Our principles

A note on this page's publication date

The content on this page has not been recently updated. This content is likely to be no longer fully accurate, both with respect to the research it presents and with respect to what it implies about our views and positions.

This page summarizes our overall philosophy of giving, which influences all our decisions across causes.

Table of Contents

Our business is your business.

We believe that the single most important quality in a good large-scale giver is openness. Figuring out how best to help people always involves difficult judgment calls, limited information, and highly debatable decisions, and no amount of expertise in a given field can change that. Rather than claiming superior understanding and expecting the world to trust us, we work hard to make sure that anyone and everyone - novices, experts, and especially the charities themselves - can read our assessments and join the conversation.

For every statement we make on our website, it should be clear what that statement is based on: a fact, an applicant's materials, or (often) a gut feeling or judgment call. We also constantly share our thoughts and challenges on our blog, and make all our records (budget, board meeting recordings) publicly available. Rather than claim objectivity, we seek to put our biases and intuitions completely out in the open so you can understand where we're coming from - and where you might disagree. If we are failing in this goal in any way, please let us know.

The details of our evaluations reveal just how few simple answers there are in the world of giving. If any foundation, grantmaker, or award giver claims to have "the answer" - without revealing the judgment calls that go into that answer - it's not being truthful.

Nonprofits, including us, receive exemption from taxes because we have a mandate to serve the public interest, not just our own members. Keeping secrets may make sense for a company, but it does not make sense for us, and we don't believe it makes sense for any other charity either. We believe that the more different people and perspectives can see the details of our analysis, and participate in the conversation, the better our understanding will ultimately be - and that every other major grantmaker in the world is currently missing out on this benefit.

Donor choice is valuable.

On one hand, we see value in comparing charities against each other, aiming to find the best rather than the "good enough." On the other hand, not all charities can reasonably compared. We don't believe any amount of analysis can objectively determine whether saving a life in Africa is more valuable than helping a person in New York become self-supporting. It ultimately comes down to the donor's personal values.

That's why we separate charities into different causes (such as the five listed at the top of the page), and compare charities only within causes. Our aim is to leave the biggest philosophical choices and value judgments with the donor, while providing analysis of which charities are best at accomplishing these broad goals.

Of course, donors also have the choice to support the organizations we recommend, or others that are more in line with their preferences. Our commitment to transparency means you never have to rely on our value judgments, and can always substitute your own.

Charity should aim for significant life change.

It can be valuable to brighten someone's day or week, but we think it's more valuable to change their life - so that's what we want to do with our funds. A common thread among our current set of causes is that each aims for a significant and lasting impact on clients' lives, whether literally protecting clients from death or giving clients a sustainable ability to support themselves and their families. Helping people truly turn their lives around is difficult, but as long as there are opportunities to do it, we think this broad goal is the best use of donations.

Helping people isn't easy.

When we give, we're looking to change lives significantly. We're optimistic that money can accomplish this, as the titles of our five causes show: there are many people in the world who lack essential and life-changing assets that we take for granted. However, we believe it is naive to think that a charity is causing profound life change just because it is spending a lot of money trying to. Developed-world causes, from education to job training, are ultimately trying to change people's behavior, while developing-world causes must accomplish good despite the challenges of distance and understanding that another culture presents.

This principle is at the heart of our project, and the difference between our approach to giving and that of other evaluators. If you believe that helping people is easy, all you have to do is find a charity that means well and spends as little as possible on salaries, infrastructure, etc. If you believe that helping people is difficult - and that spending money and trying hard isn't the same as getting results - then looking for low overhead is a backwards approach; both a good charity and a good evaluator must spend the time and money necessary to understand the problems people face and address them as intelligently as possible.

Good isn't good enough.

In technology, or in consumer products, the design that works best naturally rises to the top, and the result is exponential improvement. Charity doesn't work this way - unless we make it work this way. We believe that in charity as in everything else, there is no limit to the difference between a "good" organization and a better one; by insisting on the latter, we hope our society can become as good at helping those in need as it is at producing for those with wealth.

Most of our evaluations make use of some sort of "lives changed per dollar" metric, attempting to determine how cost-effective a charity is in terms of accomplishing its ultimate goal of changing people's lives. The definition of "life change" varies from cause to cause; the information we use to create this metric is always rough and incomplete; and we are careful not to put too much weight on this metric (for example, we generally favor an organization with proven past success over one whose "theoretical" cost-effectiveness is higher but untested). However, we calculate this metric because we are looking for times when one strategy can help far more people than another, consistent with our philosophy of doing as much good as possible.

