Political change

Notice about research

Giving What We Can no longer conducts our own research into charities and cause areas. Instead, we're relying on the work of organisations including J-PAL, GiveWell, and the Open Philanthropy Project, which are in a better position to provide more comprehensive research coverage.

These research reports represent our thinking as of late 2016, and much of the information will be relevant for making decisions about how to donate as effectively as possible. However we are not updating them and the information may therefore be out of date.

Measuring the cost-effectiveness of political advocacy charities is difficult because the success of their campaigns is difficult to quantify. However, there are several past examples of successful and highly cost-effective political campaigns, which suggest that advocacy is an area well worth researching. We have not yet identified a political advocacy charity that exceeds our current top-rated charities. However, this area is promising, and it may be that donating to political advocacy charities that lobby for greater government spending on developing world aid will 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 programmes, 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. These factors are difficult to estimate to a satisfying degree of certainty.

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.


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.


Case Study 1: The 'tax holiday' Act

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 from the resulting passage of the American Jobs Creation Act 2004. 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 Act.[1]

Case Study 2: Advocating for TB control

In 2011, the advocacy charity RESULTS claimed that each dollar it had invested in advocacy for TB control had resulted in around $240 of aid being donated. If this is even approximately true, their advocacy appears to be successful.

Case Study 3: Advocating for NTDs

Giving What We Can estimates 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 included prominent mentions of the GN in US reports on NTDs and their funding, the fact that funding increased dramatically following GN campaigns, etc.) and dividing these by the GN's total budget over the same period of time.

Case Study 4: University funding

Several US universities sought federal earmarks for their funding. A group of academics have estimated that the returns on lobbying expenditure were negligible 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: Trade Justice

Many organisations have dedicated a huge amount of resources to campaign for fairer international trade rules. Such policy changes would have a significant effect on quality of life in the developing world. However, we have struggled to find evidence of any international trade rules that have changed as a result of the many years of Trade Justice campaigning, suggesting that the cost:result ratios are very high for the methods employed so far, particularly compared with programmes like malaria net distribution and NTD control.

We have investigated the likely cost-effectiveness 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
  • Campaign in areas where there is room for further high impact successes

A group of charities appearing to fit these criteria well are those advocating for greater government spending on developing world aid interventions already proven to be cost-effective. This is the form of political advocacy charity we have researched to the greatest extent thus far.


Consider 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 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 directly (presumably, this only generates $100 worth of ITN delivery- around 20 bed nets). So should we not always give to Advocaid rather than, for example, AMF?

In fact, there remain several reasons why giving to the direct delivery charity (e.g., AMF) could be more cost-effective than giving to the advocacy charity:

1. The Opportunity Cost


The aid that advocacy raises for a particular cost-effective intervention is being diverted from a second intervention that is similarly, or even more, cost-effective.

The Explanation:

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 to a lesser extent) how much they spend on 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 a 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 can be highly cost-effective, at the $30-60/DALY level.

If accurate, these findings would mean that advocacy for any particular cost-effective health intervention can only have a positive impact where it:

  • Does not result in less money for programmes that are at least average in terms of cost-effectiveness
  • 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 programmes directly (like AMF and SCI):

  • It must generate a higher ratio of aid for each dollar spent by the charity, to ensure that the money spent on advocacy results in only a marginal effect on the cost-effectiveness of each aid dollar moved.

Our findings about the mean cost-effectiveness of health aid are still very tentative; however, this is also true of our model of the dynamics of health aid. If it turns out that the mean cost-effectiveness of health aid is in fact worse than our estimated figure of $30-60/DALY, or that the least cost-effective interventions rather than those of average or greater cost-effectiveness 'miss out' on funding when advocacy is successful, the beneficial impact of investing in advocacy would prove far more cost-effective. It would then be promising as a top charitable intervention to support.

In fact, there are lots of caveats to our $30-60/DALY figure. Please see this blog post for more information about how we came to this estimate, and how we think it should be used in practice.

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.

The Explanation:

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 exists. 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.

The Explanation:

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 in the UK's funding for NTD control. In addition, the successful completion of cost-effective aid programs may have a 'demonstration effect' conducive to securing increased funding 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. We have not yet identified an advocacy charity with a cost-effectiveness that 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-ranked 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 exist can be identified and recommended.


RESULTS/ACTION USA: See full evaluation here.


  1. See the recommendations of the Copenhagen Consensus Expert Panel and GiveWell's overview of international health charities.

Last updated: in or before 2012