Monday, July 23, 2012

Rooting for your home team

There's a gap between charity evaluators and charity workers. Look at any article on effective charity, and you're likely to see responses from NGO staff voicing their frustration with the evaluation methods:

"You don't understand how hard it is to persuade donors to fund evaluation."

"We're reaching a population that no one else is reaching."

"The type of work we do just isn't measurable by randomized controlled trials."

"It's hard for really small organizations to get noticed."

The thing that worries me about these responses is that it's hard to be objective about your own project. I've been there. When I worked for a nonprofit doing global development and relief work, I was rooting for them. I knew their values, I knew their staff, and I loved both. You see this in devoted donors, too - once you've helped with a project, you want to see it continue. It's only natural, once you feel like part of the group.

But which charity you support is not the point. The point is to help people who need help. Right? That's why we're doing this, remember?

The flaws in any evaluation (and there will be flaws) are bad not because they shortchange charities, but because they shortchange the people who should be getting better help. The question we should be asking is not, "Is the evaluation fair to these organizations?" but "How can donors help the most?"

My home team isn't in an office in Boston. My home team is in a village somewhere. I'm rooting for them.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Letting myself care

Recently I was talking with friends about what role emotion should play in giving decisions.  Some said we shouldn't let emotions muddle our thinking.

"But I want to have an emotional connection to the people I help," another said. I found myself agreeing with both sides.

We're emotional creatures (some more than others).   Personally, I'm pretty high on the bleeding-heart scale.  One thing I loved about Oxfam is that they do a great job documenting their work in articles and photography, so I could feel really connected to the people they work with.  I put their pictures on my wall.  I wanted to see their faces.

Of course,  I don't want to choose a cause based on how emotionally connected I already am to it.  I don't want to pass up an excellent opportunity to help because I felt more  pulled to a less effective cause.  When it comes to choosing a cause, I want to act based on information, not sentiment. At the end of the year I'll reevaluate which charities to support, and I don't want to be muddled when I do that.

But once I've chosen a cause, I give myself permission to fall in love with it.  What I care about, after all, is not the cause itself but the human lives at stake.  (For you, it might be animal lives as well, or the lives of people not yet born.  But you get the idea.)  So I look for a way to connect.

Against Malaria Foundation posts photos of most of its bednet distributions.  It's a way to document that they're doing what they say they are - but for me, it's also a chance to see the human face of the work they do.  The work I help them do.

Seeing her face is a way of overcoming the blind chance that put me in the US and her in Mali.  It's a way of making us neighbors.

It's hard to feel warm and fuzzy about our donations going to dozens of distribution points around the world. We didn't evolve to feel an emotional glow about numbers. It can feel like we're sending money into some kind of oblivion. It's hard to feel motivated about that.

That's why I imagine it going to her.  I imagine how glad her family will be to see her reach her eighth birthday, eleventh birthday, twentieth birthday.  I imagine all the things she can do now that she's not sick.  That kind of glow is what my heart was made for.