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Bottom-line Benevolence

How do charities prove their impact?

    Holidays are the time to give, but givers can often be overwhelmed when trying to decide who will use their money best. Holden Karnofsky and Elie Hassenfeld founded Give Well (www.givewell.net) in order to help people answer the most basic question of charitable donations—to whom should I give? Chicago Life chatted with Karnofsky, a native of Lincolnshire, Illinois, about how to make every donated dollar count. 
What are the most important things to consider when deciding to whom to donate?
    Donors should give to a charity that can demonstrate that it’s changing lives for the better. There are many cases where a well-intentioned program simply doesn't work—doesn’t improve school performance, health, etc. There are also many cases of programs that do work. Many donors are used to asking things like, “How much of my money goes to programs versus administration?” That’s a question about accounting, not about impact. A charity could spend your money in good faith and still fail to accomplish its goals. Donors should hold charities accountable not for what they spend their money on, but for the results.
Do you have a favorite charity?
    A few. One is the Stop Tuberculosis Partnership, my personal favorite. Tuberculosis is an infectious, deadly disease that kills a lot of people all over the world. It’s also a treatable disease. The Stop Tuberculosis Partnership exists to get tuberculosis drugs to the people that need them. It isn’t an easy task, but we’re impressed with the organization and its process, and we believe that it's working and saving lives for remarkably little money. 
    Another is VillageReach. VillageReach works in places, including rural Africa, that are struggling with basic health care services. VillageReach focuses on logistics, helping get supplies and vaccinations where they’re needed.  A lot of children die in these areas because they haven’t had their basic immunizations. We’ve checked out VillageReach thoroughly, and we feel that it’s saving lives very cost-effectively.
     In the United States, our top charity is the Nurse-Family Partnership. There are a lot of charities in the U.S. trying to improve equality of opportunity, but most of them are running programs that have never been shown to work.  The Nurse-Family Partnership is an exception to that. Its program is sending nurses to visit low-income mothers during pregnancy and early childhood and helping them with issues like not smoking during pregnancy and creating a safe and supportive home environment.  
    But the Nurse-Family Partnership is a standout, partly because there are so many programs in the U.S. that are either unproven or have been shown not to work. You’d be surprised at some of the U.S. programs that have shown tiny or no effect, including school scholarships and high-quality after-school programs. The problems disadvantaged people face in the U.S. are very complicated—for most disadvantaged people there’s nothing you can just give them and be confident it will really change their lives, and the programs that do work are pretty expensive. The Nurse-Family Partnership is about $10,000 per child served.    
    By contrast, a lot of people overseas are at a level of poverty that just doesn’t exist in the U.S.  They can die because they don't have something incredibly basic like immunizations or tuberculosis treatment. So your donation really can make a huge difference to someone overseas and for very little—less than $1,000 to save a life.
When people receive phone solicitations, what do you recommend they do?
Hang up immediately. Take the money you would have considered giving to that charity and instead give it to the best charity you can find. You’ll do much more good that way. If someone calls you with no prior connection, they’re probably a telemarketer, not someone who really knows the charity and the issues. If you take a passive approach and give based on which charity calls you or sends a letter, you’re a high risk to be scammed because the scams go after the easiest targets, the people who give passively. If you take an active approach and go out and find top charities with great reputations and ask them meaningful questions, you run a very low risk of being scammed because a scammer isn’t going to waste time on you when there are easier targets.
What is your personal philosophy about giving?
    People give for many reasons, but I think everyone should give at least something every year that’s aimed at helping those less fortunate.

Published: December 09, 2009
Issue: Winter 2009 - Annual Philanthropy Guide