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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How can we best support charities?

Charities are not equally good. Neither are techniques for finding and supporting them. Giving Evidence advises donors – individuals, families, foundations, companies, governments – on the ways of giving which will achieve the best ‘returns’, by a fanatical devotion to the evidence.


New book about effective ways of giving: It Ain’t What You Give, It’s The Way That You Give It

Freakonomics of the charity sector’, Martin Houghton-Brown, CEO, Missing People

The Body Shop: ‘A very clear guide with insight for any donor’

Dragons’ Den’s James Caan: ‘great advice: inspiring and entertaining’

Available at introductory discount from here, and on Kindle.


Work with donors:

Eurostar: ‘Caroline Fiennes is a great source of advice… helped Eurostar become effective very quickly’

We help donors across the whole range from choosing objectives, defining a strategy, gathering relevant partners, implementation (including identifying great charities and other non-profits to support), to tracking the charities’ impact, and tracking and improving the donor’s own impact. Recent clients have included a new family foundation, professional tennis players, Guardian News Media group and global a professional service firm.

All our work is based on evidence about how to achieve the most for beneficiaries: finding great organisations, helping them in the highest-value ways, and minimizing the work-load and wastage created for them.


Press coverage of Giving Evidence and It Ain’t What You Give, It’s The Way That You Give It


Does it matter which charity you support, or how you support them?

Yes! This article describes various ways of improving education in India, all of which sound great, but some are 25x better than others.

Here a company gives ~£2.5m in such a bad fashion that it will achieve almost nothing.

This describes a rather better process for giving, in which a company uses a foundation’s existing infrastructure to gain economies of scale.

What are the three golden rules of effective charitable giving? They’re here–>

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Why I don’t back the Give It Back George campaign

Charities are furious about the government’s proposal to give them less money via the tax system. Well, they would be, wouldn’t they? Hence they’re campaigning frantically to block the proposal. But people interested in effectiveness and impact – and who understand that we’re allocating scarce resources – should support neither the government’s proposed changes (which makes no sense) nor the current system which the campaign seeks to preserve, for three reasons.

  1. Your salary goes to donkeys and Eton

Under the current tax regime, any charity can get tax reliefs (of which there are many, including exemption from rates and corporate tax, as well as relief on donations). The charity world is very broad, encompassing organisations which care for donkeys, dogs, cats, hedgehogs, and posh school boys, as well as unarguably noble causes such as cancer and domestic violence.

Many taxpayers would be surprised that a chunk of their salary is subsidising donkeys and hedgehogs. At a time when we are closing public libraries because the Exchequer’s run dry, that’s probably not what they’d choose if asked.

There has never been a proper public debate about which charitable causes HM Taxpayer wishes to subsidise. This row would be a good starting gun for one.

  1. Some charities are rubbish

Some charities are better than others, just as some teachers are better than others, some doctors, some athletes. Some demonstrably achieve twice as much as others for the same money, some 10 times, and occasionally, some achieve 25x as much. Put another way, some achieve only 4% of what others could achieve.

Furthermore, some charities don’t need money half as urgently as others do. The Donkey Sanctuary can spend over £2000 per donkey, whereas mental health charities can spend only £714 per beneficiary*. And if charitable income all dried up today, the Donkey Sanctuary’s could keep going more than two years; Oxfam would last just two months, and Christian Aid about three weeks*.

Donors should allocate their scarce resources based on the evidence about what works, yet currently, as I say, any charity can get tax relief, irrespective of its performance. Why should the taxpayer subsidise the bad as well as the good?

They shouldn’t. In medicine, public funds are only spent after drugs have been evaluated by a public body (NIHCE); in education, schools wanting public money are subject to inspections; economic and scientific research proposals get only public funding after scrutiny by an independent research council.

It seems to me not unreasonable that charities wanting tax subsidy should be asked to produce some evidence of their effectiveness, and that the finite resources should be allocated based on the convincing-ness of that evidence. [Given that the charity sector has been talking for ages about impact, it knows that some charities are better than others, so it’s odd that nobody’s made this point before.]

  1. Some non-charities are brilliant

By contrast, tax relief is generally not available to social enterprises. A cafe set up to employ young people with learning disabilities probably would be unable to register as a charity so would get nothing from HM Taxpayer, despite possibly being much more effective at helping those young people than some charities. For a government which only a fortnight ago launched a £600m fund for supporting social enterprises, this seems a curious omission.