Past results matter.

There's nothing wrong with a giver who focuses on innovative new strategies, but this does no good unless effective strategies eventually prove themselves and grow. We see our role as identifying and funding what already works.

In most cases, a good evaluation of a past project is complex and costly. Our insistence on seeing proof of effectiveness means that we end up favoring larger, more established organizations with the financial flexibility to evaluate their programs as well as carry them out. We find this bias entirely appropriate, especially given that we are seeking to help individual donors; it's not practical to match each of these donors up with a small, overlooked project, but it is possible to show them charities that can reliably, consistently translate more money into lives changed. That is what we seek to do.

If all funders operated on this principle, there would be no funding for small and unproven projects, but we believe that is not a concern. In fact, as you can see from reading our reviews, rigorous evaluations of past projects are relatively rare; this, along with informal conversations in the sector, makes us believe that most foundations focus almost exclusively on developing new programs rather than on funding proven ones.

Charity should focus on people, not problems.

We believe that the problems faced by disadvantaged people are generally complex, and that it is rarely possible to isolate the single thing they need with complete accuracy and confidence. All else equal (and cost-effectiveness aside), we prefer charities that are well-positioned to observe and address as many of their clients' needs as possible - and therefore to adjust their programming and planning as the situation (and their understanding of it) changes. We also believe in giving without strings attached, and allowing grantees the flexibility to use our funding as well as possible (more on this below).

Common sense trumps formulas.

Deciding where to give involves complex situations, limited information, and philosophical choices - none of which can be reliably captured in a single formula. We believe that any attempt to translate all good accomplished into the same terms is dangerous - and that any such calculation therefore must strive to be both:

  • Transparent: all inputs into, and assumptions behind, a calculation of "good accomplished" must be explicit.
  • Intuitive: good accomplished should be expressed in terms people can understand emotionally, such as "deaths prevented" or "number of people placed sustainably in well-paying jobs." We are wary of efforts such as the Disability Adjusted Life-Year (DALY) metric or the practice of computing "dollar cost" of social problems; we feel that by attempting to translate all good accomplished to a universal scale, they make it impossible to compare two outcomes except by blindly trusting the output.

As explained above, we use "lives changed per dollar" style metrics to estimate cost-effectiveness of different charities. But we strive to make the inputs into these calculations clear, and we use other principles (such as the principle of focusing on people, not problems) to choose between charities unless differences in cost-effectiveness appear to be extreme.

The best charities can be trusted.

We are generally against the practice of "restricting" the way in which donations can be used. The main reasons have to do with micromanagement vs. giving people the ability to do their job:

  1. A good charity knows more about its clients, context, and needs than any outside funder can. Accomplishing as much good as possible means allowing it to make its own decisions and adjust to circumstances as they change. Restricting funds is micromanagement, and interferes with the ability of good people to do their job.
  2. A good charity's key staff are at least as passionately devoted to its cause as any of its funders. Having identified a good charity, a funder should not be concerned that money will be "wasted" on salaries, staff dinners, etc. Items like these can be necessary and wise expenses, and someone who is truly passionate about making a difference will draw the line between wise and excessive better than a funder can from the outside.
  3. If a charity doesn't fit the above definition of "good," you should find another one to give to.

Our emphasis is not on finding the best projects, but on finding the best charities (though the design, execution, and results of their projects is the most important evidence we have of their quality). We then give them unrestricted funds and let them decide how to use the money best.

We also oppose restricting donations for the following practical reasons:

  1. Restrictions can lead to waste, when projects are overfunded or underfunded. If your donation is large enough to pay for an entire project, this is not a concern; but the result of many small, uncoordinated restricted donations can lead to situations where (a) there isn't enough funding to justify a particular activity, but there are funds earmarked to that activity, meaning the funds have to be held or spent in some inefficient way; (b) there's more funding for a particular activity than can be productively used.
  2. In practice, restricting donations often just leads to more complex accounting, without having any effect on what a charity does. Consider the case of a charity that has a large pool of unrestricted funds. If funds come in that are restricted for a particular project, it can simply reallocate its unrestricted funds from this project to other projects; the result is no effect whatsoever on its activities, but an increase in confusing and unnecessary paperwork.

There are times when restricting funds can make sense, particularly when it is based on a philosophical preference (for example, wanting to help people in one country rather than another) rather than a strategic preference (for example, insisting on a particular program design). But generally, we think it is wiser to find an excellent charity that fits your values well, and let it allocate your funds.