"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
Giving What We Can’s mission is to be as rigorous as possible when
recommending charities to donate to. Our research is decidedly
evidence-based. We draw on the best available
research from institutions like GiveWell,
MIT’s Poverty Action Lab,
Innovations for Poverty Action,
and the Centre for Global Development,
and our research
team reviews hundreds of peer-reviewed studies.
When choosing charities, we use a framework to work out how your donations can have the biggest impact.
The main criteria we look for when evaluating charities and causes are:
Neglectedness means that the cause area isn’t currently being given the attention it deserves relative to its importance. This could be for a range of reasons — maybe it isn’t commercially viable for a big pharmaceutical company to invest in the cure for a particular disease, or maybe donors have a bias to fund local causes in developed countries instead of donating overseas. The opposite of neglectedness is crowdedness. Some interventions (that would otherwise score highly on our criteria) are in a crowded field, so you won’t have much impact as a donor if you donate to them.
For instance, while aid for emergency food aid has increased dramatically in recent years, basic nutrition such as micronutrient fortification has remained relatively underfunded:
Tractability means that we give stronger
weight to problems that we can plausibly make good progress on.
Tractable problems are more likely to see results, so it’s more likely
that trying to solve them will have a big impact. This doesn’t mean
that we don’t consider difficult problems — we just weigh them up
against the other criteria. This means we’re less likely to endorse
causes that hinge on a problem that seems impossible to solve, or a
really hard problem that wouldn’t make a big impact even if you solved
it. It’s also important to remember that this is always subject to
change. The problem of eradicating smallpox was once totally
intractable, but became tractable after advances in immunology and
healthcare delivery. Another example of an extremely tractable
intervention is school-based deworming - where every child gets a pill
against worms and is free of parasites for at least a few months. You
can see how efficient this is here:
Impact means that the problem affects a lot
of people, and is really serious. Treating a disease that causes
millions of people to suffer, or one that is particularly horrible
would probably have a high impact. Take malaria for instance: it is a
very big and serious problem. The Global Burden of Disease study
estimates that almost 10% of all deaths of children under 5 globally
are due to malaria:
Schistosomiasis is a disease caused by a parasitic worm. It can cause long term kidney and liver damage, it affects millions of people (impact ) but it’s cheap and easy to treat (tractability ). People who have been deworming during childhood earn more money later in life. However, it is relatively underfunded (it is part of the so-called ‘Neglected Tropical Diseases’). This is one of the reasons that the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative is one of our Top Charities .
On the other hand, vaccination of children is a highly cost-effective healthcare intervention. It works really well to prevent diseases like diphtheria, pertussis (or whooping cough), and tetanus (DPT) (tractability), and there are thousands of children who need vaccinations (impact). However, we don’t recommend it. Why? Simple — the Global Alliance for Vaccines is already well-funded, so it’s not neglected. In this case, it’s better to donate your money elsewhere, so you can have a bigger impact.
When evaluating a specific charity, we also place a strong premium on transparency. Transparency means that a charity has a commitment to being open and accountable, to using evidence and reason to inform their decision-making, and is responsive to questions about how they operate. Without full transparency, it is difficult for an outside observer to know whether the charity is doing what they say they’re doing, or to dig deeper into the information that the charity is reporting.
What we compare
At Giving What We Can, we try to find the charities which do the most good with your donations.
The research that we conduct is secondary in nature. We don’t conduct primary research ourselves for two reasons. Firstly, we are not currently in a good position to do so. But more importantly, we firmly believe there is already plenty of information and evidence out there. What we urgently need to do is to tap into it, evaluate it and communicate the results.
When it comes to comparing charities, some people 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 believe that charity evaluation should start with the big picture, comparing different areas such as health, education and emergency aid to determine which of these are the most promising. After that, you can 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.
We currently believe that health interventions are the most effective at improving the lives of people in developing countries. As a result, although we still investigate other areas, health interventions are our primary focus.
Comparing health charities
One useful measure of health interventions is the concept of “Quality-Adjusted Life Year” or QALY (and the related "Disability-Adjusted Life Year" or DALY), 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).
One of the primary goals of our research into global health
charities is to
identify which charities will do the most good, measured in QALYs per
dollar (or pound, or yen…) donated. However, even though these measures
are very useful to inform our recommendations, it is important to
stress that we do not blindly rely on these measures and they can only
ever give rough guidance for which health interventions might
potentially be very effective. We supplement our analysis with expert
opinions and common sense.
The impact of further donations
Although assessing the cost-effectiveness of existing programs of intervention should be the starting point for charity research, that is not the end of the matter. After all, we are not concerned with effectiveness in the abstract, but with the difference that additional or marginal 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. The charities that we recommend often only
carry out one particular very effective programme.
These are all things which we consider in our research before making our recommendations.
Finally, once we have found particularly effective charities, we frequently re-assess them, to be sure that we continue to point you towards the places where your donations can make the most difference.
Our biggest source of information, particularly for determining our charity recommendations, is the US charity evaluator GiveWell. Their rigorous research methodology focused on determining the overall good done by programs, combined with a strong commitment to transparency and the resources to investigate charities extremely thoroughly, make them an invaluable resource for determining the best charities to donate to.
We generally take into consideration any peer-reviewed research published in reputable journals. Our reports also draw on a number of primary sources, among which 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.
- The World Health Organisation WHO-CHOICE guide – A cost-effectiveness report similar in scope to DCP2.
We have further information about some of the key concepts for assessing charities.