This article was first published in Spears Wealth Management
Philanthropists can learn a lot from the quiet mathematician who helped win World War II and whose centenary is celebrated this year. Alan Turing and the geniuses at Bletchley Park weren’t doing the type of work you’d associate with winning a war at all. They did maths, built groundbreaking computers and analysed data and patterns — yet they took two years off the conflict.
Too often philanthropists forget how much important work is done like this, in a backroom rather than on the frontline. They shouldn’t neglect the maths — and indeed the science — behind philanthropy, which finds out what actually works.
Systematic reviews, done by people analysing statistics away from the frontline, save lives: possibly even your own. The Cochrane Collaboration does such reviews and has stopped airlines selling you devices which ostensibly prevent malaria but were ineffective. It also prevented people in South India after the 2004 tsunami from getting ‘brief debriefing’, a single-session counselling service designed to prevent trauma which is sometimes used (successfully) after bank raids, but was shown to be at best pointless after a natural disaster.
The Cochrane Collaboration has done over 5,000 reviews through over 20,000 researchers in a hundred countries. At only £18 million a year, its cost is virtually trivial compared to global health spending, yet (with luck) it influences every doctor, nurse and procedure in many countries.
Many smart donors such as Bill Gates therefore support this type of analytical work which, though less visible and immediate, is ultimately more influential than more classic frontline work. The upside of this work is its reach, but its downsides include time and complexity — results can take ages to appear, and it’s tough to say which donor or charity ‘caused’ them.
There remain many, many opportunities for analytical work with this kind of reach, and it’s almost always under-resourced.
Let’s take two from education. Phonics is used to teach children to read, despite having pretty much zero reliable evidence of whether it actually works. And donors and others enthusiastically promote One Laptop Per Child, yet we still don’t really know whether (or when or where) that works either.
Turing would be on the case.