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Give with head as well as heart

19 July 2013

First, look into the truth behind a charity's hype, advises Hugh Rayment-Pickard

It Ain't What You Give It's The Way That You Give It
Caroline Fiennes
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YOU might think there is nothing easier in the world than giving away money to charity - after all there are 180,000 UK charities to choose from. Surely it's just a question of picking a good cause, and signing the cheque? That's all very well, until we start to ask whether our donations are really going to have an impact, whether the charity has a good track record, and whether our money really is needed.

It is not always easy to discover the truth behind a charity's hype. Charity websites invariably show us pictures of happy beneficiaries, and tell moving stories of lives that have been "transformed". The charity may also show us some impressive-looking numbers about the good they are doing. And charities have become much more aggressive in recent years, as "chuggers" on the streets of most towns and cities try to sell us various good causes.

If we try to compare similar charities operating in the same field, things can become even more confusing. Charities rarely use common performance metrics, and they will all tell us that they are doing superlative and essential work. It is very difficult to work out, for example, whether £1000 given to Tearfund is more effective than the same sum given to Christian Aid.

When giving away small sums, we are unlikely to worry about these things: we will back a charity that we already know, or that has a good reputation, or that has been recommended by a friend. But if we are considering making a substantial gift - a legacy, for instance, that might run to many thousands of pounds - we are likely to want to know in more detail what our donation is going to achieve.

This is where Caroline Fiennes's book is an invaluable resource. Fiennes takes the reader step by step through the process of analysing the ways in which we can judge a charity's effectiveness. The book cannot tell us which cause to back: we will have to decide for ourselves whether we care more about endangered species or outdoor education, child poverty or breast cancer. But Fiennes can help us to decide which charities in their field get the best results, so that our donation has maximum impact.

Fiennes used to work for the charity-impact analysts New Philanthropy Capital, and her book reflects their passion for charity metrics. This book may not immediately resonate with those who don't get excited by graphs and numbers. But, if we are serious about our philanthropy, we should engage our heads as well as our hearts. Charities exist because the world is full of people and causes that need our support, and our support may make the difference between life and death. In the end, we owe it to the beneficiaries of our philanthropy to ensure that our donations really make a difference.

Dr Hugh Rayment-Pickard is Director of Development at the education charity IntoUniversity: www.intouniversity.org.




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