What to do?

Clearly HM Taxpayer has very limited resources. They should be allocated on merit and democracy alone. So the public should be asked which causes are eligible for tax relief, and perhaps the government should define the total sum of tax relief available (for my money, human rights is in but donkeys are out), and then to the most demonstrably effective organisations within those causes, irrespective of whether they’re charities, social enterprises, public bodies or anything else.

*Data from my book It Ain’t What You Give, It’s The Way That You Give It. The calculations are public.

How do you find out whether a charity is achieving anything?–>

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The government’s raid on giving makes no sense

The UK government recently announced that it would cap tax relief on charitable giving. The surprise move has met a furious response, and makes no sense whichever way it’s intended. It’s a shame, because the charitable world has plenty of real battles actually worth fighting.

The detail. The government is capping the total amount of tax exemption which any individual can claim, at £50k or 25% of income whichever is the greater. Fair enough to clamp down on tax avoidance schemes, but the issue is whether charitable giving constitutes tax avoidance.

The fact is that we don’t the government’s logic – it’s not explained it clearly. Below are all the hypotheses I’ve constructed and heard – and why they’re all bonkers.

Philanthropy is a tax avoidance device. Well it’s not a very good one, since it costs the donor money. If I donate £100k, the tax payer adds £66k, but I’m still £100k worse off than I would have been otherwise. The tax system provides a discount for giving: not an incentive, as such, so it’s hard to imagine anybody who’s in command of the maths giving to a bona fide charity in order to save themselves money.

‘These austere times’. Obvious HM Exchequer is empty, but if the Chancellor’s concern is raising tax revenue, surely dropping the 50p tax rate is rather curious. Added to which is the fact that much of charities’ work saves the government money, and the donations which the cap may scare away greatly exceed the revenue which the Exchequer would save.

We can spend your money better than you can.’ Perhaps the government dislikes the tax-payer subsidizing individuals’ charitable giving because it thinks that government does a better job of spending money. That’s a left-wing position – which, though defensible, nobody made in the Labour years, when tax-subsidy grew – and an astonishing view for a Conservative administration.

It would be particularly bizarre for an administration whose central tenet is moving responsibilities away from the central state through localism and ‘the Big Society’.

Out of control. It is said that HMRC dislikes forsaking money to organizations which it can’t control. Again, this conflicts with decentralization: it doesn’t control local authorities, or the Greater London Assembly, and the government’s agenda will soon cede more power to cities and elected police chiefs.

There is a serious point here that donors are answerable to nobody, and yet the money they spend is partly the tax-payers. Perhaps half of the money in endowed foundations belongs to the tax-payer, whose ability to influence or object is precisely zero. This should not be acceptable: it’s like taxation without representation. Only one* of the many foundations in the land allows the public to even see its meetings (the City Bridge Trust: hardly new, it was founded in the year 1209), but even there, HM Taxpayer has no say.

If the government wanted to force more transparency and accountability in foundations, it could, but this tax vehicle will not achieve it.

Johnny Foreigner. Perhaps the government was spooked by an EU ruling that UK taxpayers can reclaim UK tax on donations to charities in other EU countries. It certainly is weird that UK taxpayers should subsidise organizations in, say, Portugal. But the government denies that this is the reason.

If that were the problems, there’s an easier solution. UK charities pay VAT – about a £1bn of which they can’t reclaim (big scandal which nobody knows about). The UK government could cancel ALL tax reliefs for donors (which are ~£1b/year), and instead spare UK charities from VAT. That would solve the foreigner problem and be roughly cost-neutral all round.

No donkeys please. ANY charity gets tax breaks. And the set of charities includes some which probably aren’t priorities for most tax-payers: donkey sanctuaries (in the UK and abroad), dogs homes, the opera, Eton…

If that is Chancellor’s objection, he should say so. And then he should fix it – by initiating a national debate about which causes should get tax relief and which shouldn’t. There’s a review of charity law underway, so he can get that to consider it. But the sledgehammer he’s chosen will miss that target.

‘Some donors are giving to charities which don’t do much charitable work’ said the Chancellor this week. Correct: some charities are rubbish, just as some doctors are rubbish, some teachers, some golfers. But that’s not a reason to punish them all in this way.

