When did you last hear of a charity that was rubbish?
By some estimates, fully 60% of donations are made with no research into the charity’s performance.
Whereas about 0% of commercial investments are made with no research into the company’s performance.
Why the difference?
Because we never ever talk about bad charities. We hardly ever even talk about relative performance.
Commercial investors look for high-performance companies solely because they’re perfectly aware that poor-performing ones exist which they’d like to avoid. But most people just don’t know that some charities are much better – and, by implication, some much worse – than others. So of course it never occurs to them to find and avoid the poor-performing ones.
This isn’t some theoretical notion. I know of two programmes delivering the precise same outcome, one 96% cheaper than the other. It’s about education. So every time somebody funds one child through the more expensive programme, fully 24 children needlessly miss out. It’s described here, in Buy one, get 24 free!
We need to stop this.
All students must be above average
We don’t need to slag charities off, but can set up the notion of relative performance in how we talk. For example, rather than saying “x charity distributes books to schools in Ghana”, or even “x charity manages to distribute books to schools in Ghana for only $5/book”, it’s more powerful to say that “x charity delivers books to schools in Ghana more cheaply than any other programme”. Or “Y charity can provide the same level of care to more older people than other organisations do”, or “Z hospice is in the top quartile of hospices in the UK.” These types of statements are quite rare about charities, though perfectly normal elsewhere in our lives – schools, hospitals, local authorities, companies.
For sure it’s a tall order to do this. For one thing, evidence about charities’ individual performance is thin on the ground, let alone about their performance relative to others. But I see no attempt to rectify this. If you know of anybody publishing relative performance data, I’d be interested to hear. I have only ever seen the one example mentioned. And since we need more comparative data, we better be prepared to fund charities to collect it – or collect and collate it ourselves.
Of course, I appreciate that charities’ work varies – hospice care for a severely disabled person is a different kettle of fish to care for a non-disabled person – so comparisons are difficult. But that’s no excuse for not trying.
Since donors are allocating scarce resources, they obviously do make choices between charities. And if we – donors who are interested in ambitious charitable giving – never set up the notion of performance as a criterion, then it won’t be. We have only ourselves to blame if people choose based on other criteria – such as who’s famous, or large, or the best at asking for money, or has the best fluffy bunny photo.
So perhaps paradoxically those of us interested in high-impact giving should talk more about failure and about relative performance. If we only ever talk about charities being great, we feed the notion that giving to ANY charity is good enough. Which – if you’re one of those 24 children left behind – just isn’t true.