As government budget cuts loom on many fronts, private philanthropists need more help than ever to determine where their money will do the most good. One area where funders must improve in making better-informed choices and setting priorities concerns global security and human rights issues.
With wars raging on multiple continents, instability growing in hotspots like Korea, and authoritarianism on the march, now is a moment for philanthropy to step up its efforts to promote a more peaceful and just world. Too often, though, it’s not clear how donors can best do that.
Compelling stories and images about war, suffering and oppression often sway donors to make generous donations. But as philanthropists, we have a responsibility to use our resources wisely, where they will do the most good. With so many people in need, and with so many laudable causes, how do we determine where our giving does the most good? How do we make decisions, when the moment arrives, about which organizations and approaches to support?
Although donors are now expecting data about the effectiveness of their giving, that alone is a poor guide to determining where their support will do the most good. The more expensive approach to a situation may be more effective, whereas support of a less expensive approach may actually do better overall. For example, a one-month training will probably be more effective that a one-week training. But more people may attend a one-week training, and training four times as many people may do a lot more good in the end.
What we need are reliable measures of cost effectiveness, or what I like to call “bang for the donor bucks.” But sparse attention is given to understanding what results can be achieved with a given amount of money. It does seem that the fields of education and public health are ahead of other fields in terms of assessing cost effectiveness. Those of us contributing to other sectors should learn from how education and public health organizations approach the question of cost effectiveness, and what role, if any, donors have played to make this happen.
In the field in which I am most active, reducing armed conflict, there is little evidence about which approaches are most cost effective. There are many organizations, each with a different approach to promoting peace, and they all need support. This is especially true right now, in the current political climate, when proposed cuts to foreign assistance and diplomacy are severe. But while some organizations offer anecdotal evidence about how their actions have suppressed violence, they cannot assure donors that their approach will be effective in another time or place, much less prove cost effective anywhere. Governments, NGOs and donors are flying blind.
Many donors are funding activities that are unusually cost effective. For example, the Purdue Peace Project (PPP), which I fund, convenes an inclusive group of local leaders to take action to avert the eruption of violence in conflict situations in their own communities. Understanding the context and culture, these leaders are better equipped to deal with their problems than are outsiders. They perform enthusiastically and effectively without compensation for their efforts other than peace in their communities. In none of the 18 cases in West Africa and Central America in which PPP has been active has any violence occurred. The cost was a small fraction of what has been spent in efforts to prevent political violence in other ways, though it must be said that the conflict and violence that PPP addresses is at a local, relatively modest scale.
Philanthropists should more openly share information on the costs and impact of such successful approaches. Conversely, information about activities that initially appeared to be promising but did not produce results commensurate with the cost can also be helpful. Articles in publications such as this one, detailing costs, effectiveness and lessons can inform others of ways in which their money can be well spent. Presentations at professional conferences, closed door meetings of funding affinity groups, and academic papers are other ways donors can build new knowledge and ideally new methodologies for making choices about giving and getting more "bang for the donor buck."
Currently, little hard evidence about cost-effectiveness is available, but some initial research is being done to determine where resources can best be used. GiveWell uses cost effectiveness as one of its primary criteria in rating charities. In the United Kingdom, the Department of International Development has adopted a "value for money" approach with promising results. Last year, the Institute for Economics and Peace published a study on the cost effectiveness of peacebuilding. Two university-based research organizations, the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and Innovations for Poverty Action (Yale University), are doing pioneering research on how resources can best be used. The Frontier Design Group has just started an investigation of the cost effectiveness of approaches to reducing armed conflict. But these organizations are only scratching the surface. Much more research is needed.
The philanthropic community has a major role to play in wisely allocating its resources to alleviate suffering, poverty and war. While practitioner organizations may have a vested interest in the status quo, donors that want results for their money have a greater interest in finding out where it will do the most good.
It is beholden on us to encourage universities and research institutions to study the cost effectiveness of distinct charitable approaches and develop evidence about where resources can best be used. We need to make our own data about cost and effectiveness available to such researchers. We need to learn from experience in fields such as education and public health, where cost effectiveness has been a focus.
Especially in light of the reduction of government funding to alleviate so many of the problems that afflict our society, it is urgent that we allocate our resources where they will do the most good. To do that, we must support the research needed to show us the way.
Over the last 15 years, Milt Lauenstein has provided funding for university-based research on political violence and supported numerous violence prevention projects in West Africa, and more recently, Central America. He is a member of the Peace and Security Funders Group and New England International Donors. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org