The Wrong Donation Can Accomplish Nothing

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.

The case of PlayPumps, a charity that installs merry-go-rounds that double as water pumps in Africa, is illustrative. Tim Harford, an economist and journalist, and William MacAskill, a philosophy professor at the University of Oxford, have discussed this example at length. A brief summary of MacAskill's description of PlayPumps is below:

PlayPumps, which were intended to replace something negative (the challenges of pumping water) with something positive (a new, easier system for acquiring water, plus a new piece of play equipment for children), received a lot of positive attention from the media, celebrities, and the international aid community. However, after PlayPumps were installed in villages across a number of African countries, it came to light that the PlayPumps weren't all they were intended to be: Children found playing on the PlayPumps exhausting and women ended up having to push the merry-go-round around themselves to pump water; the PlayPumps were more expensive, pumped less water, and were more challenging to maintain than the hand pumps they had replaced. Some individuals in the villages said they preferred the old pumps to the new PlayPumps.1

It's not that surprising. We think 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 haven't had the desired results. 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. Most charities can't provide this type of evidence. Collecting evidence is expensive, and we've found that even many excellent charities don't do this. (For more, see Most Charities' Evidence.)

Furthermore, many giving donations are motivated by personal connections: a friend asks you to support a cause, or you know someone who suffered from a disease that the charity fights. As a result, 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 it's important to look beyond marketing claims and stories when deciding where to make a donation.


  • 1

    Below quotes are from William MacAskill's book, Doing Good Better:

    • "Instead of the typical hand pump or windmill pump found in many villages in poor countries, [Ronnie] Stuiver's pump doubled as a playground merry-go-round. Children would play on the merry-go-round, which, as it spun, would pump clean water from deep underground up to a storage tank. No longer would the women of the village need to walk miles to draw water using a hand pump or wait in line at a windmill-powered pump on a still day. The PlayPump, as it was called, utilized the power of playing children to provide a sustainable water supply for the community." pp. 1-2
    • "His [Trevor Field's] first major breakthrough came in 2000 when, out of three thousand applicants, he won a World Bank Development Marketplace Award, given to 'innovative, early-stage development projects that are scalable and/or replicable, while also having high potential for developmental impact.' That award attracted funding and attention, which culminated in a site visit from Steve Case, CEO of AOL, and his wife, Jean…. The PlayPump became the center of a massive marketing campaign. Steve Case used his expertise from running AOL to pioneer new forms of online fund-raising. The One Foundation, a British fund-raising charity, launched a bottled water brand called One Water and donated the profits to PlayPumps International. It was a huge success and became the official bottled water of the Live 8 concerts and the Make Poverty History campaign. The PlayPump became the darling of the international media, who leaped at the opportunity to pun, with headlines like PUMPING WATER IS CHILD'S PLAY and THE MAGIC ROUNDTABLE…. Celebrities, too, jumped on the bandwagon." pp. 2-3
    • "By 2009, his charity had installed eighteen hundred PlayPumps across South Africa, Mozambique, Swaziland, and Zambia.

      Then things went sour. Two damning reports were released, one by UNICEF and one by the Swiss Resource Centre and Consultancies for Development (SKAT). It turned out that, despite the hype and the awards and the millions of dollars spent, no one had really considered the practicalities of the PlayPump. Most playground merry-go-rounds spin freely once they've gained sufficient momentum—that's what makes them fun. But in order to pump water, PlayPumps need constant force, and children playing on them would quickly get exhausted. According to the UNICEF report, children sometimes fell off and broke limbs, and some vomited from the spinning. In one village, local children were paid to 'play' on the pump. Much of the time, women of the village ended up pushing the merry-go-round themselves—a task they found tiring, undignified, and demeaning.

      What's more, no one had asked the local communities if they wanted a PlayPump in the first place. When the investigators from SKAT asked the community what they thought about the new PlayPump, many said they preferred the hand pumps that were previously installed. With less effort, a Zimbabwe Bush hand pump of the same cylinder size as a PlayPump provided thirteen hundred liters of water per hour—five times the amount of the PlayPump....

      Even when communities welcomed the pumps, they didn't do so for long. The pumps often broke down within months, but unlike the Zimbabwe Bush Pump, the mechanics of the pump were encased in a metal shell and could not be repaired by the community. The locals were supposed to receive a phone number to call for maintenance, but most communities never received one, and those who did never got anyone on the phone…. The PlayPump was inferior in almost every way to the unsexy but functional hand pumps it competed with. Yet, at $14,000 per unit, it cost four times as much." pp. 3-4