Evidence-based philanthropy made easy

This talk explains what evidence-based giving is, why it matters, and how it needn’t be soooo complicated. Even the first 30 seconds here show why minimising administrative costs to keep an aid programme ‘cheap’ is a bad idea.

This talk was given in Vienna (notice how Caroline had accidentally turned up basically wearing the Austrian flag…), which is why bits of it are in German:

The main points were:

  1. Why should you care about evidence?

Because evidence (alone) will save you from wasting your money / time, and possibly making a problem worse

  1. On what do you need evidence?
  • Where is the problem and why is it there?
  • What is effective at solving it?
  1. Most charities shouldn’t do evaluations
  2. Use what already exists, esp. systematic reviews
  3. If no decent evidence, either do something else, or fund the production of it. Don’t guess!

Watch more about doing evidence-based giving…>

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Top charities to support 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. Continue reading

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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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