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 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.

Research on this so far has consistently shown health interventions to be 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

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 into health charities 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 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 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 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 sources

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.

Our reports also draw on a number of primary sources, among which are:

Further information

We have further information about some of key concepts for assessing charities.