Blog post

Do many charities fail to help people?

8 min read
21 Jul 2022

Whether their mission is combating malaria, improving global literacy, researching cancer cures, or fighting climate change, we naturally assume that charitable organisations have noble intentions. Indeed, the very word ‘charity’ derives from the Latin noun caritas, describing affectionate love towards fellow human beings. So it can feel incredibly mean-spirited to stop and ask whether charities actually benefit the people they intend to help. If their motives are altruistic and their methods are plausible, shouldn’t we just trust them to put our donations to good use?

Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case: despite their worthy motives, many charities don’t help people as effectively as they could, and some even cause harm. Acknowledging this doesn’t mean we are being cynical and judgemental; rather, it allows us to make the biggest possible difference to alleviate the suffering of others by supporting causes using methods that have been proven to work.

When helpful turns harmful

For a perfect illustration of a charity that is ineffective at best and harmful at worst, look no further than PlayPumps. The idea is simple: children play on a specially-designed roundabout, water is drawn up through a connected borehole to the surface, and the result is a new playground and system for providing safe water. On the surface, it seems a brilliantly creative solution. Within a few years of launching, PlayPumps were being hailed as a game-changer solution, having won a World Bank Development Marketplace Award, as well as sponsorship from a dedicated bottled-water brand and major celebrities.

But this honeymoon soon turned sour when major flaws in PlayPumps’ design became apparent. The pumps often broke down, were difficult to maintain and repair, and could only draw water when the roundabout was in motion —  resulting in exhausted, weary children, compelled to keep turning the unwieldy devices long after the fun had worn off. When consulted by aid organisations, the communities said they preferred the previous hand pumps, which dispensed more water for considerably less effort. In 2007, UNICEF issued a highly critical report of PlayPumps, which included the observation that “key stakeholders in the water sector are not comfortable knowing that the $14,000 paid for each unit would have covered several conventional handpump-equipped boreholes or wells, thereby providing safe drinking water to far more people than one PlayPump can.”

It wasn’t simply a case of PlayPumps not being the best approach to the problem: they were actually getting in the way of better solutions. Yet the charity is still in operation, using largely the same model.

We can find more examples from medical aid. Across the world, NGOs, pharmaceutical companies, and charities distribute medical devices and drugs to low-income countries, yet often these are highly unsuited to local contexts. At worst, this can result in ‘graveyards’ of defunct equipment cluttering up hospitals and recipient countries burdened with high disposal costs for inappropriate medicines.

In a comprehensive review on the effectiveness of medical donations made between 2009–2017, researchers from the University of Sydney concluded that most did not fully comply with World Health Organization guidelines, and that “40–70% of donated medical devices are not used as they are not functional, appropriate, or staff lack training.” Other issues included lack of spare parts to fix devices that broke, instructions provided in non-native languages, equipment being donated without all the required parts, and devices requiring a different power voltage to that used within the country.

Six reasons why ineffective charities exist

Even when charities don’t cause outright harm, their effectiveness can vary massively. But if certain charities are so much better than others, why do the less effective ones persist? Some of the main reasons include:

1. We underestimate the differences in effectiveness

Most people are unaware of just how large the differences in charities’ effectiveness can be. For instance, one recent study found that members of the general public estimated the most effective charities helping the global poor to be only 1.5 times more effective than average charities, while charity experts estimated the factor to be 100.

2. Lack of ‘market pressure’

Charities are not like ‘for-profit’ companies selling products and services. If one company sold its products at 100x the price of the market average, it would quickly go out of business. But as we are generally ignorant about the difference in effectiveness between charities, this means that donors do not consistently donate more to the most effective charities. Consequently, there is no equivalent market pressure in the charity sector, which allows ineffective charities to persist.

3. Charities underinvest in overhead costs

Often, charities try to minimise overhead costs to appeal to donors but this can lead to counterproductive outcomes, such as underinvestment in staff salaries (making it hard to recruit skilled labour) and outdated administration systems. In contrast, studies have confirmed that well-organised charities backed by solid infrastructures and highly trained staff typically leverage greater impact from their funds.

