When Nicholas Kristof speaks, donors listen

But are the NGOs he writes about spending wisely?

I’ve got a story about Nicholas Kristof in the June issue of The Chronicle of Philanthropy that looks at his impact on charitable giving. A Kristof column in The New York Times, it turns out, can drive hundreds of thousands of dollars to a nonprofit.

Kristof knows it. He has said that he thinks of himself as “in the lighting business. I have a spotlight. And it’s a privilege to be able to shine that spotlight on people doing great work in the field.”

But just how great is their work?

That’s hard to know.

Here’s an excerpt from the story, which is behind a paywall:

Some charities highlighted by Mr. Kristof have generated independent evidence of their effectiveness, but many have not. This points to a fundamental tension underlying his writing about philanthropy.
As a columnist, Mr. Kristof tells heart-tugging stories about heroes, victims, and making a difference because he wants to get readers to care about social justice in faraway places. He’s far less likely to train his spotlight on the kinds of systematic, data-driven interventions that social scientists say do the most good for poor people at the least cost.

I have to pause here to say that I’m a fan of Nick Kristof. To his enormous credit, he travels to some of the world’s most godforsaken places (see this video) to call attention to such grim subjects as genocide, human trafficking, female genital mutilation and the dismal lives of refugees. Beyond that, just in the last month or so, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed his columns on backpacking, animal welfare and liberal intolerance—all interests of mine.

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That said, the aims of a columnist, who has to attract and engage readers, do not always align with the aims of a philanthropic advisor, who, in my view, should recommend not just nonprofits that may do good, but nonprofits that can demonstrate that they do a great deal of good at a reasonable cost.

Measured against that (admittedly high) standard, Kristof could do better.

A smart, hard-working guy — he’s a Harvard grad, Rhodes scholar and two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize — Kristof has clearly thought a lot about the impact of nonprofits. He has written favorably about Peter Singer and Effective Altruism (here and here) and praised organizations like GiveWell and the Abdul Latif Jamil Poverty Action Lab that rely on rigorous evidence.

But Kristof has also explored research in social psychology to better understand how to motivate his readers to care about faraway problems. He has come to believe that readers are touched by stories and characters, by inspiring heroes (some of whom he has called “westerners on white horses”) and empathetic victims. He told Fast Company in 2012:

A scholar named Paul Slovic has in particular done fascinating research in this field. To me, the lessons of this research are two-fold. First, tell an engaging individual story to suck people in. Second, show that it’s not hopeless, but that progress is possible.

Kristof’s pursuit of compelling characters has occasionally backfired. He was led astray by Greg Mortenson of Three Cups of Tea fame and by Somaly Mam, a Cambodian anti-trafficking activist. So, to be sure, were many other reporters.

The trouble is, Kristof continues to shine his influential spotlight on some people and NGOs without much of a track record.

While doing my reporting, I was struck, for example, by his enthusiasm for a charity called Shining Hope for Communities. Shining Hope, or SHOFCO, is an NGO that runs schools for girls in Kibera, the biggest slum in Africa, and it’s got an irresistible backstory. Kennedy Odede, SHOFCO’s founder and CEO, grew up in Kibera and lived on the streets until, inspired by Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, he vowed to fight for social justice, using street theater. His met his co-founder, Jessica Posner, a Wesleyan University student, when she moved into Kibera during her junior year abroad. They fell in love, and she helped Odede get a full scholarship to Wesleyan. He graduated in 2011, delivered the commencement address and married Posner, as Kristof reported. Kristof has told the SHOFCO story in A Path Appears, the book he co-authored with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, and in their PBS series, and on NPR. SHOFCO has since been showcased at the Clinton Global Initiative and featured on CNN and NBC, and in Vogue, Fast Company and Forbes, among other places. Not surprisingly, SHOFCO’s budget has grown exponentially to $3.6 million in 2014 (the last year for which financials are reported on its website, for some reason).

But here’s the thing. SHOFCO’s work has never been independently evaluated. It might be fantastic. It might be just OK. Its schools, by all accounts, are first class but expensive. SHOFCO has broadened its mission beyond girls education to healthcare, community empowerment, and water and sanitation. At what costs and with what impact? That’s impossible to know.

Such questions matter, or they should. It’s not my desire to single out SHOFCO, by the way. The vast majority of NGOs, even those that do report on their impact, rarely talk about what they spend to do what they do. It should go without saying that costs are important.

Recently, I read a fascinating 2013 essay on this topic called The Moral Imperative toward Cost-Effectiveness in Global Health, written by Toby Ord (a founder of the Effective Altruism movement) for the Center for Global Development, a respected think thank.

From the summary:

Ord explores the moral relevance of cost-effectiveness, a major tool for capturing the relationship between resources and outcomes, by illustrating what is lost in moral terms for global health when cost-effectiveness is ignored. For example, the least effective HIV/AIDS intervention produces less than 0.1 percent of the value of the most effective. In practical terms, this can mean hundreds, thousands or millions of additional deaths due to a failure to prioritize.

Ord goes on to show that AIDS education for groups at high risk of developing HIV and condom distribution are many, many times more effective than, say, antiretroviral therapy or surgical treatment for Kaposi’s sarcoma. Other global health victories have been achieved at even lower cost, he writes:

For instance in the case of smallpox, the total cost of eradication was about US$(2013)1.5 billion. Since more than 100 million lives have been saved so far, this has come to less than US$15 per life saved…
Moreover, the eradication also saved significant amounts of money. Approximately US$500 million was being spent across developing countries per year in routine vaccination and treatment for smallpox, and more than US$7 billion was lost per year in reduced productivity. …The eradication program thus saved more lives per year than are lost due to war, while saving money for both donors and recipients.

It’s hard to know whether these dramatic variations in cost-effectiveness can be found in other arenas where nonprofits do their work — poverty alleviation, education in the U.S. or abroad, early childhood programs, whatever. But the moral lessons apply.

As Ord writes, about global health:

There is a moral imperative to fund the most cost-effective interventions. (This) means actively searching the landscape of interventions that you are allowed to fund and diverting the bulk of the funds to the very best interventions.

This is an important message for foundations, individual donors and nonprofits, and for those of us who write about philanthropy. Raising more money for those in need is a good thing, and Nick Kristof deserves credit for doing so. But optimizing the impact of the dollars that are spent matters, too.

Nick Kristof and Kennedy Odede of Shining Hope for Communities

Originally published at nonprofitchronicles.com on June 5, 2016.

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