I am not engaged to Matt Ridley!

Polyvore is reporting the engagement of ‘Hon. Caroline Fiennes and Hon. Matthew White Ridley’. Congratulations to them!

However, please know that that is not me. In fact, we’ve no idea who it is: I know of three Caroline Fiennes’es, none of whom is engaged to Matt Ridley and nobody in our family knows of a titled Caroline Fiennes. Furthermore, father, son and grandfather in the Ridley family are/were all called  Matthew: the use of the ‘Hon.’ for the Matthew here implies that it refers to the son of Lord (Matt) Ridley, the science writer and former chairman of Northern Rock.

The joys of big families. On which note, here is a random photo of Ralph and me:

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The variable value of £50

I have been looking through the catalogue for spending airmile-type points from the airline Etihad. Alongside the various objects and experiences are vouchers at various retailers. Strikingly, the price (in points) of a £50 voucher varies between retailers – pretty substantially. Money at Harrods costs over an eighth more than it does at Goldsmith, a high street jeweller. I thought that kind of funny because ostensibly £50 is worth the same anywhere.

I’ve long hated vouchers. They’re a way of giving people money but destroying much of the value – choice – therein. At best they’re an interest-free loan to the retailer; at worst you lose them and it’s a donation to the retailer.

Here’s the range of ‘prices’ for £50 vouchers on Etihad’s airmiles programme (i.e. a £50 Harrods voucher costs 11,815 points):

11,815 Harrods, £50
11,802 Selfridges, £50
11,720 Marks & Spencer, £50
11,531 Boots, £50
10,739 Interflora, £50
10,490 Goldsmith, £50
3,222 iTunes, £15
10,740 iTunes, £50 (equivalent)
Variance in cost of £50 vouchers

Even money is more expensive at Harrods. Funny old game. Gotta love classical economics…




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Family news

A member of our family, James Fiennes, was recently fatally stabbed in London. Obviously this is truly dreadful news. James’ wife is called Caroline – that is, Caroline Fiennes. However she is not me: she does not work with charities or philanthropy – as misreported in The Telegraph and Daily Mail. (Neither is she the other Caroline Fiennes, Ralph & Joseph’s step-mother).

Obviously our thoughts and prayers are with Caroline and her family.

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The trouble with Nobel Prizes

… is that they don’t go where you’d think they should go.

Nobel 2Badly-organised prizes are characterised by rewarding people who nobody thinks should be rewarded. A good example is elections which are obviously rigged: nobody believes that the ‘winner’ should have won.

Well-organised prizes recognise precisely the people they should recognise. The Venn diagram is like this. The Wimbledon Championships this year is a good example: everybody thinks Nobel 1 that Marion Bartoli and Andy Murray should have received the singles prizes this year, because they got to the finals and won. No negotiation, no subjective judgement, no disagreement. Though you might think it was kind of weird that so many top women flunked out making Bartoli’s path strangely easy (she didn’t play any top 10 player all tournament), nobody disputes her prize. Royalty is another example: there’s no debate about who gets the crown, irrespective of any discontent about the rules of succession or indeed the whole monarchy system itself.

In Nobel Prizes, the overlap between the circles seems uncomfortably small. The group of people who ought to get it and who do get it – the intersection – includes the International Red Cross (Peace), Crick & Watson for discovering DNA (Medicine) and so on.  But there seem to be many recipients who don’t obviously merit it, such as President Obama in his first year in office, and the European Union. Since literary genius and contribution is often contested, I imagine that many literature prizes are controversial. Nobel 3On the other side of the Venn diagram, there are many people and organisations who one thinks should get it but don’t. The physicist Jocelyn Bell is perhaps the best example: her discovery of pulsars landed Nobel Prizes for her two (male) supervisors but not for her. (She’s still alive, so it’s not too late for the Nobel Committee to correct.) Einstein never got one for relativity – arguably the greatest achievement of the human mind – despite empirical evidence (a prerequisite for the Prize) during his lifetime. Another example might be physicist Peter Higgs for his accurate prediction of the particle which bears his name. It’s possible that that Higgs is ineligible because his predication resulted from a collaboration between many people and the Prize can be shared by no more than three people, though it could be awarded to CERN, for finding the particle, because organisations can receive it.

A further problem is the list of subjects. It excludes maths or anything related to technology, yet includes peace and literature which are unavoidably subjective and hence controversial. To see the limitations, try to figure out in which category could recognise Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the internet, or contributions to international poverty alleviation.

Such developments are perhaps the real dynamite of our time.

