Use data instead of intuition when choosing charities to support—Caroline Fiennes


CarolineFiennesCaroline Fiennes is the director of Giving Evidence, a consultancy and campaign supporting charitable giving based on evidence. Her book, It Ain’t What You Give, It’s the Way That You Give It, explains how to make good donation choices to improve the impact of every dollar. Caroline will be presenting at the Humanism at Work conference on evidence-based philanthropy.

One of the key things you learn in physics, says Caroline Fiennes, is that your intuition is rubbish. “It’s no guide to reality,” she says. With her background in physics and roots in empiricism, she thought it would be a good idea to apply an empirical approach to charity. “That’s why I’m very interested in what the data say, and being quite aggressive about finding out what that really is,” she explains—to help us step around our intuitions when it comes to charity, and listen instead to the facts.

Although she is not a humanist herself, Fiennes believes that creating opportunities for non-religious people to give to charity is important work. “The primary driver of whether people give is whether they are asked,” she notes, and in religious groups, people are asked a lot more often. “We also know from behavioral research about the importance of social norming, and we know that people like doing things that are sociable.” Since giving is often something people do on their own, adding a social element to it and providing the opportunity for people to give as part of a group can stimulate donations, as well as volunteering efforts: “Just seeing volunteering makes it occur to people to volunteer, and it makes it seem like it’s not just something that other people do, that different people do.”

There’s also the fact that in many cases, people don’t know how much they should give. “Most people haven’t got the faintest idea how much they ought to give. Zakat, the Islamic rule, and [Christian] tithing are a good nudge, in that they tell you how much to give. By contrast, I suspect that it’s counter-productive that homeless people ask for loose change because it prompts you to think that all you should be giving is loose change. So bringing together people who share beliefs and suggesting how much to give, how frequently to give, and who to give it to, is good work.”

One of the principal challenges of Fiennes’ work is convincing people to internalize the results of research on effective charities and giving. “The charities that you like, and that you’re supporting, may be less effective than one down the road.” People rarely see the results of their donations themselves, so they don’t feel the lost opportunity of a less effective donation. “Suppose that giving $1,000 to Organization A would help 300 people whereas giving it to Organization B would help 500 people. Suppose you give your $1,000 to Organization A. Well, 200 people miss out. That’s bad news. But it isn’t felt by you, and you probably don’t even realize.”

The informational infrastructure in the nonprofit world needs work because it’s currently really hard to find out which organizations are the best. Fiennes sees an analogy with medicine: Doctors prescribe treatment based on the best information currently available, but also campaign to get better information. “Similarly, we advise donors based on the evidence we can find, but also work on the information architecture to make the evidence better and clearer and easier to find.”

Ultimately, says Fiennes, it’s important that all donors know that “your choice really matters. Your choice of which charity you support really matters, and your choice of how you support them really matters.”

At the Humanism at Work conference in Chicago (July 18-20), Caroline will be talking more about how to give effectively: why would you want to, and how would you do it? Register now to join her and the rest of our fantastic slate of speakers.