Market efficiency and charity cost-effectiveness

In an efficient market, one can expect that most goods are sold at a price-quality ratio that is hard to improve upon. If there was some easy way to produce a product cheaper or to produce a higher-quality version of it for a similar price, someone else would probably have seized that opportunity already – after all, there are many people who are interested in making money. Competing with and outperforming existing companies thus requires luck, genius or expertise. Also, if you trust other buyers to be reasonable, you can more or less blindly buy any “best-selling” product.

Several people, including effective altruists, have remarked that this is not true in the case of charities. Since most donors don’t systematically choose the most cost-effective charities, most donations go to charities that are much less cost-effective than the best ones. Thus, if you sit on a pile of resources – your career, say – outperforming the average charity at doing good is fairly easy.

The fact that charities don’t compete for cost-effectiveness doesn’t mean there’s no competition at all. Just like businesses in the private sector compete for customers, charities compete for donors. It just happens to be the case that being good at convincing people to donate doesn’t correlate strongly with cost-effectiveness.

Note that in the private sector, too, there can be a misalignment between persuading customers and producing the kind of product you are interested in, or even the kind of product that customers in general will enjoy or benefit from using. Any example will be at least somewhat controversial, as it will suggest that buyers make suboptimal choices. Nevertheless, I think addictive drugs like cigarettes are an example that many people can agree with. Cigarettes seem to provide almost no benefits to consumers, at least relative to taking nicotine directly. Nevertheless, people buy them, perhaps because smoking is associated with being cool or because they are addictive.

One difference between competition in the for-profit and nonprofit sectors is that the latter lacks monetary incentives. It’s nearly impossible to become rich by founding or working at a charity. Thus, people primarily interested in money won’t start a charity, even if they have developed a method of persuading people of some idea that is much more effective than existing methods. However, making a charity succeed is still rewarded with status and (the belief in) having had an impact. So in terms of persuading people to donate, the charity “market” is probably somewhat efficient in areas that confer status and that potential founders and employees intrinsically care about.

If you care about investing your resource pile most efficiently, this efficiency at persuading donors offers little consolation. On the contrary, it even predicts that if you use your resources to found or support an especially cost-effective charity, fundraising will be difficult. Perhaps you previously thought that, since your charity is “better”, it will also receive more donations than existing ineffective charities. But now it seems that if cost-effectiveness really helped with fundraising, more charities would have already become more cost-effective.

There are, however, cause areas in which the argument about effectiveness at persuasion carries a different tone. In these cause areas, being good at fundraising strongly correlates with being good at what the charity is supposed to do. An obvious example is that of charities whose goal it is to fundraise for other charities, such as Raising for Effective Giving. (Disclosure: I work for REG’s sister organization FRI and am a board member of REG’s parent organization EAF.) If an organization is good at fundraising for itself, it’s probably also good at fundraising for others. So if there are already lots of organizations whose goal it is to fundraise for other organizations, one might expect that these organizations already do this job so well that they are hard to outperform in terms of money moved per resources spent. (Again, some of these may be better because they fundraise for charities that generate more value according to your moral view.)

Advocacy is another cause area in which successfully persuading donors correlates with doing a very good job overall. If an organization can persuade people to donate and volunteer to promote veganism, it seems plausible that they are also good at promoting veganism. Perhaps most of the organization’s budget even comes from people they persuaded to become vegan, in which case their ability to find donors and volunteers is a fairly direct measure of their ability to persuade people to adopt a vegan diet. (Note that I am, of course, not saying that competition ensures that organizations persuade people of the most useful ideas.) As with fundraising organizations, this suggests that it’s hard to outperform advocacy groups in areas where lots of people have incentives to advocate, because if there were some simple method of persuading people, it’s very likely that some large organization based on that method would have already been established.

That said, there are many caveats to this argument for a strong correlation between fundraising and advocacy effectiveness. First off, for many organizations, fundraising appears to be primarily about finding, retaining and escalating a small number of wealthy donors. For some organizations, a similar statement might be true about finding volunteers and employees. In contrast, the goal of most advocacy organizations is to persuade a large number of people.1 So there may be organizations whose members are very persuasive in person and thus capable of bringing in many large donors, but who don’t have any idea about how to run a large-scale campaign oriented toward “the masses”. When trying to identify cost-effective advocacy charities, this problem can, perhaps, be addressed by giving some weight to the number of donations that a charity brings in, as opposed to donation sizes alone.2 However, the more important point is that if growing big is about big donors, then a given charity’s incentives and selection pressures for survival and growth are misaligned with persuading many people. Thus, it becomes more plausible again that the average big or fast-growing advocacy-based charity is a suboptimal use of your resource pile.

Second, I stipulated that a good way of getting new donors and volunteers is to simply persuade as many people of your general message as possible, and then hope that some of these will also volunteer at or donate to your organization. But even if all donors contribute similar amounts, some target audiences are more likely to donate than others.3 In particular, people seem more likely to contribute larger amounts if they have been involved for longer, have already donated or volunteered, and/or hold a stronger or more radical version of your organization’s views. But persuading these community members to donate works in very different ways than persuading new people. For example, being visible to the community becomes more important. Also, if donating is about identity and self-expression, it becomes more important to advocate in ways that express the community’s shared identity rather than in ways that are persuasive but compromising. The target audiences for fundraising and advocacy may also vary a lot along other dimensions: for example, to win an election, a political party has to persuade undecided voters, who tend to be uninformed and not particularly interested in politics (see p. 312 of Achen and Bartel’s Democracy for Realists); but to collect donations, one has to mobilize long-term party members who probably read lots of news, etc.

Third, the fastest-growing advocacy organizations may have large negative externalities.4 Absent regulations and special taxes, the production of the cheapest products will often damage some public good, e.g., through carbon emissions or the corruption of public institutions. Similarly, advocacy charities may damage some public good. The fastest way to find new members may involve being overly controversial, dumbing down the message or being associated with existing powerful interests, which may damage the reputation of a movement. For example, the neoliberals often suffer from being associated with special/business interests and crony capitalism (see sections “Creating a natural constituency” and “Cooption” in Kerry Vaughan’s What the EA community can learn from the rise of the neoliberals), perhaps because associating with business interests often carries short-term benefits for an individual actor. Again, this suggests that the fastest-growing advocacy charity may be much worse overall than the optimal one.


I thank Jonas Vollmer, Persis Eskander and Johannes Treutlein for comments.

1. Lobbying organizations, which try to persuade individual legislators, provide a useful contrast. Especially in countries with common law, organizations may also attempt to win individual legal cases.

2. One thing to keep in mind is that investing effort into persuading big donors is probably a good strategy for many organizations. Thus, a small-donor charity that grows less quickly than a big-donor charity may be be more or less cost-effective than the big-donor charity.

3. One of the reasons why one might think that drawing in new people is most effective is that people who are already in the community and willing to donate to an advocacy org probably just fund the charity that persuaded them in the first place. Of course, many people may simply not follow the sentiment of donating to the charity that persuaded them. However, many community members may have been persuaded in ways that don’t present such a default option. For example, many people were persuaded to go vegan by reading Animal Liberation. Since the book’s author, Peter Singer, has no room for more funding, these people have to find other animal advocacy organizations to donate to.

4. Thanks to Persis Eskander for bringing up this point in response to an early version of this post.

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