Off the Record #1: The “stink bomb” effect in charitable giving

The real cost of failing to rebut

Tom Wein and Jeremy Shapiro

Photo by Fabian Blank, Unsplash
“But that won’t reach the very poorest.”

If you have attended a conference on international development of late, you might have heard such a statement. Typically this statement follows a researcher describing a successful anti-poverty program, or a staff member of an NGO describing their work. If you don’t frequent such conferences, perhaps you have heard such a comment in regards to your favorite destination for charitable giving.

We have heard that statement often. For example, distributing unconditional cash transfers by mobile phones causes huge improvements in the lives of poor Kenyans. But the program has been dismissed by some because “it doesn’t reach the poorest” due to the necessity of phone ownership (costing about $12).

It seems like a throw-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater comment, and we sometimes assume the person making the comment is a cantankerous curmudgeon who wants to denigrate some successful development program because it is not their own baby. But there is the chance they aren’t trying to taint another program, that they actually do want to focus resources on the poorest.

So what is the comment? Is it a genuine attempt to discuss priorities and drive resources to the poor? Or is it just a “stink bomb”, a barely-relevant critique of a good program that doesn’t fix everything? We ran a test to decide.

The stink effect

The test was done via survey on Amazon’s MTurk (an online survey platform), where 260 people took our survey.

To understand if a negative comment about a charitable organization made it unattractive even if there is no reason the charity should solve that problem (ie., the “stink bomb effect”), we asked people how they would divide a $100 donation between two charities: a wildlife conservation organization and another helping low-income people get access to clean water.

Every participant saw general descriptions of two charities, and then decided how to (hypothetically) allocate $100 between them. The catch is that some participants saw an extra sentence; they were told that even though beneficiaries of the clean water charity now had clean water, they continued to suffer from malaria. Of course, the clean water charity never intended to fight malaria — just as some programs don’t aim to help the poorest of the poor, but just the poor in general.

So what happens when an irrelevant but negative comment is made about a charitable organization? Donations fall 13.2%. For each $100 donated, the water charity loses out on $8.1 (p=0.05). It seems the stink bomb stuck.

A noble stink?

In our first experiment, the stink bomb was pure stink — there is no reason that a charity offering access to clean water should cure malaria. But when the comment is “it doesn’t reach the poorest” it is possible that people think all resources should go to the poorest, even if there are ways to help other relatively poor people. So we ran a second test.

In the second test participants were given three charities: a bird conservation charity, a microfinance charity and a charity that runs graduation programs for the poorest. As before, we added a criticism — suggesting that the microfinance charity doesn’t reach the very poorest. If people really want all resources to go to the poorest, we should see donations rise for graduation programs when they know microfinance doesn’t reach the poorest, but it shouldn’t change the bird charity donations. In contrast, if there is a “stink bomb” effect, we should see donation levels rise for both organizations when people get the negative news about microfinance.

So what do we see when the negative news is provided? Donations to the microfinance charity fall by 12.6% or $4.3 (though we note this only significant at p=0.16). What is most interesting is where the donations go. If people wanted to donate to an anti-poverty charity, we might expect them to move their donations to the graduation program. But they don’t — in reducing their donations to microfinance, they evenly split the extra money between bird conservation and graduation.

We are tempted to say they aren’t worried about finding the most efficient charity in pursuit of a particular cause — they just want a charity they haven’t heard anything bad about.

So what?

So perhaps we have satisfied an itch to show that guy at the conference was just a curmudgeon, but does this matter? We think it might. The implication for staff of NGOs and development institutions looking to generate support for an idea to help (some) people is that unrebutted critiques have a real cost. Even if a critique isn’t fair or relevant — letting it hang in the air will cost your charity money or your idea support.

This wasn’t a perfect or complete experiment, but if you think you smell a stink bomb, it might be worth experimenting with ways to take it head on and drive the smell away.


In this “Off the Record” series we share findings from small, rapid research we have conducted in our lab in Nairobi, Kenya. Read more about our “Off the Record” initiative here.