“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.
At a minimum, talk to some experts in the field you are researching and ask them how hard it would be to set up a charity focusing on this issue. Ask them whether there are any cultural factors that may make performing the intervention difficult. Inquire about previous stumbling blocks charities and governments have come across before while trying to implement.
Some interventions are harder logistically than others. For example, implementing a phone-based vaccination reminder program is much less logistically challenging than running a door-to-door reminder campaign. You would need to recruit volunteers and transport them to remote regions. Then, you would need to monitor the volunteers to ensure they conveyed the information consistently and accurately. Setting up a charity to do this is quite challenging and requires strong on-the-ground knowledge and a large body of staff. However, sending reminders via text message is a much cheaper, easier and more flexible way to increase vaccination rates. This is because on average, the more people you have to interact with as a charity, the more logistically challenging it becomes.
Some problems are harder to solve than others. A problem is tractable when it appears easy, or at least possible, to make progress on solving it. On the other hand, a problem is intractable when it seems extremely difficult (even impossible) to find a solution.
How can you tell which problems are intractable? If many researchers have been working on an issue for a long time, but have reached a stalemate or dead end, this might indicate intractability. A problem that is deeply entrenched in society, or highly polarized, might also be intractable.
You could work on intractable problems for a lifetime and make no progress at all. This doesn’t mean working on intractable problems is always a bad idea; many social movements have successfully tackled problems that initially seemed intractable. However, in general, we suggest prioritizing the exploration of easier, more tractable problems because, if you’re trying to do the most good while using the least resources, it makes sense to pick the ‘low hanging fruit’ first before moving on to the tricker cause areas, all else being equal.
USING BASE RATES TO EVALUATE TRACTABILITY
The base rate expresses the success of those who have tried similar interventions previously, and you can use this figure to help you assess a cause area’s level of intractability. As we mentioned, a problem that others have tried and consistently failed to solve may be intractable.
Almost everyone tends to think they are better than average. Entrepreneurs often assume they will not only do as well as the best organizations in their sectors, but even several times better! Yet, in reality, most startups fail. It is important not to delude yourself and waste resources because of overconfidence.
In the absence of strong evidence to the contrary, we at Charity Science try to think of ourselves as average for charity entrepreneurs. Although we could come up with dozens of ways in which we are better than average, or present reasons for why this intervention is more likely to succeed with us behind the wheel, almost any other startup could do the same. We try to use real data on how successful past similar efforts to ours have been. We make sure we look for both failures and successes, to avoid bias in either direction. For example, when Katherine was younger, she was very interested in political reform and naively expected that changing the world would be relatively easy. As she grew up, she noticed that many other people had the same high hopes, but very rarely had any positive impact at all. In other words, the base rates were dismal. So she got practical, changed tactics, and looked for more tractable problems.
Choosing in which country to launch your intervention
Why is the implementation location important?
Location is particularly important if you want to maximize the impact of the intervention. Also, the skills necessary for implementing many interventions are not especially transferable from country to country, meaning this decision is more important because it’s more ‘permanent’. It will be important to make a country comparison spreadsheet early in the research process.
After comparing different countries you will have a sense of what the best ones to work in and you will be able to start to look into how difficult logistically it would be to run a charity in such a country. Some countries are harder to work in due to armed conflict, bureaucracy, or corruption. This will largely affect the logistical difficulty of your charity.
When choosing where to launch your intervention, collect objective data and compare each potential country
Collecting objective data will allow you to compare across countries and make subjective decisions about where your program may be able to have the biggest impact. Key data to consider for most charities include:
There will be some relevant data that is too difficult to access that it is not worth spending the time to do so. Determine a deadline in advance and plan to move on to the decision-making stage at that point, or else you may never move on from collecting objective data.
Always try to use the most current data possible, and if there is only data available from several years ago, take that into account when deciding how much to let the data impact your decision.