There are two reasons that charities might not be much good:

1. Fraud. Sure, some charities are fraudulent. If that’s the concern, then beef up the Charity Commission*, or fire it. Fraud in a few is not a reason to choke off revenue from the many.

2. Quality. For sure, there is a quality problem in the charity world. Health is closely analogous to charities – both industries ‘do things’ to other people, often without those people’s consent or full grasp of their situation. In the health world, there are three rather good quality assurance mechanisms. None of these is mirrored in the charity world.

First, all health treatments have to go through rigorous, public and independent scrutiny before they can be administered (i.e., the peer review system). Charities have no such thing. Most ‘impact reporting’ is by the charity itself, so it’s hardly independent, and it’s anyway voluntary and hence patchy. The international development community is rather better than the domestic charity sector – they have randomised control trials, and systematic reviews and write in peer reviewed papers – but even there it’s voluntary.

Second, public money is spent on treatments only when they’ve been approved by the National Institute of Clinical Excellence. All other public spending is subject to ‘value for money’ analyses by the National Audit Office. The charity world has no such thing. Simply registering as a charity – which only means abiding within very broad areas – is sufficient to get tax-payers’ money.

And third, health professionals are all highly trained. They also belong to professional bodies, who can strike them off. By stark contrast, any old body can set up a charity, run a foundation, even advise major donors, on the basis of zero qualifications. It’s like the wild west.

All of these quality assurance mechanisms could be introduced by the government – and should, I’d argue. None is achieved by the tax cap.

So what do we conclude? That the Chancellor is mad?

Jill Rutter at the Institute of Government, says that the charity tax raid, along with the pasty tax, granny tax, and other tax debacles, arises from a fundamental brokenness in our tax policy system: tax policy is bound to fail because, uniquely amongst policy, it’s devised by The Quad (PM, Deputy PM, Chancellor, and Chief Secretary) in isolation with no outside consultation or discussion.  Like much philanthropy, in fact.

How do you find out whether a charity is any good? Like this –>


*to my knowledge

**There are in fact three charity regulators in the UK, contrary to popular wisdom. The Charity Commission does England & Wales; there’s also the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator, and the the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland.

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Giving Evidence: not all charities are the same

Charities are not equally good. Neither are techniques for finding and supporting them. Giving Evidence advises donors – individuals, families, foundations, companies, governments – on the ways of giving which will achieve the best ‘returns’, by a fanatical devotion to the evidence.


New book about effective ways of giving: It Ain’t What You Give, It’s The Way That You Give It

‘Freakonomics of the charity sector’, Martin Houghton-Brown, CEO, Missing People

The Body Shop: ‘A very clear guide with insight for any donor’

Dragons’ Den’s James Caan: ‘great advice: inspiring and entertaining’

Available at introductory discount from here, and on Kindle.


Work with donors

Eurostar: ‘Caroline Fiennes is a great source of advice… helped Eurostar become effective very quickly’

We help donors across the whole range from choosing objectives, defining a strategy, gathering relevant partners, implementation (including identifying great charities and other non-profits to support), to tracking the charities’ impact, and tracking and improving the donor’s own impact. Recent clients have included a new family foundation, professional tennis players, Guardian News Media group and global a professional service firm.

All our work is based on evidence about how to achieve the most for beneficiaries: finding great organisations, helping them in the highest-value ways, and minimizing the work-load and wastage created for them.


Press coverage of Giving Evidence and It Ain’t What You Give, It’s The Way That You Give It


Should donors support small charities?

Not universally, no. But neither should they uniformly support large one, or local ones, or old ones or young ones or popular ones or trendy ones, or – as the evidence suggests they do by fully 22% – ones whose names start with the same letter as their own. Data-free fetishes are no more welcome in charity and philanthropy than they are in medicine, policy or the military.

Just has there has emerged disciplines of evidence-based medicine and evidence-based policy, it’s time for robust evidence-based giving.

Sometimes that will favour small charities. They may be more responsive and personal, and some tasks – such as a village lunch-club – just don’t require massive resources. [Smallness in charities can be deceptive because donated goods and volunteer time aren’t evident in an organisation’s revenue or cost figures, so the operations may be substantially bigger than they appear. This is just one of the surprises of the basic maths and demography of the charity world.]

