Tuesday, August 21, 2007

What information do markets need to work?

Did you know that about 6% of non-profits in the US attract four-fifths of the resources?

This might be fine if there were not so much at stake. There is a growing appreciation of the role that philanthropy can and must play in addressing the challenges we face - be it education at the local level or carbon emissions at the global level. And Americans are putting their money where their mouth is: last year they gave away almost $300 billion to philanthropic initiatives.

So it really matters where all this money goes. The problem is, as Paul Brest puts it in his most recent Hewlett Foundation President's Letter, most donors "simply lack the necessary data to support informed decision making." This means that the philanthropy marketplace does not function well, and resources don't get allocated to their highest-impact uses.

It also means that big organizations can get bigger based on their marketing and branding rather than on their results. And the little guys, regardless of how good they are, usually have trouble attracting the attention of donors. The sad fact is that seven out of the top ten largest NGOs in 1990 either maintained or grew their size relative to the rest of the sector during the following decade.

As Mari and I write in a forthcoming book chapter:
Well-functioning markets, on the other hand, demonstrate significant entry and exit from the market, as organizations with innovative ideas enter to compete, and companies that have lost their edge go out of business. To illustrate, from 1990 to 1999, only three of the top ten companies (ranked by market capitalization) at the beginning of the decade remained in the top ten list by the end of the decade. All of those three companies had lost market share. The other seven companies in the top ten in 1999 had not been on the list at the beginning of the decade.
In his letter, Paul Brest describes some of the organizations (including GlobalGiving and several other excellent ones) that are working to provide donors with the information they need to make better decisions. As Paul says, "diverse philanthropic investments do not have a single common measure [of return]." To that, I would add that diverse "donors" do not share the same measure of returns. As a result, no single set of data or information can or should inform - or motivate - all philanthropic decisions.

The question is how to provide a mosaic of data suitable for different philanthropic investments and donors. It is clear that there will be no single solution to this - it really will have to be different strokes for different folks. But there are common elements that should be applicable to many organizations and many donors, and Paul discusses some of these in his letter, which is highly recommended reading.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

GlobalGiving Badges...

I like these new "badges" we have. Click on the one below. Or you can check them all out here.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The fox and the hedgehog

A little knowledge can be dangerous. But if you are trying to get an education in economics with minimum time commitment, you could do much worse than reading Tyler Cowen's blog Marginal Revolution and Robin Hanson's blog Overcoming Bias. If you have more time on your hands, you might consider enrolling in the exceptional economics department at George Mason University, where they teach.

Tyler and Robin have almost diametrically opposed perspectives on how one can make sense of the world. And yet, like many opposites, they have huge respect for each other.

Here is an excerpt from a recent post by Tyler:
Robin is very fond of powerful theories which invoke a very small number of basic elements and give those elements great force. He likes to focus on one very central mechanism in seeking an explanation or developing policy advice. Modern physics and Darwin hold too strong a sway in his underlying mental models. He is also very fond of hypotheses involving the idea of a great transformation sometime in the future, and these transformations are often driven by the mechanism he has in mind. I tend to see good social science explanations or proposals as intrinsically messy and complex and involving many different perspectives, not all of which can be reduced to a single common framework. I know that many of my claims sound vague to Robin's logical atomism, but I believe that, given our current state of knowledge, Robin is seeking a false precision and he is sometimes missing out on an important multiplicity of perspectives. Many of his views should be more cautious.
The full post is here.