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Measuring the cost-effectiveness of political advocacy charities is difficult because of the uncertain success of their campaigns. However, there are several past examples of successful and highly cost-effective campaigns, which suggest that advocacy is an area well worth spending time researching. We have not yet identified a political advocacy charity that exceeds our current top-recommended charities. However the area is promising, and it may be that donating to political advocacy charities that lobby for greater government spending on developing world aid interventions soon prove to be as, if not more, cost-effective as our top-rated charities.
Advocacy charities use several means to advocate for political change, from organising mass protests, to lobbying MPs, to creating and circulating educational tools.
Different charities also pursue very different advocacy goals. These include increased government support for certain programs, changes to international trade rules, better rights for minorities, and so on.
For some of the changes for which charities advocate, we would expect an enormous impact were the advocacy successful. The cost-effectiveness of donating to political advocacy organisations is, however, difficult to quantify: one needs to determine both the value of the impact were the advocacy successful, and the degree to which one’s donation increases the probability of this success. Each of these is difficult to estimate to a satisfying degree of certainty, and since the first is potentially very large and the second very small, it is challenging to work out which scale will dominate.
Nevertheless, we have made important progress by, for example, considering past achievements of advocacy charities, the costs expended to secure these effects, and the prospects for similar or better successes and costs in the future.
We want to know, "Are there charities working for political change through advocacy that we should expect to achieve more good per dollar than our current top-recommended charities?" So far, we have concluded that there may be, but that more research is needed in order for us to reliably identify and promote them.
Estimating The Cost-effectiveness of Political Advocacy Charities
The cost-effectiveness of a political advocacy charity is determined by:
1. The amount of resources it must expend to secure its advocacy goal(s).
2. The extent to which securing this goal would improve people's lives.
First Things First: Can Advocacy Really Work? Five Case Studies.
Case Study 1: Yes, where there's profit to be made?
Investors lobbying for a one year 'tax holiday' on repatriated earnings in the US spent $282.7 million on lobbying, and received $62.5 billion in tax savings as a result of the passage of American Jobs Creation Act 2004 for which they had lobbied. If their lobbying was fully responsible for the 2004 Act, this would constitute a 220:1 return on their investment in advocacy. Some academics have claimed the Act’s passage was purely a result of the lobbying, citing, for example, the lack of any sound public policy justification for the policy they requested.1
We have not thoroughly examined their arguments, which can be found here: Alexander, Raquel Meyer, Mazza, Stephen W. and Scholz, Susan, Measuring Rates of Return for Lobbying Expenditures: An Empirical Analysis under the American Jobs Creation Act (April 8, 2009). Available at SSRN. (Close footnote)
Case Study 2: Yes, in the charitable sector too?
In 2011, the advocacy charity RESULTS claimed that each dollar it had invested in advocacy for TB control had resulted in around $240 for TB control. If this is even approximately true, their advocacy appears to be successful.
Case Study 3: Yes, in the charitable sector too?
Giving What We Can estimated that in previous years, the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases (GN) generated $7 for direct NTD control with every $1 invested in its advocacy work. This estimate was made by identifying past funding increases for which the GN plausibly claimed responsibility (evidence of plausibility included prominent mentions of the GN in US reports on NTDs and their funding, GN claims that almost everyone on Capitol Hill who knew about NTDs would cite GN as their source, the fact that funding increased dramatically following GN campaigns, and so on) and dividing these by the GN's total budget over these years of funding increases.
Case Study 4: Yes, but the right conditions are needed?
Several US universities sought federal earmarks for their funding. A group of academics have estimated that the returns to spending on lobbying approximated zero for universities not represented by a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee (SAC) or House Appropriations Committee (HAC). However, they estimated that universities with representation on the SAC received an average return of $11-17 per dollar spent, while universities with representation on the HAC obtained $20-36 for each dollar spent.2
Case Study 5: Some campaigns face particularly great barriers to success?
Sophisticated organisations and passionate people have dedicated a huge amount of resources over several years to campaign for fairer international trade rules. Such policy changes might have a great effect on quality of life in the developing world were they passed. However, we struggled to find evidence of any international trade rules that had been changed as a result of these years of Trade Justice campaigning, suggesting that costs-per-results are high (for methods employed so far) compared with programs like malaria net distribution and NTD control.
We have investigated the likely cost-effectiveness (cost and impact) of charities that:
- Have already demonstrated an ability to advocate successfully (i.e. have held successful campaigns in the past);
- Campaign in high impact areas; and
- Campaign in areas where there is room for further high impact successes.
A group of charities that seemed to fit these criteria well were those advocating for greater government spending on cost-effective developing world aid interventions. So far, this is the form of political advocacy charity we have researched to the greatest extent.
