Why this failed pregnancy intervention highlights the need for charity evaluators

Cross-posted from LinkedIn.

From 2003, almost 3,000 school girls in Western Australia have participated in an unusual social intervention. They were given electronic baby dolls to create the experience of being a mother. The study team hoped that it would reduce teenage pregnancy rates. If you’re skeptical as to whether this would work, you’d be right, but you might be surprised by just how ineffective it was. According to a recent study published in The Lancet, not only did this intervention not have a positive effect on pregnancy rates, it actually increased them.

Australians gave over $6.8 billion to charity in 2014. We should be proud of this. Our country is built on the pillars of mateship and giving everyone a fair go – values reflected in Australians giving 6.5% more this year than last. We live this culture during Easter and Christmas appeals, when we sit down across the nation for Australia’s Biggest Morning Tea, and when we step into our local Salvation Army to help those in need.

While few would challenge the importance of giving to help others, we don’t tend to pore over the annual statements and fiscal returns of our most beloved charities. Rather, the majority of Australians base their giving choices on identity and respect for an organisation’s mission. Many charities we support aren’t always transparent about their methods, simply reiterating terms like ‘community’ and ‘support’ to encourage donations.

Surveys show that duplication and wastage of resources by non-profit organisations is our biggest concern when it comes to giving. Our concern should not only be administrative costs, but rather whether the programs they operate actually help people. Are they using evidence-backed strategies shown to work? Do they rigorously check that their programs are helping people at low cost? Sometimes the answer is yes, but too often it is no.

Unfortunately, most social programs simply aren’t that effective. David Anderson, previously Assistant Director at the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy (now working at the Arnold Foundation) said:

…75% [of social programs] or more turn out to produce small or no effects… [or] negative effects.

This is worrying, and it highlights the need for more research into the effectiveness of charities and social interventions. Luckily, GiveWell and other charity evaluators exists to undertake in-depth charity research to find out which programs are having the greatest impact on poverty.

‘Effective Altruism’ is a growing worldwide social movement which applies rigorous evidence and analysis to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for highly effective charities. This philosophy of acting with the head and the heart is gathering steam with growing think tanks conducting research in San Francisco and Oxford. Its supporters range from Australian philosopher Peter Singer to Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz.

Helping is not straightforward. But this is no excuse not to give. A minority of programs are found to be incredibly effective, saving and transforming lives at a very low cost per person.

By providing a growing literature on how to give effectively and make a difference with our careers, Effective Altruism promises to empower people around the world to make a real difference with their donations and their time. Aussies can now make tax-deductible donations to some of the most proven effective charities across the globe by visiting Effective Altruism Australia’s website.

Yes, giving from the heart is important. But our feelings need to be guided by facts. We now have the opportunity to be better informed about how, where and to whom we give. It has never been more possible for Australians to have a meaningful and positive impact on a massive scale.

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