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Reform Magazine | May 27, 2024

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Caroline Fiennes interview: How to give well - Reform Magazine

Caroline Fiennes interview: How to give well

The charities adviser Caroline Fiennes talks to Stephen Tomkins about how our giving can achieve more

It’s for charity,” they say, whether it’s a fun run for heart disease, a cake sale for women in Bhutan or shaving for donkeys. But does being “charity” make it a good cause? Do some get more done with our money than others? Do we just give and trust, or hold them to account? With 180,000 charities to choose from in Britain alone, how do we make that choice? And do some ways of giving to them help more than others?

Caroline Fiennes is committed to providing answers to these questions. She is the director of Giving Evidence*, a company which offers advice on giving, based on evidence, and the author of It Ain’t What You Give, It’s the Way That You Give It. She gave Reform some of her time at Somerset House in London.


You started out as a physicist. How did you end up weighing up charities?
I was brought up in a churchy, volunteeringy kind of household. I have three older cousins – one is in the church, one is a human rights academic, one is a social worker – so social engagement is very normal for us. I did a load of charity work at school and university. So no one who’s known me for 30 years is amazed that I’m doing this stuff now.

I worked in strategy consulting, and that’s when I got interested in the question of: “Oh look, some charities are better than others, wouldn’t it be good if we worked out which are the better ones and which aren’t, and directed resources to the better ones?” And I’m applying the empirical method to these issues, so I still feel quite like a physicist.

British people gave £9.3bn to charity last year. Was that
 well spent?
Some of it was. But there’s huge potential to improve the way charitable resources are used.

So I’ve got £100 to give, I’ve got 180,000 UK charities to choose from. What questions should I be asking?
You want to make sure the organisation is doing something you think is important, and it’s difficult to get an objective answer about that, though not impossible. You want to make sure it has a good idea and is implementing it well. You want make sure it has a clear sense of what it’s trying to achieve, that it has a clear set of activities and that there’s some reason to think that those activities will result the change that it’s trying to create.

And you want to make sure it’s effectively run. People often talk about “efficiency” – by which they usually mean the charity doesn’t waste money. I’m not very interested in efficiency. Its importance is completely overrated. If you’re doing something that doesn’t need doing, it doesn’t matter how little you waste, because the job doesn’t need doing.

What you want to know is that your £100 is going to achieve as much as possible. And minimising waste isn’t a very good proxy for achieving as much as you could do. So suppose you have two organisations distributing anti-malarial bed nets. One could waste a lot of money while the other doesn’t, but if the “less wasteful” one buys its nets from a supplier which is really expensive, it’s going to get much less done with your £100.

What’s really important is that people often conflate waste with administration cost. What Giving Evidence has shown is that charities that do a great job often spend more on administration than charities that do a less good job. We produced the first ever data that showed that.

It’s about false economies. If you’re trying to run an organisation without spending any money on decent computers or decent printers, then your admin costs are small, but you may waste a lot of staff time which is more expensive in the end…


This is an extract from the December 2013/January 2014 edition of Reform.

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