Through a friend (Thanks, A!), I recently discovered GiveWell, an independent, nonprofit charity evaluator. GiveWell reviews information about charities and rates them based on how effective they are at solving the problems they claim to address in the world, how efficiently they use donor funds to achieve their goals, how they track their own successes and failures over time, and how transparent the whole process is. This information is posted in detail on their website so that people who are considering charitable giving can review before deciding where to give.
Most prospective donors make decisions about where to give their money based on their own personal feelings and interests. For example, if I feel strongly about the AIDS crisis in Africa, I will donate heavily to organizations who claim to be doing something about it. If I am or know a cancer survivor or victim, I might choose to donate to a group aiming to find a cure. Others may feel strongly about environmental issues such as clean water and air, global climate change, etc. Once we have made the decision to donate, most people look no further than the organization’s own website or printed materials to make our final decision. The folks behind GiveWell knew or suspected that many—if not most—charity organizations overstate their effectiveness, and this causes donor dollars to go down a black hole rather than getting to people who could actually make good use of the funds.
Dark Star Safari, his account of a personal overland journey from Cairo to Cape Town. Traveling through Africa, he came across a large number of aid workers purporting to be helping the African people in a number of ways, but he became convinced over time that they were having no effect or a negative effect on the people. This was a viewpoint I had never encountered before, being someone who is not too cynical and therefore assumed that most ‘aid’ organizations were effectively ‘aiding’ the people they said they were. Since reading Theroux’s book, I’ve come across similar arguments in other readings.
It’s not just a question of abandoned wells, however. You have to consider what it is that these wells are supposed to accomplish. Why did we decide the people needed a well in the first place? The answer, of course, is that clean drinking water reduces the spread of disease. Unfortunately, water is only one of the ways that disease is spread and not necessarily the main one. Take a look at the diagram below:
I don’t claim to have an answer to this problem. I’m certainly not saying, “Don’t donate.” But I agree with the folks at GiveWell who suggest that we should put our money primarily into projects that can report some quantifiable positive result, not just anecdotes.
*For GiveWell's full analysis of water charities (interesting and readable, I promise), click here.
*For a list of charities highly rated by GiveWell, click here.
*For GiveWell's take on donations toward Japan earthquake/tsunami relief (interesting!), click here.