How we picked 10 of our best high impact opportunities (it wasn’t easy)

December is a time of assessment. Organizations end fiscal years, supervisors and staff conduct performance reviews, and individuals reflect in preparation for a better new year.

Over the last few weeks, as we’ve put the finishing touches on the Center’s latest philanthropic guidance for donors, High Impact Holiday Giving, we’ve been talking even more than usual about assessment. How do we measure our performance? And, more relevant to readers of this blog, how do we assess the performance of philanthropic approaches for issues as different as feeding hungry families, providing a path out of poverty in the developing world, or improving educational opportunity for students in the U.S.?

Much as Paul Brest and Hal Harvey do in their book, Money Well Spent (which we recently reread), we don’t prescribe what passions are most worthy or place limits on thresholds for donation levels.  People care – often deeply and passionately – about different issues.

However, like Brest and Harvey, we are concerned with how well philanthropic funds achieve the social impact intended.  As they note, “Giving great amounts of money is not tantamount to great giving.”  We’ve spent years trying to understand how to guide donors to great giving. Choosing just 10 opportunities for our first holiday guide wasn’t easy. We started with identifying opportunities with the following characteristics:

  1. Is this a meaningful issue now? That is, is the impact sought valuable to the people that donors aim to help?
  2. Has our analysis of multiple sources of evidence (including research, informed opinion, and field experience) made us confident of the approach’s effectiveness? (For more information, please see What We Do.)
  3. Does the approach offer sufficient bang for your buck? (For the detail that underpins each highlighted opportunity, please see Our Products.)
  4. For the handful of nonprofits mentioned as illustrative of the approach, are they well-positioned to deliver the change we describe? We chose organizations that have been transparent with us regarding their activities, whose work is consistent with the outside evidence base we tap, can point to outside validation of their efforts, and are positioned to accept private, philanthropic funds from U.S. donors.

The good news is that we had more than 10 opportunities with those characteristics, so in addition we looked at:

  1. Diversity among the 10 opportunities in terms of issue area and geography (e.g., balance between US-based and efforts outside the U.S.). As a group, will these opportunities help and inspire the broadest set of donors?
  2. Up-to-date information on implementation of the model and evidence of its continued impact. Ever-changing economic and political contexts can have a significant influence on quality and effectiveness of each approach, and we were mindful of those that presented a lasting opportunity for donors.
  3. Actionable for a large segment of donors (e.g., doesn’t require a million dollars to make a meaningful difference).

As with all hard and important choices, this was not a mechanical exercise where the numbers pointed to the 10 best. Even with access to the best available information, great giving involves the application of judgment. We look forward to any questions or comments about how we chose what we profiled in our guide. In the meantime, we hope our team’s analysis and collective judgment help you and those you know have more impact.