Who to give to this Christmas: giving recommendations

Whom should you support this Christmas (or in your will)?

As we’ve discussed here before, the data on charities’ effectiveness is really ropey, so this question is harder than it should be.

In international development, there are some reliable independent analysts which recommend high-performing charities. The Life You Can Save (disclosure: in which I am involved), founded by the ethicist Peter Singer, recommends 21 charities, each of which either delivers work based on decent evidence, or creates new evidence about what works.

An oddly-effective gift can be something given to somebody else. And actually these aren’t just for people who has everything: our gifts ‘to’ our nieces last year included warm jackets and school books for refugee Syrian children. They were from the charity Help Refugees which last year had a shop in London called ‘Choose Love’, and this year has shops in both London and New York City. You receive a certificate saying that you’ve bought some item for a refugee, and that’s what you give to your friend. You can buy boots, a tent, legal advice, food, etc. – or everything in the shop. I was a bit apprehensive, but actually our nieces were impressively understanding and grateful: perhaps any child knows the horrors of being cold.

Various charities offer these kinds of gifts: Oxfam does through its Unwrapped catalogue, and the Good Gifts Catalogue collates them from various charities.

Odd though it may sound, the trick here is to ensure that the charity does NOT specify that the money will be used for precisely the object described. This is because you and I have not the faintest idea about what is really needed. Those decisions are much better taken by the people affected and/or people who work directly with them. For example, the Good Gifts Catalogue offers ‘soap for an African hospital’. Well, I have never done an assessment of the most urgent needs of hospitals in ‘Africa’ (which is a big place and heterogeneous place!) Maybe they need soap, maybe they don’t. I do not want my money buying soap for some hospital which already has loads of soap but is desperate for, say, needles – or for nurses doing pre-hospital care out in the community.

This flexibility isn’t subterfuge on the charity’s part. Rather, it’s about ensuring that they’re serving a need that actually exists.

Oxfam and Help Refugees sensibly reserve the right to deploy your donation where it’s needed. Even Send A Cow – which you might think only sends cows – says “if a community is best suited to cows, they will get cows. If they can better manage chickens, they will get chickens. This means that your donation will be used wherever the need is greatest, and on the appropriate livestock and training.” Quite right.

On the domestic front, we’ve discussed before, a couple of charities which are based on solid evidence and/or which produce their own: Power of Two which improves cognitive development of young children in New York City; and the Belgian Red Cross, which both serves people in Belgium and humanitarian situations elsewhere, and produces rigorous evidence to support the whole field.

And globally, we see the harm from “alternative facts” in the public discourse – not just

Just saying…

from politicians, but from anybody. They pollute attitudes and decisions on everything – across education, health, housing, foreign policy, international development policy, commercial decisions, the air quality.

Calling them out are independent fact-checkers: Full Fact in the UK, FactCheck.org in the US, AfricaCheck in South Africa, Chequado in Argentina, and others. They also get retractions and corrections – even from Prime Ministers.

Over time, their work gains pace. “Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale hath had its effect.” That was probably true when Jonathan Swift wrote it in 1710. But the fact-checkers’ work on live-fact-checking (for example) political debates, and on automated fact-checking enables them to stem the jest and mitigate its effect.

Clearly the fact-checkers can’t be funded by governments, so rely on donations. They benefit us all.

Given the state of the world right now, the fact-checkers are a top recommendation this Christmas.


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Empowering the poorest of the poor

This article first published in the Financial Times

The global ‘gig economy’ is awash with the downtrodden and effective campaigners

The council wanted them out. The Grand Parade area in front of Cape Town’s City Hall needed to be clear for filming one day last month, so the market traders who have their stalls there would need to disappear. There have been traders on that stretch of ground for hundreds of years and, for them, a day without trading is a day without income.

But they had taken a lesson from the previous month. In February, they were to be removed for the then-president Jacob Zuma’s “state of the nation” address, as the Grand Parade area might have been needed for a helicopter landing.

In the end the whole plan changed because of Mr Zuma’s resignation. By March, though, the Grand Parade United Traders Association and its member stallholders knew about their legal rights, and, by showing that the council had not followed “due process”, had the clearance halted. Continue reading

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Hoorah: A funder rigorously assessed its own performance

This article first published in the Financial Times.

Break out the champagne. Somebody’s finally done it. I’ve been saying for a while that funders should investigate empirically whether their “help” for non-profit organisations actually does help. It is not guaranteed: some funders create so much work for non-profits that their “support” is in fact a net drain.

GlobalGiving has been called the “eBay of international development”: a website which lists vetted non-profits, improving their visibility to prospective donors, and also offers them training of various types. A quasi-funder, it has recently investigated whether and how its support helps non-profits, and published the results. It is a prospective study and, to my knowledge, the first ever. Let’s hope that many other donors follow suit. Continue reading

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Introduction to monitoring and evaluation

With Keystone Accountability, we recently worked for a funder who was relatively new to monitoring / evaluation / learning. We created for them a ‘primer’ to introduce some of the key concepts a ‘primer’ to introduce some of the key concepts, and are publishing it because we feel, and hope, that the material is useful for a wider audience of funders and implementers.

