Why are there so many charities?

This article first published in the Financial Times.

Donors encourage smaller organisations — but does that help beneficiaries?

There are 165,000 registered charities in England and Wales alone, which people often say is a lot. But is it? Moreover, it is too many? It’s not clear what “the right number” of charities actually means. By comparison, the UK has nearly 30 times as many companies

The reason there are so many charities stems from the economics and dynamics of the charity sector, which are worth understanding as they’re completely different to those underpinning how businesses work. When entrepreneur and former mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, embarked upon philanthropy, Richard Riordan, then mayor of Los Angeles, advised him: “You are going into another world. It’s like going to Mars — [there is] a different logical and mathematical system.” Continue reading

Posted in Donor behaviour & giving stats, Effective giving | 1 Comment

Don’t spread the love with your Christmas charity giving

This article first published in the Financial Times.

One big donation will be more effective than several smaller ones

Would you prefer to receive one big present this Christmas, or lots of little ones? Your
inner child will tell you that holding out for one major gift that you really want is often the best choice. And the same goes for charities, who will benefit from one big donation this Christmas rather than numerous small gifts.

In my last How to Give it column, I told you how the insurance group Aviva has been inviting public involvement to give away £1.75m to “at least 800” non-profit organisations. Yet the evidence suggests that making numerous small gifts is not a good idea. Continue reading

Posted in Effective giving | Leave a comment

How we could can impact measurement more useful

This article first published in Civil Society Magazine

Most of the impact data charities gather does not help raise funds or improve performance

This opinion piece is a response to an article titled How do you measure the value of impact measurement? by David Ainsworth.

David’s article is actually mis-titled. It’s not a discussion of methods for measuring the


You don’t fatten a pig by weighing it every day

value of impact measurement, but rather stating a view that there may be none, which may explain why nobody seems interested in measuring it. I broadly agree with that. His article raises many points, so we’ll go carefully through them.

First, let’s be clear that “impact measurement” has two completely different purposes: first, helping to raise funds, and second, improving performance. Let’s consider them separately. Continue reading

Posted in Effective giving, Impact & evaluation | Leave a comment

What makes philanthropy succeed? – potentially revealing analysis

Remarkably little is known reliably about how to do philanthropy well – how to use it to achieve particular aims – despite philanthropy’s long and varied history. Giving Evidence (and others) is trying to fix this – to create reliable data and insight about which ways of giving work best in particular situations. And we have a new analysis underway to that end.

Donors choose (often unwittingly) between various ways of giving, e.g.,

  • being hands-on vs. hands-off
  • working solo vs. with other donors
  • whether to make many small grants vs. few larger ones
  • how and whether the grant is tracked
  • whether the donor gives, lends or invests
  • how grantees are chosen – how prospective grantees are sourced, the selection criteria, the application process, who’s involved in the selection process
  • and so on.

Probably some grants work out better than others. It would be useful to know which types of grant work out best in which circumstances. {We have now heard two stories of funders whose application processes are no better than random in terms of predicting grantee success, and one where one stage of the application process reduces the accuracy of predictions of grantee success. It’s worth knowing how to judge applications!} Continue reading

Posted in Effective giving | 1 Comment

When charitable donations cost more than they give

Popularity contests for funding waste time and resources

This article first published in the Financial Times.

Some charitable donors are a net drain: they cost organisations they seek to help more than they contribute. Others come pretty close, costing nearly as much as they give. 

When I was a charity chief executive myself, I personally handled a gift from a foundation. Dealing with it before and after we received the money cost us 90 per cent of amount it gave us.

Aviva’s Community Fund may be another salutary example. It has recently been inviting “community projects” to apply for a share of £1.75m, and says it will fund “at least 800” of them. We’ll return to the question of whether splitting funds into numerous small grants is a good idea. For now, let’s focus on the fact that Aviva’s applicants must get loads of people to vote for them in an online poll. This is partly a popularity contest; nearly 4,000 organisations have registered.

Continue reading

Posted in Effective giving, Impact & evaluation | Leave a comment

Creating a sector-wide research agenda: Industrial Farm Animal Production

Ask an important question an answer it reliably’ is a central tenet of medical research. Yet  much ‘impact research’ in the charity and social sectors (including monitoring and evaluation’) isn’t like that. Instead, we ask lots of questions, and answer them somewhat unreliably because resources won’t stretch to answering them all properly. The selection of questions which get answered is often driven by funders, rather than by what’s important operationally or unknown.

Giving Evidence has thought for a while that it would be better if sectors identified their key unanswered questions, prioritised them, and then systematically worked down the list, corralling the available research resource to answer each important question reliably. That is, if we used sector-wide research agendas – rather than answering badly loads of ad hoc monitoring and evaluation questions.

Continue reading

Posted in Impact & evaluation | Leave a comment

What is evidence-based giving and why does it matter?

Interview with Caroline Fiennes, Director of Giving Evidence (16 mins):


This interview was made possible by the Skoll Foundation. It was recorded in Oxford in April 2015, in a single take and with no notice of the questions.

More videos & radio interviews are right here!

Posted in Impact & evaluation, Promoting giving | Leave a comment

Avoiding waste in medical research

This article first published in the Financial Times.

The news that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla are putting $3bn towards “ending all disease” has renewed the spotlight on the giving of Silicon Valley’s wealthiest. They are not alone in their enthusiasm for medical research: it is also the most popular target of charitable giving in the UK. 

There is a problem, however: about 85 per cent of medical research is wasted. That’s equivalent to 22 of the 26 miles which people run in marathons to raise funds for research into cancer and other conditions. Globally, that waste costs around $170bn every year. Perhaps many of us suffer with conditions which could have been cured if those funds had been spent more productively.

Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

What would have happened otherwise?

First published in the FT.

Did the charity make it happen, or would it have happened anyway?

The purpose of a charity’s work — and your support for it — is to create a benefit beyond what would have happened anyway. This, of course, sounds obvious but (as my home discipline of physics powerfully attests) it’s fine to state the obvious as it can throw up some unexpected insights.

Charities are under considerable pressure to “demonstrate their impact”, yet few examine or recount what would have happened without them. “What difference does your work make beyond what would have happened anyway?” is perhaps the single most useful question that donors or trustees can ask.

Continue reading

Posted in Impact & evaluation | Leave a comment

The evidence system in the mental health charity sector

UK non-profits delivering mental health services are not great at producing or using scientific evidence.

This is the main finding of a new study by Giving Evidence. We interviewed 12 such organisations to understand their ‘evidence system’, i.e., how evidence is:

  • Produced
  • Synthesized
  • Shared, both ‘outbound’ from them and ‘inbound’ to them – and stored.

Screen Shot 2016-07-08 at 14.19.59

Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment