Agree or disagree:
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
This inspirational quote from the late activist Howard Thurman always resonated with me, because when it comes to social, political, economic, and environmental issues, the world needs so much. Rather than be paralyzed by all the crises out there, I would tell you to start pouring your energy and resources into one issue that fires you up, because apathy doesn’t get us anywhere. I reason the projects that the world most needs will naturally attract more funding and support from the public; hence why there are more girls’ education organizations versus pigeon rescue centers, though our leaders may be equally passionate.
Recently, a friend forwarded me an unusual grant opportunity for $100k. A five-person personal injury law firm is making a bold donation to one nonprofit that shows they will do the most good for the most people with $100k. These lawyers rightfully acknowledge that they are not nonprofit professionals and they’ve turned to external sources for vetting help. The firm asks applicants to include a link to their nonprofit’s evaluation on GiveWell.org, if possible.
I had never heard of GiveWell.org (unlike the more common nonprofit assessment organizations, Charity Navigator and GuideStar). I quickly realized GiveWell would never evaluate She’s the First, because their definition of impact is very different from my/our own. It begged the question: What is impact, really? How do you create the most good for the most people?
For starters, one method is through direct aid; another is by addressing root-based causes.
GiveWell made it very clear that the latter isn’t within their scope. They say that root-based causes are “speculative” and “long-term undertakings.” Education interventions are a thinly studied area and there is no program they felt confident in recommending. Ouch.
But, wait a minute. Haven’t you seen countless studies that demonstrate the impact of girls’ education? The Malala Fund just released a report that shared 12 years of quality schooling for all girls would increase the global economy by $30 trillion. She’s the First published this and several related statistics in a new video as well. Haven’t you heard the correlation between educating girls and raising their future wages, increasing their negotiating power in the household, reducing family size, risk of domestic violence, disease, and early pregnancy — ultimately promoting gender equality in society at large?
Those correlations are true and at She’s the First, we have firsthand evidence in the success stories of our earliest She’s the First Scholars, who are now out in the workplace and taking care of their families, and still not married or with children — a huge break from the norm and every generation that preceded them. But, for GiveWell, this research is not longitudinal enough and has not been done with formal randomized control trials to show impact per dollar spent.
I realized that just because She’s the First fell out of the scope of GiveWell’s recommendations doesn’t mean their criteria was wrong nor that I agree with it. It’s different ways of defining impact. Ultimately, impact is created when actions align with a positive outcome. If your outcome is to eliminate extreme poverty, then bednet distribution, cataract surgery, deworming, and Vitamin A supplementation, among others, is going to create that desired outcome.
While fielding this potential grant opportunity, I am reading a Bill Gates-endorsed book called Factfulness by Hans Rosling. One of the author’s main points is that we should not split the world into the “developed” and “developing” world, because the world’s population does not sit in one camp or the other. The world’s wealth is actually distributed across four levels, he says. Level 1 is extreme poverty, and 1 billion people live in these conditions, according to UN data. Five billion people, the majority of the world, live in Level 2 and 3, Low-Income or Mid-Income countries. (Level 4 is a High-Income country, like the United States.)
My drive does not come directly from creating a world where extreme poverty does not exist. Though sure, like anyone with morals, that is the world I support and want to live in. But is a world filled with generic poverty that much better? Especially if you’re born female?
That kind of world, even one where extreme poverty doesn’t exist, is not going to change with charity or direct aid, though there is an immediate need to alleviate suffering. The world is only going to improve through interventions like education that ensure women and girls can change the systems that are currently working against them. That’s what attracts me.
There are some pretty controversial debates around population ethics; which lives are more “worth” saving than others? This is where Howard Thurman’s quote speaks to me; why does anyone have to choose? Why can’t the people who are most passionate about direct aid do that, and those fired up by long-term undertakings do that? And even better, why can’t each of us blend those strategies when we go about crafting our own impact in the world?
The person, like me, who is invested in the long-term change that will be seen when the students we support today are 20, 30-years past graduation would get some immediate gratification from donating needed supplies to a school. The analytical person who is putting a portion of their paycheck aside for fistula surgeries would be wise to also (for example) support an organization that is breaking menstrual taboos in cultures discriminating and shunning women when they are on their periods. You may not be able to measure how many lives have been saved as easily in the latter example, but without those kinds of programs, you shut the door on social mobility for half the population.
Will I apply for the lawyers’ $100k grant opportunity even though I’m fairly sure our work isn’t the bang for the buck that they’re looking for? Yes, because I have nothing to lose. Like most cold-call grants I apply for, I likely won’t win it. But I will come alive trying.
To recap, think about:
- What outcome do you want to create in the world, and are the organizations you choose to fund directly supporting that?
- Do you understand the limitations of both direct aid and long-term undertakings? Rather than debate which is better, how can you do both, even if you choose to prioritize one?
- Where do you work? Is your employer making a bold philanthropic commitment to close out the year? In my opinion, that contribution should be proportional to what is spent on client gifts and the holiday party — and I know plenty of companies that make a donation in honor of the former!