Are charities helping? We don’t know

Are charities helping? We don’t know

In a recent debate, David Hunter’s article on the nonprofit sector has taken heat for its assertion that “While nonprofits work incredibly hard, with passion and dedication, and often in incredibly difficult circumstances to solve society’s most intractable problems, there is virtually no credible evidence that most nonprofit organizations actually produce any social value.”

We agree with the claim for the sectors we’ve examined, which we believe are similar to the sectors Mr. Hunter has examined: particularly thorny areas such as charities working to improve education and international charities addressing extreme poverty overseas. These are problems on which experts have struggled for decades to make any progress, and while we don’t necessarily agree that most charities are failing to produce value, we agree that most charities cannot produce any credible evidence that they are. This is different from the claim that Sean Stannard-Stockton attributes to Mr. Hunter (”most nonprofits and the social sector as a whole is not currently producing social value”), but it still means that it’s very hard for a donor to give with confidence.

The information we have

Our belief is based on two years of looking for this evidence; we’ve published the full details of our findings online, and you can see our summary of international charities (only 19 out of 320 examined publish any impact-related evaluation reports) and U.S. equality of opportunity charities (only 6 of 83 examined provide credible impact-related reports, and 2 of these show negative or no impact).

In addition, in a guest post on the GiveWell Blog, David Anderson of the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy estimates that 75% of rigorous evaluations show weak effects, no effects, or negative effects.

More information needed

On the other hand, we also believe the criticism that Mr. Hunter doesn’t support his own claim with evidence has merit. We would like more clarity on which sectors Mr. Hunter has examined and is referring to, and information on where he has looked for evidence and what he has found.

In addition, we feel that examples of failing/harmful programs, such as “Well intentioned but ineptly run mentoring programs where failed matches reinforce in youngsters a sense of their low worth and poor prospects” (and the other items on the list on page 2 of the article) should be clearly referenced to summaries of evidence.

The truth is that we cannot have a very informed debate about how much value nonprofits create because we have so little evidence of any kind. Some people adamantly believe that nonprofits create enormous value; others are skeptical that they create any; and there is very little to go on, at least in the sectors under discussion.

Nonprofits that do have credible evidence of their social impact

The good news for donors is that they need not be in the dark if they give to the right charity. Our top-rated charities do produce credible evidence of their social impact. We encourage individual donors to expand and fund these charities until and unless others follow suit.




GiveWell is an independent, nonprofit charity evaluator. We perform in-depth research on charities to help people accomplish as much good as possible with their donations.

Unlike existing evaluators, which focus solely on financials, assessing administrative or fundraising costs, we focus on how well programs actually work – i.e., their effects on the people they serve.

This blog entry can be found originally on GiveWell's blog