With so many charities out there – 1.5 million in the US alone – and countless appeals for support every day, the world of philanthropy can be difficult to navigate.
Consider an organization you recently donated to or volunteered for. What drove you to care about this issue? What were the underlying values which informed your choice?
Starting with why you care can be a great starting point for finding causes and solutions aligned with your values. Perhaps you volunteered at an after school program recently because you benefitted from after school programs when you were a child and believe education is important. If you think about why education is important to you, it may be because you value equality of opportunity. Understanding this value might help you unlock other causes and organizations you could support which effectively address equality of opportunity.
Evidence shows that some charities have tens, and even hundreds, of times more positive impact than others. In practice, this means that choosing an effective charity is equivalent to multiplying your amount donated to a less effective charity.
You’re probably used to using data at work to drive decisions, and philanthropy decisions shouldn’t be an exception. A good rule of thumb is to begin your search by looking for evidence that programs you’re interested in improve outcomes, and don’t just provide outputs. For example, we don’t just want to know how many books (an output) have been distributed by an education-focused charity; we want to know how much more students are learning as a result of receiving the books (an outcome). Looking at outputs is helpful because it tells us what charities are concretely doing. But ultimately what we care about more is outcomes: whether charities are making people healthier, more educated and less hungry.
It’s also useful to consider what the outcome would have been if the intervention had not taken place. The studies that look for this data are called impact evaluations. While they may be harder to come by, they’re the gold standard to determine causal impact of charities and their interventions. They allow us to take the book example above one step further – we don’t just want to know whether students are learning more, we want to know whether learning improvements were brought about by the charity's work or by something else.
Charities spend a significant portion of their budgets competing for future funding. This means that whichever qualities donors ask for, charities will compete on. If donors make their choices based on glossy marketing brochures alone, charities will have to spend a significant portion of their budget on that. But if donors ask for evidence of effectiveness, charities will allocate their resources there. By giving smart, you can have outsized impact, helping to encourage an industry-wide best practice, and influencing how charities operate now, and in the future.