Charities' fundraising materials make it seem obvious that their programs are changing lives. Are charities really accomplishing what they say they are? Are they making a difference?
Conventionally, most people expect that charities are probably accomplishing good unless there's proof that money is being misappropriated. We disagree: we think that charities can easily fail to have impact, even when they're doing exactly what they say they are.
- Private school scholarships in the U.S. A rigorous study of a voucher program in New York City found virtually no impact on academic performance for students who received scholarships to attend private schools. For more, see our review of the private school scholarship program.
- Water infrastructure in the developing world. Supporting organizations that build wells to provide water to people in the developing world is one of the most popular causes among donors. However, when we investigated this program more carefully, we found that (a) these programs may fail to have an impact on disease rates and (b) infrastructure may fall into disrepair and is no longer used. For more, see our overview of water infrastructure programs.
In fact, our review of academic research has led us to believe that many of the problems charities aim to address are extremely difficult problems that foundations, governments and experts have struggled with for decades. Many well-funded, well-executed, logical programs simply haven't had the desired results. For more, see
Given the lack of a successful track record of solving such complex problems, any charity claiming to have "the answer" bears the burden of proof to demonstrate that their programs are working. Can most charities provide this type of proof?
Most cannot. (For more, see "Most charities' evidence".) One of the main reasons they can't is that donors tend to give to a charity because a friend asked them to or because they happen to know someone who suffered from a disease that that charity fights.
All this means that charities raise money based on their ability to market themselves and fundraise, as opposed to their ability to change lives. Because charities aren't being held accountable based on impact, there are probably a lot of charities that continue to raise and spend money but don't make any difference at all.
Does that mean that a given charity's programs don't work? Not necessarily. But, it does mean that charities bear the burden of proof to convince you, the donor, that your donation will make a difference.