There’s nothing controversial about the idea of rating non-profit organizations according to their effectiveness or lack of. The field of philanthropy is positively swimming with initiatives to develop metrics for measuring effectiveness and impact.
Never mind that most donors aren’t that interested – as shown in recent research by Hope Consulting in the US and by Beth Breeze in the UK (Why donors choose charities), among others. We all piously hope that they will be brought to water as good metrics become more available. But rating causes is quite another thing.
And rating causes is what New Philanthropy Capital (NPC) chief executive Martin Brookes was suggesting in a lecture delivered at London’s RSA last week (29 September). His suggestion is that charities should be ranked according to how much they benefit the public so people can make more informed giving choices. ‘Where we give and how we give matter, morally,’ he said. ‘Some charitable causes are just “better”, and more deserving, than others.’
Judging by the questions that followed, most people in the audience didn’t agree. Stephen Bubb, head of chief executives body Acevo, was quoted in Third Sector magazine the day after the lecture as saying that the idea runs counter to the whole concept of giving. ‘Giving is a matter of personal choice,’ says Bubb. ‘And it’s impractical to build such an index. Who is going to decide which cause is more moral than another?’ These remarks probably sum up pretty well the main objections to Brookes’ ranking idea.
Yet most (not all) in the audience would probably have had little difficulty with the general direction of his opening remarks. ‘Would we be less impressed by the Gates Foundation if they had given the bulk of their money to Harvard rather than global health?’ he asked. ‘And would we be even less impressed if they’d insisted on Harvard changing its name to Gates University?’ So we tend to agree that some giving is morally better than others – QED (he didn’t say).
While insisting on the sanctity of donor’s freedom to give as they want, most people would probably also have agreed that the aggregation of individual choices by donors is badly skewed. According to a report published by NPC in April 2008, the British public gives more to a Devon-based donkey sanctuary than to the three most prominent UK charities trying to combat violence and abuse against women combined. Refuge, the Women’s Aid Federation and Eaves Housing for Women had a combined annual income of just £17 million. By contrast the Donkey Sanctuary, which has looked after 12,000 donkeys, received £20 million in 2006. I’ve got nothing against donkeys, but this seems all wrong.
But it’s the step in the middle – the ranking of causes – that people baulk at. One possibility that has been toyed with in both the US and the UK but not pursued is allowing tax benefits for giving to some causes but not others. This leaves donors free to give as they choose – no one denies them this right – but recognizes that some giving brings more public benefit than others and is therefore more deserving of public subsidy through the tax system. Or just better!
For more information
For a full transcript of Martin Brookes’ speech, go to http://www.philanthropycapital.org/downloads/pdf/Morality%20of%20charity%20FINAL%20for%20web.pdf