It is designed to explain what monitoring is, and what evaluation is, and how they differ. We structured our thinking into a four-level framework. This simply splits out the various questions about monitoring and evaluation (note that, as the document explains, monitoring and evaluation are two completely different things, even though they are often conflated):

  • Level 1: dimensions of the grant; inputs (such as grant size) and grantee activities
  • Level 2: tracking changes around the grantee, e.g., increase in number of jobs, change in grantee partner revenue, number of workshops run
  • Level 3: evaluating grantees: i.e., establishing what of those changes result from (i.e., are attributable to) the grantee partner
  • Level 4: evaluating a funder: i.e., establishing what of those changes result from (i.e., are attributable) to the funder

We present these four levels as a ladder, because the issues at Level 1 are simpler than those at Level 2, and so on, both in terms of the types of data / analysis needed and the conceptual complexity.

Download the primer here.Why charities should do much less evaluation–>

Various types of monitoring, evaluation and other information that funders need (2nd half of this talk) –>

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Perils and pitfalls of evidence-based philanthropy

Keynote talk and very spirited panel at the Philanthropic Foundations of Canada, Toronto, Oct 2018.

Notice the all-female panel 🙂

(We will eventually cut the slides into this so you can see what Caroline was talking about. For now, you can download them here and follow what’s going on.)


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Getting research into practice: Keynote at Global Evidence and Implementation Summit, 2018

Caroline Fiennes gave a keynote presentation at the Global Evidence and Implementation Summit in Melbourne, October 2018. To watch, click on the photo and wait a second. You may need to log in – any email address is fine. Excuse the didgeridoo interruption!

Speaking (2)

Other talks from the conference are here.



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With all due diligence: Claims made by some ‘impact investments’ do not stack up

Demanding a financial return often reduces the social benefit rather more often than impact investors let on

A version of this article first published in the Financial Times.

It is a beguiling offer — an investment that can produce a financial return and also a social / environmental benefit. Private benefit plus public benefit. It probably does happen sometimes but certainly not for every impact investment product. Investors must be on their guard.

The impact of something is the difference between the world in which that thing happens versus the world in which it does not. So assessing impact means considering what would have happened without it.

This is how to assess the impact of anything. For example what would have become of you if you had not been educated? What would have happened to Europe without the reparations demanded from Germany after World War I?

Establishing what would have happened otherwise, the counterfactual, is sometimes impossible as in the reparations example. In those cases we have to make reasonable conjectures based on everything else we know. Sometimes it is possible – though it may be complicated. This is a whole branch of social science. Continue reading

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Foundation boards are a throwback to a ‘male, pale and stale’ world

Lack of diversity is a problem for foundations and grant-making committees

This article first published in the Financial Times.

Every donor who sets up a charitable foundation needs a board. And every company  starting a charitable programme needs to determine who will make the decisions about what it does and whom it supports.

There seems to be a major problem with these boards. In the UK, 99 per cent of foundation board members are white, according to data published this summer by the Association of Charitable Foundations. Only three per cent of foundation trustees are under 45 years old. Sixty per cent are retired. Two-thirds are male. They are “drawn from a narrow cross-section of society: white British, older and above average income,” the report says.

When a friend of mine began running a foundation outside Europe, she discovered that several people listed as trustees were, in fact, dead. The dead are weirdly important in philanthropy – for example, they are major donors – but they’re not meant to be making decisions. Continue reading

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Charity begins with admitting we got it wrong

We need to be scientific and fearless about assessing whether proposed solutions work

This article first published in the FT

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation seems to have wasted six years and $1bn, having initiated a programme to improve teaching effectiveness in US schools. An evaluation released last month showed that it had a negligible effect on its goals — some of them worsened — which included student achievement, access to effective teaching and dropout rates.

Much the same happened to Ark, the UK-based charity founded by the hedge fund industry. It created and co-funded a programme in 25,000 schools in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, supporting the government to improve school performance. It was based on sound research about how to reduce teacher absence, improve teaching and create more accountability through school inspections. Ark has worked on it since 2012. Continue reading

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Charities (gasp!) using and producing sound evidence

This article first published in the Financial Times.

Anne Heller has done something that I had never previously seen in my 18 years in the non-profit sector. She identified a social problem, scoured academic literature to find a solution, and then set up a non-profit to implement it. That approach sounds jaw-droppingly obvious, but it is in fact very rare for a charity to design itself around existing evidence.

Ms Heller had worked for the city of New York when Michael Bloomberg was mayor, running shelters for homeless families. She noticed that about 10 per cent of the families who use the shelters returned repeatedly. In other words, the services which the shelters provided were not solving these people’s problems. Continue reading

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