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.
I recently became aware of an expensive student volunteer exchange program, giving the first world college students a chance to help people in the developing world. When I complained to a fellow effective altruist that I thought the program was ineffective compared to top GiveWell recommendations, he observed that the charity seemed fairly effective – only at a different goal. Once I’d considered that the charity might be aiming to provide an enjoyable experience for college students, things started to make sense. Their website shows how many students they have helped, and writes largely about the positive experiences these students had. Very little focus was placed on the outcome of the work in the developing world. We have written before about how many charities measure intermediate metrics and gave a few reasons why this happens. Yet another reason is that some charities do not have ‘improving the world’ as their primary focus. Some examples that come to mind of the other goals that charities may have:
Making donors feel happy or personally fulfilled (as discussed here).
Keeping their employees’ jobs.
Staying stable, or growing in size.
Making employees happy or personally fulfilled.
Making the board members feel happy or personally fulfilled.
Having personal or organizational prestige.
Making those involved feel important, rich, powerful, or intelligent.
Now, of course all charities have many goals aside from their primary mission, and often these other goals can improve a charity’s performance. For example, growing a charity that is doing great work can be a very positive thing, even if done partly due to raw ambition. But the goal of growth could also push an ineffective charity to expand, taking away donations from effective ones. These side-goals become very worrying when an organization starts prioritizing them over the “bottom line” of the amount of good being done.
HOW TO TELL IF AN ORGANIZATION IS OVER-PRIORITIZING SIDE-GOALS?
One simple way is to look at where the organization puts its time, skills, and money. Does the charity seem to be strong in some areas but not those most connected to its impact? Does it seem that they are more focused on increasing donations than on evaluating their impact? These might be signs that other goals are being prioritized, possible unintentionally, over the goal that really matters.