Often it won’t. Small charities – like small anything-elses – don’t get economies of scale so may be expensive. And some of the challenges they face are hard: you just can’t eradicate malaria if you’re small: and in fact, multiple small organizations, if not properly coordinated can – by dishing out different drugs and increasing drug resistancy – exacerbate the very problems they try to solve.

Understanding a charity’s impact is hard, just as isolating the impact of an interest rate is hard. But we must make ‘best estimates’ in order that our limited resources achieve as much as possible. It involves being clear about what actually happened, and how much of that would not have happened otherwise. It’s therefore fundamentally about distinguishing correlation from causation. My book rattles through how to do it – with a short-cut for people in a rush, and the full, rigorous detail for the more patient.

Since charities address problems which, as Warren Buffett said, have already ‘resisted great intellects and often great money,’ we owe it to beneficiaries to abandon childish tastes and fetishes and prejudices, and focus ruthlessly on what actually works – however surprising, small or large an organisation delivering that might be.

This article describes various ways of improving education in India, all of which sound great, but some are 25x better than others.

Here a company gives ~£2.5m in such a bad fashion that it will achieve almost nothing.

This describes a rather better process for giving, in which a company uses a foundation’s existing infrastructure to gain economies of scale.

Great charities’ o

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Application and reporting processes keep 3m children out of school

Avoidable waste from foundations’ reporting processes is ~£100m every year, enough to fund the whole of Barnardo’s or the British Red Cross. Another ~£150-250m is wasted in reporting to public sector funders, plus there’s plenty of avoidable waste in application processes. I’m pointing this out,  not because I hate foundations (I don’t) but because the obvious failure for beneficiaries means that it needs changing.

Charities address ‘problems that have resisted great intellects and often great money’ as Warren Buffett put it. Hence they need all the support they can get. Foundations and other funders should be using every penny to rapidly eradicating those problems. My new book is a guide for any donor to doing that: the figures above are from that, and, like all calculations used in the book, is public. The book opens with this quote from Clara Miller, Founder of the Nonprofit Finance Fund: ‘Deeply ingrained ‘best practices’ frequently add cost and reduce management flexibility in already difficult operating conditions. We end up hurting organizations we mean to help.’

Application processes

Let’s take a moment to understand the process most commonly used by major donors, because I want to dissuade anybody from copying it. It goes like this: define and publish some criteria for the types of charities you will support; design an application form;  invite applications; consider applications at infrequent, closed meetings at which a few charities are selected; give cash to those few; request periodic reports on paper.

Silent, solo, slow, reactive and unengaged, this process hardly looks like a recipe for achieving goals ‘which have resisted great intellects and often great money’.

Application forms are typically unique to each funder, yet generally request the same core data: name, charity number, list of trustees etc. So charities spend time (i.e., waste money) writing that information multiple times in multiple formats. How is that serving beneficiaries?

It isn’t. The various attempts by funders to create common application forms have failed. Yet it can’t be that hard: even eccentric and eclectic universities have had one for years. So I’ve unilaterally created one: it is here, and I suggest anybody uses it: it has the standard info at the front, followed by questions derived from the Standard Information Return (required of charities in England and Wales with income above £1m) and the ‘six questions which any which any charity should be able to answer’ from the book. If a funder wants to add questions, they can, but at least a charity can re-use the basic info without re-formatting it ad nauseaum.

In fact, many donors don’t need application processes at all. Many seek something which somebody else has already found, so should just use their recommendations. Independent analysts such as GiveWell make reliable recommendations, as do the randomised control trials merchants J-PAL or Innovations for Poverty Action. Other donors’ recommendations may suffice: when NatWest was looking for ‘community projects’ (dreadful term) for its CommunityForce programme, it could have just asked community foundations rather than creating its own (dreadful & wasteful) application process. Enlightened donors really do do this: Eurostar’s new award for sustainable transport uses the existing infrastructure in the Ashden Awards; a new donor I’m advising right now is giving their seven-figure sums to organisations which have already been selected by independent analysts and sound grant-makers; and of course community foundations route charities to donors to avoid multiple parallel selection processes.


Companies report once a year. Their investors all see the same report, which is public, and share periodic conference calls.

