Monday, January 4, 2010

In the business of putting yourself out of business

GiveWell celebrated the New Year by bringing a constructive-criticism smack down on to Philanthropedia, another alternative charity evaluator. (Philanthropedia's eloquent and respectful response is here and here.) This behemoth of a post was preceded by their year-end wrap up, where they reiterated their guiding principle that by donating to their top-recommended charities, individual donors can actually save another human being's life.

While their year-in-review may seem less controversial than an expansive critique of a partnering organization, I am going to set myself up for my own smack down (assuming they even read this blog) and say that focusing on how to save the most lives is a misguided view of charity. Instead of trying to save lives, charities should tackle and confront the major underlying cause of the world's problems: Injustice.

I am not an expert on the philosophy of injustice, so I will let Dr. David Hilfiker make my argument for me in his essay "Justice and the Limits of Charity." In summary:
[T]he fundamental problem for the poor in our country is not homelessness or AIDS or hunger or the like—or even any combination of these.  They are just symptoms; the problem is injustice.  In promoting our institutions, it is natural to emphasize the importance of our own project.  But this can lead to subtle impressions that if we just distribute enough food, or create enough bed space, or find enough homes—that is, if we just treat the symptoms—we will have solved “the problem.”
The essay is a little outdated and focused on the importance of advocacy, but the takeaway is powerful: Donating to charities based on their capacity to save lives uses a fundamental approach of treating the symptoms of problems and not the problem of injustice itself. This approach is ultimately unsustainable and therefore detrimental in the long run. The plight of the African slum dweller, or the Southeast Asian farmer, or the inner-city American youth isn't that they don't have health care or that they don't have enough to eat, but that they are not entitled to receive those services. Offering those services in the short-run is necessary and essential, but it does not confront the reality of injustice and work toward a more just world.

Six out of the ten top-rated charities on GiveWell are health-related. I do not think health organizations are doing detrimental work, I think they are offering necessary services to those who need it. But providing necessary services to individuals (also know as saving or changing lives) should not be the end goal for charities, or for the individual who invests in those charities.

Instead, charities should see themselves as a band-aid solution to fill in when governments and traditional institutions cannot (or refuse to) meet the needs of their communities. My friend who works at the DC Rape Crisis Center told me her organization wants "to put themselves out of business." This should be the end goal for all charities: Creating enough transformative change in society to rid the world of the need for them.

It should be noted that many health organizations are working to change the overarching structures in society. Village Reach, GiveWell's top charity, works to improve the health structures in rural Africa. The second highest-rated, Stop TB Partnership, aims to, well, stop tuberculosis. But choosing (and evaluating) based on the capacity to save lives ignores the fact that even with every individual life saved, the need for those charities still remains.

So what to do? You can do what I did and invest in charities that work on economic empowerment, which I think can create systemic transformative change from the bottom up. But if everyone did that, charities would fold and lives would be lost. (I made my decision with the safe assumption that most people don't act based on what I do.) It's tricky. But what's important is to remember, whether you evaluate charities, you work in a non-profit, or if you are a social investor, you should always be in the business of putting yourself out of business.

(Additional thanks to my other friend, Nora, who sent me the Hilfiker essay.)


  1. Excellent post! I think your argument is dead on and speaks to a trend of charities failing to address the root causes of social problems.

  2. Jeff, thanks for the thoughtful commentary.

    We think the "root cause vs. symptom" dichotomy starts to fade if you accept the following:

    1. The "root causes" of most problems have no clear answers (more at this blog post). They are extremely complex and difficult to understand, especially for individual donors half a world away.

    2. The people best positioned to understand how to pull region X out of poverty are arguably the inhabitants of region X, not donors.

    3. Therefore, the best general solution to "root causes" may be to empower individuals as much as possible, making them more capable of solving their own (other) problems.

    4. Taking this approach has the added benefit of being better able to hold charities accountable for their progress (since you're asking for incremental, demonstrable impact on individuals' lives rather than a nebulous promise of a future "takeoff"). We feel that having incremental evidence regarding effectiveness will lead to better results almost no matter what you're trying to do.

    Of course, any particular donor may feel that they are fully confident in a particular "solution to root causes," one that doesn't generate measurable impact in the short term. But we don't feel that way, and we don't feel that the donors we target (individual/casual donors) generally have the context or information sets to reasonably be that confident in a particular theory.

    Holden Karnofsky

  3. Holden, thanks for your response. I agree with all points made. Solving "injustice" and other root causes of problems is incredibly complex and will take a lot of people doing a lot of different things to solve it. Saving lives is an important part of that effort, and it does greatly empower someone to have his or her life saved, but I don't think our efforts should stop there.

    The parenthetical point of your #3 is well noted: if we can provide services needed, we can leave it up to the individuals themselves to deal with the problems around them. But I think stopping there ignores the overwhelming fact of historical and oppressive injustice in our world that remains after a persons life is "saved": racism, colonialism, neo-colonialism, poverty traps, etc.

    I think the real takeaway from this post is that the charitable industry should not be based on charity, but on the necessary drive to right past wrongs and empower people, like you said. Viewing it this way still leaves room for accountability and effectiveness (#4). It is just a lot harder to measure successful change organizations compared to successful life-saving organizations.

    Also, I agree with you that most donors (myself included) are not (or should not be) fully confident in a particular "solution to root causes," but that does not mean they can't invest in organizations that claim to have that solution or are working towards finding that solution. If accountability exists, in the long run, the solution will be found. It will just take a lot of investment and failure to find it.

  4. Great discussion--I especially like your comment, above, that charities need to get out of the charity business. The greatest danger in not trying to put ourselves out of business is not, I think, that we may fund some organizations that we "shouldn't", but rather that we won't support crucial efforts that, while they may not save lives in the short-term, are transforming lives (and more importantly, societies) in the long run--advocacy, grassroots organizing, structural change.