The Gold Standard for Giving

Nonprofit evaluates which charities have the most impact with donations

Boston GlobeNovember 2011

THIS IS the time of year when the deluge of charity solicitations begins. How do you give? Is there a non-profit that you’ve been donating to for years? Or do you let the flood wash over you, acting when a heart string feels a tug?

It turns out there’s a better way: A small band of researchers, headed by refugees from the financial sector, scour the planet for organizations that have the maximum impact with the dollars they are given. This is the idea behind GiveWell, a charity-evaluating nonprofit started in 2006. Its mission is to identify organizations throughout the world that are doing good, and then subject them to careful scrutiny, including site visits. It posts the results, including extensive case files, on its website for free. Its motto: “Real change for your dollar.”

As we enter into the prime giving season, GiveWell provides a valuable service for the donor who has few preconceptions and just wants to make the world better.

But GiveWell’s work also suggests a way to substantially improve charitable efforts around the world. Huge sums of money flow to charities, and the majority of it comes from private donors, not big-name foundations. Yet there is a dearth of reliable information about on-the-ground impact – about which strategies are working and which are not. We give more or less blindly.

With the rise of GiveWell, and hopefully more organizations like it, the smart money will increasingly flow to the best outfits, and the world’s do-gooders will then feel the pressure to take a harder look at how they operate, and whether they can do better.

GiveWell had its origins in a group of friends in financial services trying to decide how to donate some of their earnings, explains cofounder Elie Hassenfeld. The friends had a distinctly empirical bent, and were alarmed at how few data were available. So they started calling up charities to ask for more information, and sharing what they found.

Traditionally, charity raters have tended to focus on “overhead” – the more an outfit spent on administration, the lower its rating. But GiveWell argues that this is ill-conceived: overhead can also be money spent on measuring impact, on ensuring programs are working well. What should really matter is actual, verifiable benefit to the world per dollar spent.

The reigning champion at GiveWell has been VillageReach, an organization in Mozambique that brings basic medical supplies like vaccines into hard-to-reach areas. GiveWell estimates that, on average, it takes this outfit less than $1,000 to prevent the death of one infant. But VillageReach now has the short-term funding it needs, and GiveWell plans on announcing a new top charity the Monday after Thanksgiving. The top three contenders for gold:

The Against Malaria Foundation purchases nets treated with insecticide and delivers them throughout the developing world. Malaria is a preventable, treatable disease that kills roughly 800,000 people every year.

The Schistosomiasis Control Initiative fights neglected tropical diseases in Africa. Its name comes from one disease, a common and debilitating infection spread by worms that is easy to treat.

Operation ASHA is devoted to the fight against tuberculosis in India. A particular focus is to ensure that patients on society’s margins complete treatments – crucial because partial treatments feed the rise of drug resistant TB, a looming threat to us all.

There are, of course, many worthy charities, including ones closer to home. (The GiveWell website includes American charities.) And money is not the only thing that one can donate: Giving your time has a different impact, bringing rewards of its own.

Looking through charity websites, it is usually a photo that lingers in the mind, a child or family in peril. But on the GiveWell site, I found myself inspired by a page that explained how the organization itself has failed in the past – the embarrassing mistakes, large and small. This speaks to a mental toughness – an analytical rigor and devotion to openness – that nonprofits, and the people they aim to serve, could use more of.