By contrast, charities normally produce different reports for each ‘investor’ (funder), often each on different forms, which leads to masses of duplicated work. It’s excused because much funding is ‘restricted’ to a particular part of a charity’s activity, though in fact this practice is also fabulously damaging (it has no analogy in business). Furthermore, there is no ‘reporting season’ because normally reports are triggered by the managerially-irrelevant funding anniversary.

Charities’ costs of dealing with ‘investors’ are at least three times those for companies: 20-40% vs 7% for companies. Vanessa Kirsch, founder of New Profit Inc., a US venture philanthropy fund, laments that: ‘Non-profit CEOs spend huge amounts of time – sometimes as much as half their time – dealing with funders. What’s unfortunate here is that these leaders have incredible ideas about solving fundamentally important issues such as child literacy…but they can’t focus on their work because of the constant demands of funders’.

Funders often request reports for ‘accountability’: presumably as deterrent against fraud. It isn’t one: writing a form full of lies is not hard, and anyway, charities with significant revenue are audited to catch that.

Funders requesting bespoke reports is egregious and unnecessary: if you give on an unrestricted basis, the charity’s standard annual report for its entire operation will suffice and create zero marginal work.

The total cost of reporting by UK charities (to government and foundations) is estimated at around £1.4bn. Reporting to foundations – set up, and tax-payer subsidised to address ‘problems that have resisted great intellects and often great money’ – costs about £400m. On NPC’s conservative estimate, at least a quarter of that is avoidable, so foundations alone could save the sector £100m just on reporting – there’s masses to be gained by streamlining application processes too. [The calculation, like all those used in my book, is public, here.]

In developing countries, many children fail to get decent educations because they miss school because of having intestinal worms. Deworming (as it’s charmingly called) costs $40/child on an expensive estimate: often it’ll be as little as $4/child. The avoidable losses from reporting to charitable foundations would deworm and thereby keep in school – on a conservative estimate – 3m children.

What are we thinking of?

“Great advice for any donor”, James Caan, on this book about how donors best operate–>

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Charity credit cards: generate 33 x as much for charity anyway!

Lloyds TSB is withdrawing its charity credit cards. Actually this doesn’t matter because you can actually generate MORE money for charities through your credit card. Here’s how:

1. Get a credit card which gives you cash-back on your purchases. The cash that these cards give you is often more than they’d given the charity anyway. Some charity cards give only 25p per £100 spent whereas cash-back card may be £5. So that’s 20x increase just to start.

2. Donate the money once a year to your chosen charity. You can reclaim Gift Aid (iff you’re a UK tax-payer). That’s a second way which increase the money that the charity gets – increasing it by 25% if you pay basic rate tax and 66% if you pay higher rate tax. So if you get the 66% increase on a cash-back card, you’re now generating 33x times as much money for charity.

3. The charity may incur lower transaction fees this way, because it may have been getting the money in several small dollops. (Transaction fees are usually paid per transaction, i.e., one big payment incurs a twelfth of the cost which twelve small dollops generate.)

Voila. Sadly, the ‘nudge’ is against you, i.e., you have to get your act together to make the donation, rather than it being done automatically for you. But since you might generate more than 33x as much money, you can nudge yourself!

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Understanding impact of a corporate giving programme

I’m currently evaluating the ‘community projects’ programme of the Guardian News & Media group (i.e., the series of ~12 partnerships which GNM has with voluntary organisations near its London HQ). In this article in the Guardian, I explain what we’re doing & why, why understanding impact is so difficult, and what I learnt about understanding impact from Albert Einstein and Ben Goldacre:

Measuring the effectiveness of the Guardian’s community projects

What else can giving learn from physics and medicine? A lot —>

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Forget business: philanthropy needs to learn from tons of other disciplines

Philanthrocapitalism, social return, social investment, Absolute Return for Kids… Business is the analogy most commonly used for philanthropic activity. Though that’s not wrong, it’s dangerously narrow for solving what Warren Buffett calls ‘problems which have already resisted great intellects and great money’.

Let’s think through some steps which a donor – or a charity, for that matter – might take.

Since the giant array of needs in the world creates a giant array of options for donors (and charities), intelligent donors/charities are selective. Here, a pertinent analogy is the military. Even the Romans found it hard to fend off enemies on numerous fronts, and more recently the Nazis couldn’t deal with challenges on both the Eastern- and Western Fronts. We ourselves would perhaps have done better in Afghanistan if we’d had fewer and clearer
goals. ‘A single, unambiguous aim is the keystone of successful military operations. Selection and maintenance of the aim is regarded as the master principle of war’, as is taught to all officers in the Royal Navy, Royal Air Force and British Army.

