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In response to my earlier post about the worst way to pick a charity, an old friend forwarded me this question:

You make some good points, but what should people be using then? How can people simply and quickly make a judgment? Results aren’t always the best—can you say the actual results from people giving to cancer or heart disease-related charities meet the expectations by the amount of dollars given? Compare that to those supporting inoculations, for example.

It’s a good question, and in my mind, the question we need to be asking because we don’t have a complete answer. Here’s my response:

There is something of a chicken/egg problem here: charities don’t produce effectiveness information because donor’s don’t ask for it. Donors don’t ask for it because they know they can’t get it.

That being said, there are a number of relatively new efforts that are doing some terrific things: GiveWell, Great Nonprofits, New Philanthropy Capital, Giving What We Can, Philanthropedia among others.

None of them are perfect and none of them provide a quick answer—but givers also have to understand that if they want their dollars to do the most good, they are going to have to devote some time to investigating and learning. You can make a quick donation or an effective donation. If your emphasis is on quick, you’re likely to get a commensurate return on the dollars you’ve invested.


I question the premise of trying to “simply and quickly make a judgment,“ as your friend mentions. Why should philanthropy be a snap decision, at the holidays or any time? Maybe a better approach is to get involved with nonprofits in more meaningful ways, such as volunteering, so that a) a donor gets to see a nonprofit’s work over time and from the inside, and b) the nonprofit gets a fairer forum to showcase its work than a rushed annual gift. As both a donor and a nonprofit employee, I’d rather build a relationship with an organization than have a holiday one-off. I don’t think I’m alone.

December 07, 2009

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