4. Charities fail to consult their intended beneficiaries

Many of the pitfalls behind PlayPumps could have been avoided if the time and effort had been made to consult the people the charity was trying to help, and to understand their local environment. Similarly, many charities fail to involve end-users, assuming a (rather arrogant) ‘West knows best’ approach. In their review on medical aid, for instance, the Sydney researchers found that “few donor organisations conducted needs assessments prior to donations.”

5. Scope neglect

In general, people’s generosity does not scale proportionately with the number who could benefit. For instance, one study found that people were willing to spend nearly the same amount to save 2,000, 20,000, or 200,000 birds from a disastrous oil spill. Studies have also confirmed that we can be misled by ‘pseudoinefficacy’, where if a vast number of people are suffering or at risk from a problem, we feel that acting to save a single life is just ‘a drop in the ocean’ and therefore less valuable. It appears that we are more drawn to causes where we can help the highest proportion of affected people, rather than focusing on the absolute numbers.

6. Emotions can override logic

Our giving habits can be heavily influenced by our emotions, with the result that fundraising appeals that induce feelings such as empathy, compassion or guilt are more likely to move us to donate. We can also be easily led by ‘trendy’ campaigns backed by celebrities (remember how the Ice Bucket Challenge went viral?).  As reporter Andrew Chambers put it: “The great tragedy is that by being drawn to easily marketable gimmicks, more appropriate and sustainable projects are in ever greater danger of being neglected.”

We are also more likely to donate to causes we feel a personal connection with, even if they won’t achieve the most additional impact possible. For instance, in high-income countries virtually everyone has either battled cancer or known someone who has. Consequently, many can be more inclined to donate to cancer research instead of, for instance, malaria prevention, despite the fact that additional funding towards cancer research is unlikely to save as many lives as anti-malaria interventions.

The solution to ineffective charities: Effective altruism

If we want to do good in the world, it is important that we are aware of the differences in charities effectiveness, because these have huge implications for the world’s poor. When a weaker solution is backed at the expense of a better one, it ultimately means fewer lives saved or improved. What’s more, our budgets are limited, and every dollar donated to an ineffective charity is one that could have been given to an exceptionally high-performing charity.

Happily, we are free to donate our money as we choose. This means we can simply focus on the best-performing charities for areas with the potential to make a strong impact. Indeed, doing the most good we can with the resources we have (including our time, career and income) is the fundamental principle of effective altruism. But how do we work out which are the most effective charities?

Thankfully there are several organisations that have already done the hard work for us, rigorously evaluating charities through many lenses. Their assessments consider factors such as evidence of successful programmes, cost-effectiveness, transparency, what they would do with additional funding, and whether the issue is being addressed by other charities and organisations (or ‘how neglected the issue is’). This means that if you donate to charities on their recommended lists, you can be confident that your dollars (or equivalent) will achieve as much good as possible.

Examples include:

  • GiveWell: Focuses on charities with the potential to save and improve as many human lives as possible. By donating to their Maximum Impact Fund, your donation will be allocated to the charity or charities that Givewell’s research team recommends at the end of each quarter will likely achieve the most impact with your money.
  • Animal Charity Evaluators: Reviews charities dedicated to helping animals (wild and domestic) including through lobbying for improved animal welfare, advocating dietary change and by providing veterinary care.
  • Founders Pledge: A London-based charitable initiative, which encourages entrepreneurs to donate a portion of their personal proceeds to charity when they sell their business. Their advisory team produce research reports with recommended charities for a range of different areas.

For those passionate about preventing global catastrophic risks, such as nuclear war and bioterrorism, you can find advice from both 80,000 Hours and Giving What We Can on key priority areas. And for new or small charities that may not have been assessed yet, William MacAskill, author of Doing Good Better, has developed five key questions to help you decide whether it is worth your money.

Sometimes, effective altruism is misinterpreted as a cold-hearted, emotionless logic-driven approach to giving. But at its core, effective altruism is driven by a desire to do the most good for others. Your money is precious and deciding to give it to others is a beautiful act of compassion. How empowering it is then, to donate to charities that you can trust to be achieving the most impact from your gift.

So next time you are presented with a collection bucket, stop and ask — is this charity really helping people as well as it could be?