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MPs should donate their payrise if they really don’t want it

UK MPs are to have a payrise of £8000 which many say they don’t want. They may be unable to avoid it because their salaries are set by an independent body. So they should give it away. Giving Evidence’s Caroline Fiennes has this letter in the Financial Times today:

Dear Sir,
If MPs truly don’t want to receive their proposed payrise as some are claiming, they could donate it to charity or other social-purpose organisations. Such donations can be made well or badly, and such organisations vary between fantastically effective and useless. Giving Evidence, which supports donors to give well, is happy to advise any MP on expertly offloading their windfall.
Yours, Caroline Fiennes

If you are an MP – or anyone else – wanting to donate money or other resources, do get in touch, at enquiries [at] giving-evidence [dot] com 

Some quick pointers:

– ‘they could donate to charity or other social purpose organisations’: Much charitable work and ‘good work’ is done by entities which aren’t registered charities. For instance, social enterprises, co-operatives and mutuals, some arts organisations, and some universities aren’t charities, for good reasons.  The ‘charitable work’ in which you’re interested may be best done by local authorities, individuals (e.g., artists, carers), or even for-profit companies, e.g., developing pharmaceutical drugs.  There’s a whole chapter on this in It Ain’t What You Give.

– ‘such donations can be made well or badly’. One bad way of giving is to divide the funds between loads of recipients,  as we discussed in Freakonomics. The bad ways become more pronounced, and worse, when giving at scale, as illustrated by NatWest’s Community Force programme.

– ‘such organisations vary between fantastically effective and useless’: this article and this one document sizeable variation in the effectiveness of charitable programmes. Here are examples of charitable programmes which don’t work, and here is perhaps one of the worst charities in the world.

– If you just want some good organisations to fund, look at those we’ve recommended, are recommended by Giving What We Can or GiveWell. If you’re giving a lot, are a company, want to be engaged with orgs which you’re funding, and/or can’t the lists mentioned don’t have a good fit for you, do get in touch.

And never, ever judge a charity by its admin costs. Here’s why–>

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Why Nobody Gains from Valentine’s Day

All people in the universe are either in a relationship or not, and all people in the universe are either happy about that or not. Whichever category you’re in, Valentine’s Day is useless – with one microscopic and surprising exception.


Happy Singles

It’s totally irrelevant! And at the margin, a bit annoying because you can’t get a restaurant table, lots of your friends can’t come out to play because they’re out on contrived dates (see below), and should you happen to want to buy flowers for your mum, they’re suddenly absurdly expensive.

Happy Couples

They don’t need it: they’ll be capable of being romantic without instruction from Clinton Cards or whomever. Since spontaneity, originality and celebrating our uniqueness are central to love and romance, Valentine’s Day is a hindrance because it suggests actions (dinner, flowers etc.) which aren’t our own. Flowers on Valentine’s Day are less expressive, romantic or thoughtful than flowers on any other day of the year.

Unhappy Singles

Oh dear. Valentine’s Day highlights their misery. And not just for the one day, because the cards and flowers in shops remind them of their misery for weeks beforehand. Plus it pretty much prohibits dating for a while, for fear of an unnaturally fake ‘romantic’ dinner on the big day.

These may be the biggest losers, because the spotlight on their unhappy single-dom may prompt them into bad relationships.

Unhappy Couples

What are they supposed to do? Pretend, for one day, that everything’s OK, and go for an excruciating date together? Try to ignore it? Split up to avoid it?

In fact, this group may contain the only winners from the day – ironically – since it may prompt bad relationships to conclude rather than drag on.

So there we have it. Valentine’s Day is helpful for precisely nobody. Except…

The business of business…

Of course, the winners of Valentine’s Day are card companies, florists, chocolatiers, restaurant-owners, jewellers and other purveyors of other predictable ostensible vestiges of romance. Vestiges best ignored by real lovers who delight in celebrating each others’ individuality in more personal ways.

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This it not my main blog! That’s at www.giving-evidence.com

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Here’s the link to the petition about the Leveson enquiry which Madeline McCann’s father’s asked you to sign: http://hackinginquiry.org/petition/

And here’s the bespoke letter I just sent to my MP about it, and libel reform (MPs are said to take more notice of tailored letters):

I write about two issues related to free press and free speech.

First, Leveson. I, for one, would like to see the recommendations implemented in full. Furthermore, my conversations with many friends, people on social networks, and colleagues, indicate that many others share this view. Many of these are your constituents: and they are all UK voters. Trevor Kavanagh’s view expressed on TV last night that the electorate don’t care is rubbish.

The Prime Minister said that he would implement the recommendations if they were “not bonkers”. They are not.

