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Rationally changing how we feel about giving?

Charities that support cuddly animals invariably receive more than their fair share of the public donations pie, given their contributions to society (compared to say, a refugee support group or a rape crisis centre). But is a ‘charity ranking system’ a good way to shift this imbalance? If our giving choices are indeed ‘visceral’ and ‘irrational’, is a measured, rational system likely to change them?

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New Philanthropy Capital logoOn Wednesday, Martin Brookes, CEO of New Philanthropy Capital, spoke at the RSA on ‘The Morality of Charity’, arguing for a charity ranking system to help the public decide which organisations are more worthy of their donations than others.  At the core of his speech, he said, were moral judgments on:

  • the value of particular causes over others;
  • the ability of some organisations to deliver more effectively on those causes than others.

His hope was a system that could divert sparse resources to the most deserving, rather than the most popular causes.

On one level, I can appreciate the sentiment here; those who know me know I often bemoan the vast reserves sitting in the bank accounts of a small number of ultra-large national organisations.  However, there seem too many trade-offs associated with the proposal, trade-offs which may deeply undermine public trust in charities, as well as the sector’s broader independence and individual donors’ right to choose.

I’ve purposely avoided the question of practical difficulties, as I feel Sophie Hudson has already summarised the argument, but also because I’m keen to avoid the rhetoric of ‘let’s not do it because it seems ‘impossible’.  My approach looks at the risks I see as inherent in making such judgments about the value of the truly vast range of charitable efforts, and the complexity of their contributions to society.

All causes were not created equal…

Martin makes the example of charities that have traditionally delivered services which, retrospectively have been deemed damaging (cigarettes for soldiers, blood letting, etc), as a justification for a ranking system, to discourage money from reaching such groups.  However, he didn’t mention the examples of charities which were ‘ahead of their time’ and whose services may not have been formally recognised as critical when they were established, but have since come to be seen as integral in their field.  A ranking system, without the benefits of hindsight, would only have current ‘fact’ – that which is already ‘proven’ (versus that which is essentially being trialled by a charity who strongly believes in a new approach), on which a judgment could be passed.  This creates an imperative for organisations to stick to established methods, shunning risk and innovation, for fear of lowering their ranking with a yet unproven means of delivery. This seems like a formula for the calcification of a sector, de-incentivised to push beyond established practices, due to concern over lowering their ranking, and thus, their income.

What about politics?

While I would agree that there is an unfair allocation of resources towards ‘sexy’ – and broadly widely agreeable causes, those who are most in need (if I can indeed make such a judgment) are often those least likely to receive public donations.  Undercutting this reality, as uncomfortably as it sits with much of the charity world, is politics.  People won’t agree on the most deserving causes because their underpinning political beliefs will answer this question differently.  Refugees and asylum seekers are often among the most harshly treated groups in the country, yet many will argue against their right to be here at all, let alone to have money to support them.

As long as political divides exist, we will view different charities as differently ‘worthy’, regardless of what information we are given about their value.  If we don’t talk about politics, we are unlikely to get very far in this discussion.

Conversely, if we do acknowledge political differences in such a system, it seems we will end up with either rankings that reinforces the political status quo (a dangerous choice, as discriminatory as it is), or a system so watered-down, that only donkeys, cancer and football will qualify for support, as the only causes not (arguably) steeped in political baggage.

Campaigning?

Speaking of politics, what about if an organisation is working to influence broader social or governmental forces?  Their impacts may be much harder to see than those exclusively delivering services.  In many cases, the broader influencing work will be ultimately more important, holding the key to changing a systemic injustice creating the need for services in the first place, but how could this be ranked alongside groups whose efforts are based totally on addressing immediate, visible need?

It’s a complex, complex world…

Martin Brookes, CEO of New Philanthropy Capital

Martin Brookes, CEO of New Philanthropy Capital

We live in a complex world in which an arts charity may be vastly improving the life prospects of cancer patients and a youth football project may be significantly reducing local violent crime.  This means that many of the best organisations cannot be categorised according to (as Martin suggests as an option), Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (with food and water as the base, and arts and leisure activities at the peak).

