How to find the world’s most effective charities

Each year One for the World conducts a review of its existing recommended charities, and searches for any outstanding organizations that we might want to add to our portfolio. I got involved in this stage of the process last year, when I met Josh (one of OFTW’s co-founders) at a party, where we spent most of the evening talking about charity effectiveness. This year, I managed the process and was delighted at how it turned out. This post will give an overview of the charity selection process, and the decisions we have made for our portfolio for 2015.

What are we looking for?

Choosing the world’s most effective charities to recommend to our members is not easy. First off, it seems natural to ask what we mean by ‘most effective’. Broadly, we define this as the charities that will achieve the biggest impact for every dollar that we donate. We are relatively agnostic about how an organization achieves its impact, and do not, for example, think that how much a charity spends on ‘overhead’ is a useful metric for evaluating its effectiveness. For more on the ‘overhead myth’ (and other traditional problems with the non-profit sector), see Dan Palotta’s excellent TED talk. We also look for a number of other desirable characteristics in our partner organizations, for example transparency and a commitment to measuring their impact. Our full criteria for partner selection can be found here.

Our team

This year we wanted to increase our research capacity, so that we could look at more organizations, and evaluate them in more depth. We recruited a team of six MBA students to work together over a period of five weeks and I can’t speak highly enough of them. They worked hard over the weeks to make sure that we have a portfolio of truly exceptional organizations to recommend to our members.

Our process

Once our full criteria document had been agreed by the One for the World board, and our team was in place, the first step was to create a long list of organizations that broadly meet our criteria. A few organizations had reached out to us over the last year, and after checking that they broadly meet our criteria, these were added to the long list. We also used our own knowledge of the sector, and leveraged research by other organizations working in this space, such as GiveWell, Giving What We Can, The Life You Can Save, Mulago Foundation, and many others.

Once we had our long list of organizations to investigate, we divided these up between us to conduct medium depth investigations and narrow down our options. At this stage we used rules of thumb to rule out organizations unlikely to meet our criteria: were these charities focussing on the world’s poorest people? Do they focus on the most cost-effective methods? Do any other organizations do a similar thing, but do it more effectively?  Are these charities transparent? Do they have a demonstrated impact?

Once we had the list down to about 10 of the most promising organizations, we split into pairs to conduct deeper investigations, to make sure we had at least two people reviewing each organization. We also conducted a deep review of our existing recommendations, to see if anything had changed in the previous year, and to make sure that they are still the most effective organizations out there. At this stage, we were interested in whether an organization is as effective as our existing recommendations, and we now compared organizations across our full range of criteria. Where we had difficulty assessing a charity using publicly-available documents, we got in touch with the charities to clarify details, with those we contacted providing very helpful answers.

Finally, and with the valuable advice of Cecily Wallman-Stokes from the Center for High Impact Philanthropy, we narrowed our shortlist down to three organizations: Possible Health, Living Goods and the Fistula Foundation. We presented these to MBA students at our charity selection event, co-hosted by the PE/VC Club and the Social Impact Club, to elicit feedback on our methodology and the assumptions and value judgements we were making in estimating each organization's effectiveness (slides here), before making our final decisions.

The results

After reviewing each of our existing organizations, we found them all to continue to represent exceptional giving opportunities. After reviewing Dispensers for Safe Water, we now recommend Evidence Action to our members, the organization that runs Dispensers for Safe Water, as well as two other highly effective programs. We will explore this decision in more depth in a later post. We continue to recommend the Against Malaria Foundation and Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, and have added Living Goods to our portfolio. We’re really excited about the impact you can have by donating to each of these organizations, and will explore them all in more depth in upcoming blog posts!


Thanks to our partner selection team: Rachel Krall, Alex Katen-Narvell, Lev Breydo, Van Tran (all WG’ 15), Sreya Sengupta and Matt McGuire (both WG’ 16). Thanks also Cecily Wallman-Stokes, of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy, who gave us invaluable feedback on how to further evaluate the charities on our final shortlist.

Rossa O’Keeffe-O’Donovan is the Director for High Impact Philanthropy for One for the World. He is a PhD candidate in Economics at the University of Pennsylvania, where his research focuses on the effective provision of water services in developing countries and the evaluation of development interventions. He has worked in charity evaluation since 2011, with Giving What We Can and One for the World, and has evaluated aid projects for the World Bank.

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