He further said this week that “we should think very very hard before doing anything which would impair free speech”. Well the guy he asked to think very very hard about this has done that, and recommended some things, so the PM should do them. Leveson was abundantly clear in his statement on Thursday that the legislation he calls for does not amount to state regulation of the press. It’s rubbish to claim (as the BBC’s Nick Robinson said the PM might) that we couldn’t explain this to the Russians.

Is the PM a man or a mouse? We’ve been in the last chance saloon umpteen times before and there have been way too many suicides of innocent people hounded by the out-of-control press. Time to act. As he said he would.

Of course the newspapers on Friday were supporting his ludicrous position: they don’t want to be managed at all. Which is precisely why Leveson thinks they should.

Why is the PM defending the interests of Mr Murdoch over those of Milly Dowler’s parents? The electorate will never forgive him.

Second, not unrelatedly, thinking “very very hard before doing anything which would impair free speech” also pertains to libel reform, about which we have corresponded before. The Bill currently in the House of Lords is an improvement but not enough. It still lacks a ‘public interest defence’, and hence still wouldn’t have prevented Simon Singh, Ben Goldacre and Peter Wilmshurst from being dragged through the courts for highlighting medical practices which are dangerous. [I spent an hour on the phone yesterday to the guy who runs the libel reform campaign, so this is likely to be accurate.]

Government by the people, of the people and for the people means letting them speak about truth and science, and not have journalists putting messages in their children’s lunchboxes or accusing them of murdering their own children.

Yours sincerely,

Caroline Fiennes

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MoneyBox Live: good questions to ask

I’m on BBC Radio 4’s MoneyBox Live today (Weds 13th June, 3pm), answering questions from the public about charitable giving. Do call! (Here’s how.) I’ve suggested some questions you might like to ask – about which charities to back and how – and some boring topics to avoid.

Particularly interesting questions

– Charities make lots of claims about how good they are. How do we know if those claims are true?

– What are the best ways to give?

– Is it true that big funders waste lots of resources? [Yes] How can I / they avoid that?

– Can my company do anything charitable? What are the best things for a company to do? What are the best examples of corporate giving? [Answer: Goldman Sachs’ work on the IFFIm]

– I’ve got no money but I’d still like to help charities. Any ideas of what I can do? [Yes]

– Are Oxfam goats (etc.) a good way to help a charity? MoneySavingExpert says that often your money might not actually go to buying a goat. Does that matter?

– What do charities actually do with all their money?

– Why aren’t charities more open about what they do? [I don’t know: I’ve said before that they should have public AGMs, for example.]

– People often draw parallels between charities and business. But can’t it learn also from other disciplines? [Yes, lots]

– There seem to be lots of philanthropy advisors. How do I know the basis on which they advise? (Well, you know the basis Giving Evidence uses because it’s laid out in an entire book.)

Passably interesting questions

– How do I find a great charity? [Or] I’ve found a charity: how do I know if it’s any good?

– Charities spend too much on advertising.

– Why don’t charities tell you how much of your money goes to the actual cause?

– Why’s there no ranking of charities? [Or] What are the best charities in the UK?

– Why are there so many charities? Surely they should consolidate a bit?

– Why are so many charities based in London?

– Many charities have lots of money already. Should that affect whether I give to them? [Yes: but not always in the way you’d think.]

– Should I set up a foundation?

– Small charities are better than large ones:  they’re more efficient.

Boring questions to avoid 

– What are the most tax-efficient ways to give? [The answer to this Q is very detailed, depends on the context of your own finances, and anyway, the gains from giving tax-efficiently are tiny compared to the gains from choosing the best charities and giving in the best ways. Tax efficiency might gain you 60%, but choosing a great charity could easily gain you 200%, sometimes 2400% (yes really), and giving in the best ways gained Shell Foundation about 400%]

– Anything related to the recent charity tax fiasco. What was the gov’t thinking? [We don’t know.] How much would the change have cost charities? [We don’t know.] Which charities would have been hardest hit? [We don’t know.]

– What’s the difference between charity and philanthropy? [Nothing. Different people prefer different words, that’s all. Let’s focus on achieving stuff, not which words best describe that stuff.]

– Anything which relies on the assumption that giving in America is good, and/or that we should have more American-style giving here. Only if you want even lower social mobility and really haven’t notice that the UK and the US are very different places.

What have Cheryl Cole and Prince Charles been up to?—>

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Why I’m delighted to be working with Innovations for Poverty Action

Innovations for Poverty Action, the most influential charity you’ve never heard of, tackles poverty in less developed countries by rigorously investigating the effectiveness of poverty-reduction programmes, and supporting the expansion of the best. Its main investigative tool is the randomised control trial, developed in medical research (where it may well have quietly saved your life several times) now increasingly used elsewhere. Randomised control trials (RCTs) are powerful because they, uniquely, demonstrate what happened which would not have happened otherwise, i.e., the true impact of a programme. The sample size, duration and rigour of IPA’s studies makes them a great deal more robust than most charity/development evaluations.

