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We Do Our Homework So You Don’t Have To

April 1, 2017


Did you know there are 1.5 million charities registered in the U.S.? Dizzying, right? You want to do some good in the world, but where do you start with a barrage of choices like that?

The good news is that you don’t have to stay up at night wrestling with that question. We’re doing it for you. Yep, we’re literally up at night (and during the day) working through how to get resources into the right hands. Our search has generated a remarkable set of organizations that are taking on some of the world’s toughest problems in highly effective ways.

So how do we choose these organizations? If you’re interested in the answer, buckle in because we’re about to share more than you probably want to know. We love to “geek out” on great nonprofits.

Doing good can go bad. 

If you’re familiar with the world of philanthropy, you know that giving to support social change is not a straightforward proposition. There are volumes written on the gap between what charitable organizations purport or aim to do and what really happens on the ground. Helping others from an institutional approach, as it turns out, is sticky work. Sadly, some of the best-laid plans and most well-intentioned interventions have unintended, detrimental consequences. From depleted resources to disempowered beneficiaries to long-term dependency, there is a dishearteningly long list of possible ways charity work can go wrong. 

Monitoring and evaluating is important but tricky. 

To avoid these consequences and optimize resources, effective charities monitor and evaluate their programs to measure their impact and ensure their outcomes align with their missions. When organizations make claims about the effectiveness of their work, their claims ought be based on robust empirical evidence. The problem is that there are lots of different ways to gather data, analyze evidence and present findings. Not all impact studies are created equal, and not all studies are appropriate for all contexts. Besides, conducting impact studies can be resource-intensive, and not all charities have the funds or personnel to thoroughly evaluate their work.

Think Gold, Silver & Bronze.

Knowing this, we look at the evidence nonprofit organizations present in their impact studies using a three-tiered framework we adapted from the smart folks at The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation. Think Bronze, Silver and Gold:

Bronze is “High Apparent Effectiveness.” Organizations in this tier track the people they serve and have a pre- and post-program database. This is a minimum threshold for measuring effectiveness and indicates that a nonprofit is committed to gathering appropriate data. What these data can tell us, however, is very limited. Determining exactly which factors affect particular outcomes is not possible, and causal claims about the organization’s effectiveness can’t be made. Still, organizations in this category are heading in the right direction by tracking their work and signaling areas for future research.  

Silver is “Demonstrated Effectiveness.” In this tier, organizations have a comparative baseline. Their data allows them to compare the outcomes experienced by their participants to those experienced by people in a demographically similar group. These claims are stronger than those that can be made in the plausible evidence category. Though there may be strong evidence to suggest a relationship between an intervention and an outcome, there is still no way to prove a causal link.

Gold is “Proven Effectiveness.” To reach this level, organizations conduct experimental or quasi-experimental studies, most often randomized controlled trials (RCTs). RCTs involve randomly dividing people into groups that receive different interventions. In the case of nonprofit impact studies, most often one group participates in the program and the other does not. When an organization has conducted an independent RCT, it is in a good position to make careful claims about causality. The tested intervention can be proven to have a particular effect or a direct causal link to a specific outcome. Still, RCTs test a particular intervention delivered by a particular organization in a particular locale/context. The “proven” effects of that intervention can’t necessarily be generalized to other contexts.

Small is Beautiful. 

Impact studies such as randomized controlled trials offer crucial insights into the consequences of an organization’s work. However, they are not a panacea. Critics  point to the reality that scholars and practitioners come to problems with their own biases and assumptions that influence the solutions they propose and the research designs that test their effectiveness. Even “Gold Standard” solutions can be misaligned with the needs and priorities of the populations they are meant to serve. As such, many experts, particularly in the field of international development, prefer cuturally-centered, participatory methodologies for developing interventions and assessing their effectiveness. These methodologies, such as Participatory Action Research (PAR), empower communities to create solutions to the problems they experience and determine their effectiveness in locally appropriate ways. Some of these solutions may be adapted or scaled in other communities; others may not. There is a convincing body of research that questions the premise of large-scale social impact and focuses instead on the beauty and power of local solutions.

There is no silver bullet, but there are effective solutions. 

With all this in mind, it’s easy to get lost in the vast number of possible charitable investments and their potential consequences. But don’t let “analysis paralysis” keep you from giving. Using the research and heuristics discussed above, we’ve curated a set of highly effective nonprofits that are solving some of the world’s toughest problems. These featured nonprofits all work in high-poverty contexts where a carefully-spent dollar goes a long way to address urgent needs. To make our curated list, nonprofits must:

Empower women and girls. Extensive research demonstrates that there are significant economic and social gains for societies at large with additional investment in women and girls. This well-documented “girl effect” aside, we believe in the intrinsic value of promoting gender equality.

Use locally-driven, culturally-sensitive solutions. Interventions must account for differential power structures in “aid” contexts and promote the dignity of participants and their cultural values. We look for bottom-up, not top-down solutions.

Have the potential to scale their work. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but we look for organizations that reflexively adapt their programs to engage new participants in new contexts.

Be transparent and efficient with resources. To be effective, nonprofits need sufficient resources to support their overhead. We don’t quibble over percentages; we look for effectiveness and transparency. Often we consult certifiers such as Guidestar, Charity Navigator, Global Giving and Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance when examining an nonprofit’s organizational integrity.

Demonstrate commitment to systematic evaluation. Some of the nonprofits we feature have “Gold Standard” impact studies under their belts. Others have effective solutions supported by scholarship in the field. Others are led by trusted, experienced experts. We look at each organization in the context of its work.

At Go Jane Give, our goal is to continually refine these criteria based on current research. If you have a cause you care about, we’re thrilled! We hope our platform makes it easy for you to fundraise for whatever charity you choose. If you’re looking for a cause, we hope you take a look at our curated list of highly-effective nonprofits. We know you’ll find their work to be compelling.

Whatever your cause, you can support it by turning your talents and interests into a simple fundraiser. You have more to give than you think. So go ahead. Be who you are. Do what you like. Change the world.

Special thanks to Jeff Shumway, Vice President Advisory Services, Social Finance USA and Jeremy Keele, Executive Director, Sorenson Impact Center, University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business.


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