How We Assess Charities

"The research behind Giving What We Can is outstanding…it is changing the way we think about aid effectiveness, and providing the basis for well-grounded advice on donating to fight global poverty.”
- Peter Singer, Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University

What we compare

At Giving What We Can, we evaluate charities to determine which ones do the most good with your donations.

Some comparisons focus on the percentage of donation money charities spend on their overhead costs. But this is only a minor part of what makes charities more or less effective. Some types of intervention tend to be much more effective than others, even though they might lead to higher overheads (such as research into more effective action).

Instead, Giving What We Can compares the good done by giving to one organisation as opposed to another. We believe that ultimately, that’s what really counts: Helping people to the greatest extent possible. When considered like this, the difference between charities is often astonishing.

A top-down approach

Evidence suggests that the biggest variations in effectiveness between charities are due to the big picture – the type of interventions they undertake.

Therefore we start with the big picture, comparing different areas such as health, education and emergency aid to determine which of these are the most promising. We then compare more promising sub-areas (such as malaria or HIV/AIDS treatment, within health) and then the programmes available in those sub-areas (such as bednets and antimalarials, for malaria). Finally, we compare particular charities which carry out the best programmes (such as Against Malaria Foundation).

Comparing different types of charity

The question is how to measure and compare the good done by different charities, especially when they work in such diverse areas.

Different types of intervention do very different things. Charities which promote economic growth can be assessed by the increase in household income per dollar donated. Charities which work to prevent climate change can be assessed by carbon emissions averted per dollar. Part of our research is into ways to compare these different types of improvements. To do so, we look at the impact on people’s happiness and their ability to take control of their lives.

Our research on this so far has consistently shown health interventions to be the most effective at improving people’s lives. As a result, although we still investigate other areas, health interventions are our primary focus.

Comparing health charities

The most useful measure of health interventions is the concept of “Quality-Adjusted Life Years” or QALYs, which is standard in health economics and used by organisations such as the UK’s National Health Service and the Panel on Cost-Effectiveness in Health and Medicine in the USA.

In brief, if an intervention gives one person one extra year of life at full health, it gives them one QALY. A year of less than full health will be some fraction of a QALY, depending on the severity of the impairment (measured by things like the person’s ability to move about freely, to care for themselves, and to carry out their usual activities without pain or anxiety).

Therefore a primary goal of our research is to identify which charities will do the most good, measured in QALYs per dollar (or pound, or yen…) donated.

The impact of further donations

Although the starting point of our research is to look at the cost-effectiveness of existing programs of intervention, that is not the end of the matter. We are not concerned with effectiveness in the abstract, but with the difference that additional donations would make.

That means we also need to consider the issues like these:

  • If a program is already close to its capacity in terms of the good it can do, then further funding will just lead to diminishing returns.
  • There can be a danger that increased charitable aid will encourage other sources of funding to withdraw from the cause, reducing the good done.
  • Some charities have multiple programs of varying effectiveness. Even if a donation is stated to be for the more effective program, the charity may respond by shifting “non-earmarked” money from that program to a less effective one.

These are all things which we consider in our research before making our recommendations.

Following up

Finally, once we have found particularly effective charities, we make sure to keep track of what they are doing. We frequently re-assess our recommended charities, to be sure that we continue to point you towards the places where your donations can make the most difference.

Our sources

Some of our primary sources of information are:

The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab – An excellent source of randomized control trial data on interventions designed to alleviate poverty.

The Disease Control Priorities in Developing Countries Report (DCP2) – This provides cost effectiveness data on a wide range of health interventions in the developing world.

GiveWell – A US charity evaluator focussed on individual charities, with a commitment to transparency and a rigorous research methodology.

The World Health Organisation WHO-CHOICE guide – A cost-effectiveness report similar in scope to DCP2.

Further information