I have a tool for thinking I call “steelman solitaire” that I have found comes to much better conclusions than doing “free-style” thinking, so I thought I should share it with more people. In summary, it consists of arguing with yourself in the program Workflowy, alternating between writing a steelman of an argument, a steelman of a counter-argument, a steelman of a counter-counter-argument, etc. (I will explain steelmanning later in the post; in brief, it is the opposite of a strawman argument. Steelmanning means trying present the strongest possible version of an opposing view.) In this blog post I’ll first explain the broad steps, then list the benefits, and finally, go into more depth on how to do it.
Organizational self-confidence is seen as a very positive trait and is often embraced by new start-ups and nonprofits. The concept of self-skepticism is arguably as important but is often neglected. Self-skepticism cautions us to clearly measure our impact before declaring ourselves effective or expanding our organization. We believe that if a healthy dose of this was applied to the charity sector, it would make the world a much better place much faster.
Below is an outline of our organizational self-skepticism checklist.
First published at Charityscience.com in 2014
Many charities claim to accept and even enjoy feedback (both positive and critical), but I find that charities have two kinds of set-ups for feedback:
First published at Charityscience.com in 2015
When a charity is created most people think about the altruistic intentions behind its creation. They think that the founder wanted to improve the world or wanted to further a specific cause. While I think that this is true in nearly every case, there are also other strong motivations and sometimes these can interfere with or even supersede the organisation’s stated mission.
It was a tricky decision that Bill had been considering for months. He was an impact-focused EA, and although he thought his job was fairly high-impact he was pretty sure he was very replaceable. In fact, he was unsure he was even needed at the organization, since many of his tasks could have been done by a less experienced employee. And he was one of the five members of the senior team!
Written by: Joey Savoie
Time capping can be defined as fixing the number of hours for a certain task, research project or decision and keeping our research within those bounds. Most tasks can be completed at different levels of depth and research itself is never-ending - a single topic could often be researched in an hour or could equally have an entire PhD made out of it. The same can apply for website design, outreach, polishing or many other tasks that an organization engages in. Given tasks that are not time capped, people will generally spend more time on doing what they find fun or what they get absorbed in instead of what is best to put hours into in the long run. By setting a time cap on a task we are pre-determining how important that task is relative to other counterfactual tasks. This approach often results in more getting done at some cost of depth, as often 90% of the value of tasks is captured by the first 10% of the effort.
There are a variety of ways to prepare for founding your own charity. There is, of course, the legal and bureaucratic work, but much more important is getting ready, skill and knowledge-wise. Many charities are founded on a whim or impulse, but the best charities are founded after considerable careful and deliberate thought.
“You will not find it difficult to prove that battles, campaigns, and even wars have been won or lost primarily because of logistics.”
- Dwight D. Eisenhower
Although perhaps not the most exciting factor to consider, logistical difficulty is crucial. Many charities end up failing or failing to grow due to logistical reasons. So, particularly if you’re new to the field of charity entrepreneurship, it’s worth weighing in this factor when choosing an intervention.
“Without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful.”
- Margaret J. Wheatley
What are flow-through effects?
Your charity will have a direct impact, but it will also have many indirect flow-through effects, also known as second-order effects. For example, an organization distributing bednets might cause a reduction in malaria, but its second-order effect might be increased economic growth due to less loss of productivity from disease. One direct effect can set off an infinite chain of second-, third- and fourth-order effects, which might even surpass the direct impact of a charity.
“The difference between a charity that saves two million lives and a million lives is the same as the difference between one that never got started and one that saves a million.”
What is scalability?
In essence, scalability is about calculating the potential for your intervention to grow if given unlimited resources. It is considered very important in the business sector, but often forgotten in the nonprofit sector, with most public charities never surpassing $500,00 in annual expenses.
How often should you re-evaluate whether your charity is worth continuing?
Although it is crucial to do your best to disconfirm your charity’s impact and most people do not do this nearly enough, there is also such a thing as doing it too frequently. There will inevitably be fluctuation in the results of the evaluations, so day-to-day you may have ‘down days’ (or down months), even if the project is worthwhile overall. You might become demotivated if every day bad news comes in, you think you have to start again. Instead, we recommend setting specific re-evaluation points ahead of time e.g. every 6 months or yearly before you make the next year’s plan. That way on a day-to-day basis you can devote your energy and resources to making the plan work, feeling confident in its success, while knowing that you will critically assess your impact periodically and not end up wasting your whole career on a dead end.
“Insofar as a scientific statement speaks about reality, it must be falsifiable; and in so far as it is not falsifiable, it does not speak about reality.”
- Karl Popper
Any money spent on an intervention which doesn’t work is money wasted. Money which could have saved lives. That’s why evidence is so important - you’ve got to have a high level of confidence that the intervention is having the intended effect.
“In order to be irreplaceable, you must always be different.”
- Coco Chanel
What is counterfactual impact?
Counterfactual impact is what would happen if you did x to what would happen if you didn’t do x. For instance, if you brought chlorine to a village in rural Kenya with no safe water source, you would probably feel like you’d accomplished some good in the world. If, on the other hand, you gave the same gift to the average Swedish city they’d probably give you a funny look. They already have clean water.
“Smart can also mean wise, kind, inspiring - and cost-effective. And that has a charm all its own.” - Nancy Gibbs
When researching what charity to found, you’ll undoubtedly spend a lot of time conducting cost-effectiveness analyses (CEAs) if you want to achieve the most good possible. Technically, all other criteria are proxies for achieving the most good per dollar spent. So, here’s a crash course on evaluating cost-effectiveness.
What gets measured gets improved.
- Robin Sharma
When selecting which projects to implement, you should also try to maximize your impact. Your ethical beliefs will dictate what ‘good achieved’ means to you personally - that will be the metric you use to measure your charity’s success. In this we will discuss the pros and cons of some common metrics but, ultimately, your values will underpin your decision: do you value education as an intrinsic good? How about income? Is it worse to be blind for a year or deaf for a year? Read on to find out why we think wellbeing is often the best metric of all.
This post was previously published at EA forum by Peter Hurford
We all make decisions every day. Some of these decisions are pretty inconsequential, such as what to have for an afternoon snack. Some of these decisions are quite consequential, such as where to live or what to dedicate the next year of your life to. Finding a way to make these decisions better is important.
If you want to create an effective charity, how do you know if it is effective?
A very common answer is doing detailed measurement and evaluation. But this is harder than it sounds. While research is hard to get right in general, the difficulty starts just with the measurement… which metric should you measure?
When we decided to do this project many of our advisors suggested we spend time in the developing world to get a stronger sense of some factors that we wouldn’t from reading the statistics. Only one member of our team had spent significant time in the developing world and we thought there could be considerable learning value from spending some time there.
Hi, I am Kieran. I joined the Charity Science team in June 2015 after volunteering since the previous February. Hope you're enjoying the new website.
Charity Science recently evaluated more than 20 different fundraising methods to determine which methods would be the most promising to experiment with in the third quarter of 2015. This prioritization task resulted in slightly more than a hundred pages of research about fundraising methods, which will be helpful for other groups considering a wide range of fundraising options. When researching, reviewing and evaluating these methods, something that persistently proved useful was the cluster thinking approach. In essence, cluster thinking involves approaching empirical questions from numerous reference frames or mental models and synthesising this cluster of views into one’s opinion.