked Deworm the World whether additional funding in the next six months would change its activities or plans. It told us that it does not expect funding to be the bottleneck to any work in that time. We’d guess that there is a very small chance that it will encounter an unexpected opportunity and be bottlenecked by funding before our next update in November.
- Deworm the World appears to be making progress expanding to new countries. It has made a multi-year commitment to provide technical assistance and resources to Cross River state, Nigeria for its school-based deworming program (the first deworming is scheduled for the end of this month), and are undertaking a nationwide prevalence survey in Pakistan.
- In the past, we have focused our review of Deworm the World on its work in India. We are in the process of learning more about its work in other locations, particularly Kenya. The monitoring we have seen from Kenya appears to be high quality.
Summary of key considerations for top charities
The table below summarizes the key considerations for our four top charities. With the exception of modest changes to room for more funding, our high-level view of our top charities, as summarized in the table below, is the same as at our last update in November 2015.
|Consideration||AMF||Deworm the World||GiveDirectly||SCI|
|Program estimated cost-effectiveness (relative to cash transfers)||~10x||~10x||Baseline||~5x|
|Directness and robustness of the case for impact||Strong||Moderate||Strongest||Moderate|
|Transparency and communication||Strong||Strong||Strongest||Weakest|
|Ongoing monitoring and likelihood of detecting future problems||Strong||Strong||Strongest||Weakest|
|Organizational track record of rolling out program||Moderate||Moderate||Strong||Strong|
|Room for more funding||High||Limited||High||Likely moderate (not investigated)|
Reasoning behind our current recommendation to donors
Our recommendation for donors seeking to directly follow our advice is to give to AMF, which we believe has the most valuable current funding gap. We believe AMF will likely have opportunities to fund distributions this year which it will not be able to fund without additional funding. Due to the excellent cost-effectiveness of AMF’s work, we consider this a highly valuable funding gap to fill. Our current estimate is that on average AMF saves a life for about every $3,500 that it spends; this is an increase from our November 2015 estimate and reflects changes to our cost-effectiveness model as well as some of our inputs into bed nets’ cost-effectiveness. As always, we advise against taking cost-effectiveness estimates literally and view them as highly uncertain.
The below table lays out our ranking of funding gaps for June to November 2016. The first million dollars to a charity can have a very different impact from, e.g., the 20th million dollars. Accordingly, our ranking of individual funding gaps accounts for both (a) the quality of the charity and the good accomplished by its program, per dollar, and (b) whether a given level of funding is highly or only marginally likely to be needed in the next six months.
We consider funding that allows a charity to implement more of its core program (without substantial benefits beyond the direct good accomplished by this program) to be “execution funding.” We’ve separated this funding into three levels:
- Level 1: the amount we expect a charity to need in the coming year. If a charity has less funding than this level, we think it is more likely than not that it will be bottlenecked (or unable to carry out its core program to the fullest extent) by funding in the coming year. For this mid-year update, we have focused on funds that are needed before our next update in November, with the exception of SCI where we believe funds will not affect its work until next year.
- Level 2: if a charity has this amount, we think there is an ~80% chance that it will not be bottlenecked by funding.
- Level 3: if a charity has this amount, we think there is a ~95% chance that it will not be bottlenecked by funding.
(Our rankings can also take into account whether a gap is “capacity-relevant” or providing an incentive to engage in our process. We do not currently believe that our top charities have capacity-relevant gaps and are not planning to make mid-year incentive grants, so we haven’t gone into detail on that here. More details on how we think about capacity-relevant and execution gaps in this post.)
|1||AMF||$11.3||Execution level 1||Fund distributions in two countries that AMF is in discussions with but does not have sufficient funding for||AMF is strongest overall|
|2||AMF||$7.3||Execution level 2||Fund the next largest gap on the list of remaining 2016-17 gaps in African countries||–|
|3||SCI||$10.1||Execution level 1||Very rough because we haven’t discussed this with SCI; further gaps not estimated||Not as strong as AMF in isolation, so ranked below for same type of gap|
|4||AMF||$10.5||Execution level 3||Fund the final two AMF-relevant gaps on the list of remaining 2016-17 gaps in African countries||–|
|5||GiveDirectly||$22.2||Execution level 1||Basic income guarantee program and additional standard transfers||Not as cost-effective as bednets or deworming, so lower priority|
|6||Deworm the World||$6.0||Execution level 3||A rough guess at the funding needed to cover a 3-year deworming program in a new country||Strong cost-effectiveness, but unlikely to need funds in the short-term|
|6||GiveDirectly||$7.8||Execution level 2||Funding for additional structured projects; further gaps not estimated||–|
We are not recommending that Good Ventures make grants to our top charities for this mid-year refresh. In November 2015, we recommended that Good Ventures fund 50% of our top charities’ highest-value funding gaps for the year and Good Ventures gave $44.4 million to our top four charities. We felt this approach resulted in Good Ventures funding its “fair share” while avoiding creating incentives for other donors to avoid the causes we’re interested in, which could lead to less overall funding for these causes in the long run. (More on this reasoning available here.)
Hi Natalie and GiveWell team,
Appreciate the riveting post!
I was comparing the funding gap estimates in this post against those in the November 2015 post. I find that the funding gaps you estimated in this refresh are lower than those you estimated in the November 2015 (see e.g. the comparative tabulation here). Although you provide a few specifics (particularly in regards to AMF), I wanted to verify if there is a high-level explanation for how the funding gaps have declined.
(1) Operationally, has the way you define, think of, and measure execution levels changed since November 2015?
(2) When you talk of the “coming year” while defining execution levels, are you referring to the relevant calendar year (2016 for both posts) or the next 12 months, as of the time of posting the review? If its the relevant calendar year, it would stand to reason that funding gaps would naturally be lower for a mid-year review.
(3) To the extent that funding gaps as measured by GiveWell have genuinely declined, would you say this is because (a) the GiveWell top picks have managed to raise a lot of money, through GiveWell and otherwise, and therefore have less of a funding gap than before, or (b) your original estimates of funding gaps were too large, and you would in hindsight have made them smaller, or (c) a mix of the two?
We have not changed the way we think about execution levels. As noted above, for this mid-year update, we have focused on funds that are needed before our next update in November, with the exception of SCI where we believe funds will not affect its work until next year. More specifically:
You are very complete in your own evaluation process. I appreciate your pro & con approach. There will never be a perfect charity evaluation system, but you come closer than most. But statistically, you had to limit the size of the charities you chose out of the thousands of organizations that have to be outcome-compared. Personally, I have quit donating to twice as many charities as I have given to. One of my main sources of making choices still has to be the marketing approach. I like to ‘feel’ the mission statement is followed.
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