Watching the Watchers (pt 1): Give Well
This is the first of an multi-part series examining the way that charity evaluators reach their decisions on measuring charitable impact. The intent is for the Fugue Foundation to better understand the process in an effort to build out its effective altruism API. Future iterations of the Watching the Watchers series will examine Charity Navigator and Charity Science Foundation, but we begin today with Give Well.
What is Charity Evaluation?
First things first. To define charity evaluation, perhaps a comparison may help. Is peer review in academia a reasonable analog, where work and research is subjected to the scrutiny of other experts in the field? Or is it it an informal grooming process conducted by the evaluator in order to mentor and guide the charity organization? Or in that same vein, are incubators of Silicon Valley a more apt comparison, where a given charity is incentivized by grants or other inducements to follow a specific paradigm for managing their nonprofit? The answer is, like so many things, it depends.
We are talking about quantifying altruism, a rather tricky and often subjective measurement. In the case of Give Well (GW), they go beyond focusing solely on financials and administration, conducting in-depth research to determine how much good a given program accomplishes (in terms of lives saved, lives improved, etc.) per dollar spent. They take a depth over breadth approach, seeking out those few charities that stand out most (by their criteria) in order to find and confidently recommend high-impact giving opportunities. To that end, they maintain a top charities list which currently identifies eight organizations.
Naturally it's a multi-faceted, complicated topic. But for concision and because of its end-to-end scope, in this article we chose to examine Give Well's charity application process, specifically when they invited a select number of organizations implementing evidence-backed programs to apply for a top charity recommendation in 2017.
The first phase was to gauge whether a candidate organization potentially has what it takes to be a top selected charity, a sort of shortlisting or screening process. This consists of some introductory phone calls, feedback from those conversations, as well as the candidate org furnishing certain documents illustrating their use of funds and tracking impact. If Give Well moves forward with the candidacy, there may be a publication of an interim review followed by a participation grant upwards of $100,000.
Entering phase two, there are additional phone calls, more internal documents provided, as well as a two to four day site visit where a selected program has been implemented. There are four possible outcomes from this phase, though it is worth noting that all orgs evaluated by GW to date have fallen into either the first or second outcome.
- GW recommends the org as a "top charity"
- GW declares the org a "standout charity", a sort of runner-up appellation with its own benefits
- The org does not fit either of these categories and is regarded as one of the many orgs GW has considered and evaluated to one degree or another
- The org withdraws from the process
The timeline of the evaluation process can vary anywhere from two to twenty months. Give Well names its new top charities in November of each year and prefers that the application process begins in February, but there seems to be flexibility on this. As everything is evidence based, there are checks in place to ensure follow up with orgs after they have received initial or formal recommendations.