Having selected an unambiguous aim, the judicious donor (or charity) will research their starting point. How widespread is poverty? How bad are race relations? Which groups are least well served by formal education? Answering even simple ‘factual’ questions like these is surprisingly difficult, because what we see and experience is heavily influenced by what we’re expecting to see. ‘Observation is theory-laden’ as philosophers of science have found.

So the donor/ charity defines some metrics and attempts to measure the amount of poverty or race relations or whatever. Yet the act of measuring may change the very thing which is being measured: we all behave differently when we’re being watched and the researcher’s questions may focus our latent anger. Any social scientist would have foreseen that, as would any physicist: Heisenberg got a Nobel Prize for the implications of his realisation that ‘What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning’.

To establish the starting point, the donor or charity commissions a survey which, to minimise the Heisenberg effect, sequences the questions carefully. Psychology has much to contribute: to take just one example, psychologists have found that when young people are asked how happy they are and then asked when they last went on a date, their happiness rates totally differently than if they are asked the exact same questions just in the opposite order! Lawyers could help here too, since they know about (avoiding) leading the witness.

Perhaps the donor /charity navigates all this and is eventually ready to design her ‘intervention’ to get people to do more X or less Y: to drive more safely, to commit fewer crimes, to vote less tribally. She’d do well to engage with the newish field of behaviour economics (‘nudge’). Perhaps the most effective and least laborious ‘interventions’ are simply making it easier to repay loans,  or making it socially normal, or making it somehow fun.

Work begins. After a while, the donor /charity looks for its effect. ‘We did such-and-such and then something-or-other happened’ say many donors / charities, under the mistaken impression that this somehow indicates that the something-or-other was caused by the such-and-such. Any economist or statistician, or scientist, or indeed anybody who understands the difference between causation and correlation (such people are rarer than you might suppose) would raise an eyebrow at that. You can’t claim some God-like control of the solar systems just because the sun comes up every time you eat your Weetabix.

To really understand whether the something-or-other had anything to do with the such-and-such – i.e., whether the donor/charity made any difference – we need a control experiment. A simple one involves sitting around doing nothing to see whether something-or-others happen all the time anyway. Social scientists and physical sciences teach a great deal about constructing good control experiments. (And, by the way, rather more than business does. I’ve yet to see an article in Harvard Business Review about them, though they’re discussed in Nature all the time.)

So what?

Two implications are important for donors and charities.

First, we should open our minds to learning from many disciplines – from any discipline. Donors and charities face some of the most difficult challenges on Earth, and hence need all the wisdom and insight they can get. The observed over-reliance on one discipline is patently insufficient. People involved in these challenges should read and listen widely, for relevant learning lurks in surprising places.

And second, donors and charities should hire staff from a broader pool. Foundations are often particularly narrow, staffed entirely by people with business backgrounds, and perhaps a few aid-wonks. If you have three business people, then you have enough: your next hire should have studied physics or epidemiology or psychology.

A single analogy or skillset – however good – is most unlikely to bring the breakthroughs which the poor, the lonely, the underserved so badly need from us.


Caroline Fiennes has a surprisingly useful degree in Physics and Philosophy.

This article draws on material in her forthcoming book, It Ain’t What You Give, It’s The Way That You Give It: Making charitable donations which get results.


Why is NatWest giving away tax-payers’ money, so amazingly badly? —>

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Didn’t we have a lovely time the day we went to prison?

Inspiration inside

I’d have felt more at home on the moon. I mean, nothing says ‘welcome’ like a fifteen foot wall topped by razor wire. And yet, my trip to HMP Pentonville was surprisingly inspirational. 

I was there just before Christmas in relation to a project I’m doing for a corporate giving programme. Because we were there to meet various inmates who together write ‘The Voice of the Ville’, I was scared. Not that I’d be attacked or detained, but rather just of the unknown: the alien set-up, alien building, people of probably quite alien norms.