Estimating the Cost-Effectiveness of Charities that Advocate Increased Government Aid for Highly Cost-Effect Interventions
Take any cost-effective 'direct' intervention in the developing world, such as the distribution of insecticide treated bednets (ITNs). It might seem that so long as a political advocacy charity raises more money for that intervention than it spends on its own advocacy, giving to this advocacy charity has a greater impact than giving to an organisation directly delivering the cost-effective intervention. To illustrate, consider an imaginary charity "Advocaid", which raises $200 of government aid for the delivery of insecticide-treated bed nets (ITNs) with each $100 it spends on advocacy. It seems that more ITN delivery ($200 worth- around 40 nets) is generated by giving $100 to Avocaid than would be generated by giving $100 directly to a charity that delivers ITNs (presumably, this only generates $100 worth of ITN delivery- around 20 bed nets). So should we not always give to Advocaid rather than AMF?
In fact, there remain several reasons that giving to the direct delivery charity (in the example above, AMF) rather than the advocacy charity could be more cost-effective:
1. The Opportunity Cost.
The aid that advocacy would raise for a particular cost-effective intervention might otherwise have been spent on a second intervention that is similarly, or even more, cost-effective.
Government aid budgets rarely expand absolutely as a result of advocacy for a particular intervention (like Advocaid's advocacy for ITNs). Rather, when governments increase the amount they spend on one aid intervention, they tend to reduce (or increase less) how much they spend on some other intervention(s). (SOURCE: Email conversations with USAID representatives). A government's overall budget for health aid, for example, is usually unaffected by advocacy for any one health aid intervention. For that government to spend more on ITNs, then, it must spend less on some other health aid program, such as the provision of anti-retroviral drugs, or the building of a hospital, the training of mid-wives, and so on.
The overall effect of successfully advocating increased government aid to an intervention is, therefore:
The impact of increased delivery of that intervention, minus the good that would have been done by the intervention(s) that missed out on funding as a result.
It is hard to know which interventions miss out on funding as a result of increased funding for any particular cost-effective aid program. However, our research so far suggests that:
- The intervention that 'misses out' on funding will be an intervention from the same broad category, e.g. 'health' (for ITNs), or 'education'.
- Mean government overseas health aid may be highly cost-effective, at the $30-60/DALY level.
If accurate, these findings would mean that advocacy for particular cost-effective health interventions can only have a positive impact where it:
- Does not result in less money for programs that are averagely cost-effectiveness for government health aid; or
- Is for interventions that are cost-effective at less than $30-60/DALY.
And if our findings are accurate, for advocacy to not only have a positive impact, but to have a greater positive impact per dollar than charities that deliver programs directly (like AMF and SCI):
- The interventions that 'miss out' must be unusually cost-ineffective compared to average health aid; or
- The intervention advocated must be highly unusually cost-effective (at well under $30/DALY); or
- It must move huge amount of aid for each dollar invested in the advocacy- enough to make up for the relatively small increase in the marginal cost-effectiveness of each aid dollar moved.
Our findings about the mean cost-effectiveness of health aid are still very tentative, however, as is our model of the dynamics of health aid. If it turns out that the mean cost-effectiveness of health aid is in fact worse, or that the least cost-effective interventions, rather than those of average cost-effectiveness, ‘miss out’ on funding when funding for cost-effective interventions is increased, the beneficial impact of investing in advocacy will prove far more cost-effective. It would then be promising as a top charitable intervention to support.
We are therefore continuing to improve our methods for estimating the cost-effectiveness and dynamics of health aid, and will update this section as we do so.
2. Other Advocacy Charities
A second advocacy charity might be even better.
Even if one advocacy charity does more good with each dollar donated to it than the most cost-effective charities that directly deliver services (like AMF and SCI), one should check whether a second, even more cost-effective, advocacy charity might exist. For example, we would not recommend donating to Advocaid if Advocaid raises $200 of government spending on ITNs with each $100 invested in it, while a second charity raises $600 of government spending on ITNs with the same investment.
3. Many Direct Intervention Charities Also Advocate Cost-effectively
A charity more famous for its direct provision of services might also do cost-effective advocacy for the cause.
Some charities best known for their direct provision of services in the developing world also partake in very successful and cost-effective advocacy. For example, SCI has successfully advocated for huge increases to the UK's funding for NTD control, while the successful completion of cost-effective aid programs may have a “demonstration effect” conducive to securing increased funding for such interventions in the future. Therefore, in funding a 'direct provision' charity, one might also be supporting cost-effective advocacy, and might even be supporting one of advocacy's most cost-effective forms.
We have looked into several advocacy charities in some depth. At this point, we have not identified an advocacy charity the cost-effectiveness of which approximates or exceeds that of our top-recommended charities. We would not be surprised, however, if in a few months or years, one of our "top-recommended" charities is a political advocacy charity: huge political gains remain to be made, and some charities have demonstrated an ability to win huge successes with relatively small budgets. Estimating the good that such successes actually bring has been our biggest challenge so far, and we are continuing to work to improve these estimates so that any highly cost-effective advocacy charities that do exists can be identified and recommended.
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