When choosing where to launch your intervention, cast a wide net and narrow down possible locations gradually
Investigate all countries that might possibly be suitable for your intervention before ruling any out so that you don’t miss a great opportunity for impact. Collect data on the biggest ‘disqualifying’ factors first (such as population size, which is crucial if you want to maximize scaling potential), so you don’t waste time researching more nuanced factors within a country that certainly isn’t suitable. You can then proceed to examine and compare countries on more nuanced data points that perhaps won’t be ‘deal breakers’ but might require difficult tradeoffs.
When comparing potential locations, convert specific data into broad factor ratingsWhen comparing potential locations, you should first collect objective data for each, then combine the objective data into a more subjective rating for each key factor. For example, you might combine population size with funding availability to generate a general rating for scalability. Or you might combine base rates with conflict level to generate a rating for logistical possibility.
In order to generate broad factor ratings, you will often need to translate the raw data into soft ratings (low, medium, high) so they are in a uniform metric before combining them. For example, population size is measured in people, while funding availability is measured in dollars, but we can also convert both of these measurements into soft ratings in order to combine them into factor ratings and compare between countries.
When comparing implementation locations, it is important to remember that the world is constantly in flux. Because you will be implementing your intervention over time, you should be aware that your impact will vary over time depending on the changing environment within your chosen country. Identifying trends can help you predict what direction these changes will be in. Will your impact increase over time or decrease? Of course, these are really just educated guesses, so be cautious when deciding how much to let trends influence your final decision. We believe that taking trends into account is normally better than ignoring them.
For consistency, try to use the same data source when conducting comparisons. For example, when you are comparing potential implementation locations, be sure to use one source for the entire ‘population’ column if possible. More generally, try to keep your metrics as consistent as you can, in order to facilitate inter-country comparison.
Of all the major international data collection bodies - WHO, CDC, GBD, etc. - we prefer the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) website. The WHO’s numbers tend to be slightly inflated because each department collects data separately, which sometimes results in ‘double counting’. GBD adjusts for that inaccuracy.
Another great source of data, especially for more qualitative measurements, is experts in the field. From our experience, the more specialised the expert, the more reliable their understanding of that particular issue as compared to more broad data-collection bodies focused on many many issues. For example, if finding data on the anaemia rate in India, you would be likely to receive a more accurate number from a researcher specializing on that exact issue, rather than data from WHO which is not focused on anaemia alone.
Lower levels of standardization
One problem with assessing logistical difficulty for running programs in the developing world is that there is much lower levels of standardization. The most obvious instance where this occurs is language. Often countries have more than one language, increasing operational difficulties enormously. For instance, there is a huge variety of languages spoken in India that we encountered. Some of the people we met were trilingual and said they still had major translation problems in some places. This helped remind us that we would really need to have a good sense of what specific area we were working in before hiring staff or we would risk having major language problems. This same concern will be true across many countries in the developing world. Other things such as how buses or trains worked were also less consistent and predictable than in most developed world locations, which added unexpected time costs to site visits.
Everything takes longer than you expect (especially in the developing world)
In general, humans have a tendency of underestimating the time it will take to do a task. This is true even for routine and familiar tasks. However this factor applies even more than normal to new and unfamiliar tasks in the developing world. One of the biggest things we noticed while in the developing world was that it takes large amounts of time to accomplish even fairly routine tasks relative to trying to do them in developed world. This was no doubt due in part to our unfamiliarity with the country, but based on what we have experienced working in the developing world long term, this seems to be true even for locals. For example, basic tasks like getting a vaccine or getting a cellphone setup were far cheaper but took far longer than doing the equivalent task in the developed world. A most notable time was when, in India, to send a letter one of the authors had to go to three separate stores to send it: one for the stamp, one to send it, and one for glue for the stamp, which was sold separately. The amount of work to get basic tasks done also scales to organizational tasks, such as registering as a charity or setting up a organizational bank account. Take this in account when starting up, and give yourself plenty of time to get things done. Lastly, don’t get discouraged. Just because it takes longer doesn’t mean that eventually you won’t succeed.