The first challenge was crossing London with neither money nor phone, for I’d been warned that they can disappear from prison receptions where visitors must leave them. No phone! My reliance on it is more of a tic than I’d realised – for the time, the map, the Twittering. My colleague and I had to arrange a rendez-vous in advance: how 1980s.

The prison reception has all the charm of an industrial loading facility, with added signs about ‘rub-down searches’.

The early-ness of our arrival causes us to be forgotten, so by the time we actually get collected, we’re late. A load of keys unlock a door. It’s shut behind us. Another door is opened, and shut behind us. And another. The doors, keys and bars are startling, despite being totally unsurprising. Society takes seriously the business of secreting the gentlemen we’re about to meet.

Though I don’t know what I expected – cells? riots? murderers? – the giant Christmas tree in the prison’s central hall wasn’t on my list. Was I really expecting some cheer-less slum-like Victorian poor house?

Four wings radiate from the baubled hall. Even the architecture here is alien.

As we’re led down one wing to the newspaper room, we’re trying to disguise our craning to glimpse into the cells we’re passing. Cells – as seen on Porridge and endless films – but these house real people, with real stories.

We arrive during ‘free flow’: the transfer window at the beginning and end of the morning and afternoon sessions when prisoners move (accompanied) around the building. It’s rather like the school bell, with added locks.

The newspaper room is rather like a sixth form common room. Maybe 10 foot square, it’s carpeted with a big table in the middle and desks bearing computers round the edge. But the alien is here too; signs on the wall prohibit printing ‘letters to family, letters to court…’

They start to arrive. Instinctively, my colleague and I stand and move to shake the hand of each man as he enters, as we would for any other meeting. You probably don’t get that too often if you’re a prisoner. There is, of course, only one question in our minds but we never ask it: I ask a prison-expert friend that evening and her answer makes me glad I hadn’t asked before.

One of them is huge. 10 foot tall with giant biceps. As he sits, all I can think is that he’s between me and the door…

They’re like grumpy teenagers – surly, rather monosyllabic, hard to get talking. But, man, when they get going, it all comes out. This – the Voice of the Ville (VoV) – is where they get to create, to express, to be heard, to be somebody. “You see yourself [i.e., your skills and work] developing. You don’t get a lot of ego boosts in here [prison] but you do here.” These guys may not have had many ego boosts in their lives.

The paper is a joint effort – and there’s not a lot of that in here either.

It’s a position of responsibility. Every prison gets a copy and since “there’s people here on suicide watch, you have to make sure you’re upbeat. You don’t wanna tip anybody over the edge.” Few writers have that responsibility.

It’s a haven. “There are violent people here” – who, it transpires, generally have low literacy, and develop their bravado and aggression as coping mechanisms. They’re not in the VoV team, by definition. So the VoV room is calmer than the rest of the prison. Selection bias even on the inside.

And it’s interesting. They read newspapers and books and get some brainfood. Reading matter is highly prized – so I make the ultimate sacrifice, giving one guy the copy of The Economist which is in my bag. (He’s  never heard of it, and thinks it’ll be full of numbers: I suggest he starts with the book reviews.)  Hard copies are all there is, because of course there’s no internet inside. That reinforces the weirdness: I start recounting a story I discovered on Twitter and then realised that several of them have been in here since before Twitter was invented(!)

Then this, from a guy who’s clearly not making his debut at Her Majesty’s pleasure: “it [VoV] has taught me to take criticism. We criticise [critique] each other’s writing all the time. It’s not so easy to take that at the beginning, but now I really welcome it – all criticism helps my writing get better.” That’s huge. Intolerance of other people’s views is what lands people in prison in the first place. Mr Justice Secretary, if you’re looking for ways to reduce reoffending – and I hope you are – programmes which teach people to give and take feedback should be high on your list. Plus it’s cheap as chips to run: it takes just two staffers and some printer cartridges.

Hats off, then, to the two ladies who run it. They evidently create a supportive, inspiring and pedagogic environment amongst their tough clientele, and bring in various external people who come here bearing article ideas and writing tips and feedback.

So, to my amazement, I too am inspired. Yet as we leave, there’s a prisoner in the corridor being shouted at, and the myriad keys and doors remind us that our new-found friends are locked away for a reason. I’m glad it was just an afternoon trip: a dark, wet, windy London street has never seemed so glorious.

More interesting that what a charity achieves is what it doesn’t achieve –>

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