IPA has run over 350 studies in 40 countries, across many aspects of poverty, including health, education, agriculture, governance, micro-finance and environment. Its research is normally led by tenured academics, many at universities such as Harvard, University College London, the London School of Economics Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Yale, and most of it is published in respected peer-reviewed journals. The evaluations are normally of programmes run by NGOs and/or governments. IPA now has 600 staff in 14 offices. Typical research questions include: 

–          Do better cook-stoves really save all the carbon, fuel, time and health problems which their advocates claim? (Answer: sadly not.)

–          Which is a better way of getting teachers to turn up to school in India: giving them financial incentives to attend, or putting cameras in class rooms? (Answer: cameras are miles better, though obviously affect the power dynamic.)

–          To dissuade poor parents from taking their children out of school, you might give them cash when their children come to school (‘a conditional cash transfer programme). The conditionality is quite expensive to administer, so does it matter if you ditch it? (Answer: not in Colombia, but yes in Malawi.)

Caroline Fiennes, Director of Giving Evidence, is now working with IPA in Europe, aiming to raise awareness of its method, usage of its research findings, and resources to enable further study and further uptake of the findings. I’m delighted: given my passion for giving based on the evidence of what works, it’s natural to support more which generates, uses and shares that evidence.

microfinance ghana

That extreme poverty persists, and now only a few hours flight from our comfortable lives, is one of the biggest shames of our age; and IPA deploys against it the scientific method, perhaps mankind’s greatest achievement. As a result, it has a cupboard full of surprising insights which need to be heard and used.

IPA sounds a lot like J-PAL (the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab at MIT). Is it the same?

IPA and J-PAL are sister organisations, both doing RCTs in development, and they collaborate more closely than any charities I’ve ever seen. For instance, their names – which share the ‘poverty action’ bit – are deliberately similar.

J-PAL is a network of academics, based at MIT and now with centres in four other universities (in India, South Africa, Latin America, Indonesia). Hence J-PAL’s studies are all undertaken by academics. IPA is a free-standing charity. Its studies are often led by academics (many of whom are affiliates of both IPA and J-PAL) but sometimes led by IPA staff. This provides an important freedom. Academics are incentivised to do studies which will get published, which encourages innovative studies. But suppose somebody’s studied cook-stoves in northern Kenya and now we need to see if the surprising findings are also true in southern Kenya: despite being important, that study is pretty unattractive to an academic, but IPA might well do it.

IPA and J-PAL deliberately avoid having offices in the same countries as each other.

By a weird quirk of fate, the leaders of J-PAL and IPA are actually sisters. J-PAL was co-founded by Esther Duflo (MIT professor, and co-author of the prize-winning book Poor Economics), and IPA’s CEO is Annie Duflo. IPA was founded in 2002 by Professor Dean Karlan at Yale University: Dean did his PhD with Abhijit Banerjee, the other co-founder of J-PAL.

Are RCTs really better than other forms of evaluation?

Yes, a lot (in the right circumstances). Explained here, about Goldman Sachs, and here about evaluations in general.

charity evaluation

But RCTs can’t be used in all circumstances.

Correct. Nobody said they could. Their limitations, and what to do about them, is discussed in my book.

Doesn’t helping IPA raise money conflict with Giving Evidence’s work advising donors?

Not really. First, it’s hardly a secret – and I discuss it explicitly with donors to which it pertains. Second, it’s no secret that I advocate giving based on evidence, and hence is hardly surprising that I’m working with the people who generate it. Third, in any instance where a donor is interested in development work, I’m ‘acting for’ the donor rather than IPA and IPA knows that. Fourth, I have no performance incentive with IPA. Etc etc.

IPA sounds great. How do I…

– find out more? Here

– find its research?  (IPA’s research is all summarised here (and here are summaries of J-PAL’s research.)

– give it money? Either here, or we’re setting up a UK mechanism: coming soon.

– support good programmes it’s discovered? Either here, or we’re setting up a UK mechanism: coming soon

– contact you for advice about my/ my company’s giving? At enquiries [at] giving-evidence [dot] com

The FT on how (as result of J-PAL’s work) development is becoming a science—>

The Economist on findings of a J-PAL study and IPA replication about nailing poverty—>

Bloomberg on how J-PAL, IPA and RCTs “speed our way toward a better world”–>

RCTs find how to buy one, get 24 for free!-

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