Maslow’s hierarchy doesn’t address the complex inter-relationships between work affecting different parts of the pyramid described above. Parallels to the arts or football examples above likely exist in every voluntary or community organisation that doesn’t supply food and water to sub-Saharan African villages, making classification a broadly meaningless activity, which would likely just encourage groups to distort their categorisations to rank more highly than they otherwise might, in the interests of maintaining the impression of public value. Much like currently imposed systems of monitoring and evaluation, groups will find ways to fill in the forms to give themselves preferential results. And this would be a completely understandable thing to do, if you knew your future income was dependent not on your work, per se, but on the perception of your work you were able to create amongst donors or funders.

Valuing ‘effectiveness’

I feel I mostly addressed this one in May when NPC’s work in this area first came to my attention.  Any system which attempts to make a blanket evaluation of the overall effectiveness of different organisations, will inevitably lose the nuance that makes a cattery different from a rape crisis centre, or youth music programme.  If the currently established systems of organisational evaluation are anything to go by, they will not begin to capture the full value offered by most charities.

Even on an issue as seemingly straightforward as how money is spent and overhead costs, these lines can be incredibly blurred, depending on the how distinctions are drawn between frontline staff and management, or if fundraising budgets can be justified, based on their cash return, though they might look disproportionate to the objective outsider.

Better allocation of too few resources?

As for this bigger question, I wonder why we are asking it the way we are.  Would we try to regulate who people become friends with, because there are some people who don’t have enough friends in their lives, and some who have many? Those with the most friends may be popular, funny, but ultimately, less reliable as friends than some of their less-popular alternatives; but will this stop people from gravitating towards them?

It’s not ideal, but systems are notoriously bad at addressing these things on any scale.  Charity is a deeply personal issue for many people and outside information is unlikely to sway someone’s visceral response to an issue they have come to care about.

Further, if we try to do so, we run the (I feel) inevitable risk of:

  • alienating or confusing current and future donors who feel judged for the issues they support
  • encouraging dishonesty from organisations looking to find ways to boost their ranking
  • devaluing the critical work that is done by charities to influence broader systemic change
  • reinforcing the status of large charities with specialised staff to address grading requirements
  • wasting vast sums of money to cram complex issues into insufficiently complex categorisations

For all of Martin’s reminders that people are not rational in their giving habits (he is a self-confessed donkey sanctuary donor), he seems convinced that a rational system of ranking is what is needed to convince us to give differently.  If it is feeling and instinct that drive our current donations, why not look at how feeling and instinct could help to shape new ones, rather than creating a system which tries to undermine these things?  Not a challenge any easier than NPC’s, but maybe one with a greater precedent for success?

The sooner we can dispel the institutional myth that you can count, measure and rank complex social efforts, as you would a football league table, or a budget deficit, the sooner we can get on to really understanding the value they do or don’t provide.


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Posted in accountability and campaigning and flexibility and measurement and power and Uncategorized.

1 comment

One Reply

  1. Tim Baldwin Sep 30th 2011

    I actually stumbled on your article while testing natural language search engines with the criterion “charities which are most deserving but least attractive”, a subject that is of personal concern (for giving, not receiving).

    I have to say that, as treasurer of an arts charity (www.surreyopera.org) and chairman of a company that’s just acquired an old baptist chapel as a community centre which we are presently refurbishing (www.clydehall.org.uk), I endorse all you say. The idea of trying to rank and ascribe value to charitable efforts is fraught with danger. You only have to look at the crude metrics applied to public services in the UK these days in the form or targets and league tables to see the corrosive effect they have, both to the quality of the services they provide, and the regard in which they are held by the general public. It would be a disaster if the same happened to UK charities.

    Where I think a more dispassionate approach to charities would be most helpful is simply in making the public aware of some of the more obscure charities, whose voices are otherwise drowned out in the sometimes obscene (and expensive) cacophony of charities jostling for attention. The nearest we get at the moment is the occasional 5-minute slot allocated on radio or TV to some worthy celeb to make a pitch for their favourite charity.

    If we must have metrics, let it be something like measuring how many charities are active in each field. If it’s a lot, chances are the field is overprovided, and the charities concerned are more responding to public interest than answering a real need. A more subtle approach like that might help to balance up provision against need, and also cut down the wasteful duplication of effort and resourcing that blights a lot of charitable enterprise. Competition doesn’t always provide the best results, but that’s another topic.


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