I Want to Invest in Aid that Works

By Joy Portella, President, Minerva Strategies –

I’m that kind of aid skeptic. I scowl at the idea of child sponsorship. I wag my finger at people who want to send t-shirts or shoes or bicycles to kids in Africa. I yawn at sappy victim narratives that other people find heartwarming.

But I am optimistic, and I do think aid can have a tremendous positive impact on people’s lives. But it needs to be targeted, smart, and not afraid of failure. It should be administered by groups that have real, measureable impact, and let locals call the shots on priorities. It needs to connect to markets and include solutions that have the ability to scale – when scaling is appropriate. In short, aid needs to work.

There are thousands of groups out there that work to help people in the poorest corners of the globe gain access to education, healthcare, jobs, and other vital resources. How can you tell who’s doing a good job and who isn’t? One solutions is organizations like Charity Navigator and GiveWell that use well-defined criteria to evaluate and rate the effectiveness of nonprofits.

An alternative approach is taken by Minerva’s client the Seattle International Foundation (SIF), which recently published its 2015 Global Philanthropy Guide. The Guide is a tool for donors; it recommends a limited collection of organizations that are doing impressive work around the world. It assumes that place matters – all of the organizations featured in the Guide are based in Washington State – and offers donors the assurance that these groups have been vetted through close examination of their mission, leadership, efficiency, and results.

I like the Guide for a few reasons:

  • Many of the organizations it lists are small and scrappy, and do not hit the revenue thresholds to be evaluated by the usual-suspect rating groups. These organizations also would not be easy for many donors to find because they don’t have big marketing budgets.
  • I appreciate the impulse to support locally based groups that do work around the world. We have a vibrant and growing community of international development and health groups here in the Puget Sound region, and many of these organizations deserve donor support.
  • SIF knows what they’re doing. Since 2008, they have awarded more than $15 million to over 150 organizations working in 60 countries. They have a track record of smart investments, and they know how to vet smart organizations.

This is not to say that the Guide should be the one and only tool for people who want to give internationally. Donors cannot afford to be lazy! The organizations featured in the Guide work in different parts of the world, tackle a range of issues, and have diverse approaches. Donors should certainly do more research before they pluck down cash – check out organizational websites or pick up the phone and call these groups to ask how money will be used.

But the Guide does provide a good starting point, and allows donors to skip a bunch of preliminary research steps. That’s help that makes even this skeptic smile.