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Best in Aid: The Grand Prize

As long as there are disasters, there will always be people who want to help by whatever means first strikes their fancy. There will be those who insist on giving shoes (including such high profile experts as Jessica Simpson and Kim Kardashian). Still others offer used yoga mats, or baby formula. Ports and roads clogged up with shoes and yoga mats cannot deliver essential medicines, food and supplies.

Then there are those who swoop in to adopt children before their extended families have had time to locate them; or just show up to ‘help’ as unskilled volunteers, adding to the confusion and occupying jobs that could go to locals. And there will always be organizations around to capitalize on those uninformed good intentions.

But now there is a small but growing chorus of voices dedicated to equipping individual donors with information on how to help effectively in a crisis. This movement has the power to harness the generosity of individuals, change ingrained giving practices, and create positive pressure on NGOs and aid agencies to demonstrate the impact of their work.

That’s why the award for Best in Aid goes to…the Smart Giving movement, nominated by Saundra Schimmelpfennig of the blog Good Intentions are Not Enough.

This year, a week after the Haiti quake, Stephanie Strom of the New York Times wrote a story on the “unprecedented effort” to teach Americans to resist the impulse to send the wrong goods to Haiti.  Many advocated just sending something very much needed and which has a low transport cost to value ratio: cash. The advice to send cash “appears to be reaching a tipping point,” wrote Strom. Some Americans saw first-hand the piles of unneeded clothing donations in the aftermath of Katrina, or heard about aid distribution problems after the Asian tsunami. Now, people are hearing the message from politicians and policy makers spreading the word on Smart Giving to Haiti in real time, in time to prevent mistakes that cause unnecessary suffering and tragedy.

Contrast Strom’s story with the high profile stories that have appeared consistently since the current surge in interest in global poverty started earlier this decade, like this NYT headline:

Coverage of both global poverty and disasters always stressed the same thing: how much was needed in TOTAL donations. It was never about the danger of the WRONG donations. Today it is.

Saundra Schimmelpfennig herself appeared in the NYT article, and many other news sources (among them CNN, NPR, USA Today, Canada’s CBC radio, WNYC, The Daily Beast, The San Francisco Chronicle, and the Christian news magazine World) sought her advice on everything from the dangers of adoption in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, to how to evaluate disaster relief volunteer opportunities. Here on Aid Watch, guest blogger Alanna Shaikh’s post on how not to help in Haiti, called Nobody wants your old shoes, became the blog’s second most popular and most-widely circulated piece ever (the first was a satire, which we’re no longer allowed to talk about).

The campaign against relying on overhead ratio as a measure of charity effectiveness is also part of the good giving message. In collaboration with six other nonprofits, Tim Ogden of Philanthropy Action launched a campaign last December to convince donors to dump the overhead ratio – the measure of how much money goes to programs versus administrative costs – as a primary means of evaluating the effectiveness of a charity. “We’re finally at a point where people do have an alternative,” said Ogden. In the last few years, organizations like GiveWell, Philanthropedia and Great Nonprofits have emerged to give people more useful information about charities, and to pressure charities to devote the resources to collecting that information and making it public.

Finally, the intensity of the debate on evaluation with randomized controlled trials in the academic world, and new organizations like 3IE (the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation) and DIME (the Development Impact Evaluation initiative at the World Bank), are other facets of the same movement. Behind the heated debate on what methods of evaluation to use, we see a much larger point – many more donors now insist on serious EVALUATION and ACCOUNTABILITY than used to do so.

As we’ve said on this blog before, accountability is not something that anyone accepts voluntarily. It is forced on political actors, aid agencies, and NGOs by sheer political power from below, from well-informed advocates for the poor and listening to poor people themselves. All of this may still be in its early stages, but since aid really CANNOT work without serious accountability, the Smart Giving movement is the best news to come along in aid in quite a while.

UPDATE: (3/20, 8:21am) the Center for Global Development reacts to our inclusion of 3IE, which was their brainchild.

This entry was posted in Badvocacy and celebs, Big ideas, Metrics and evaluation and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.


  1. Kim Yi Dionne wrote:

    As a loyal reader, I see this post as evidence that Bill Easterly [and Laura Freschi] consider criticism. Kudos to you for supporting the arguably less populated but bright side of aid.

    Posted March 17, 2010 at 2:07 am | Permalink
  2. geckonomist wrote:

    The organisations 3IE and DIME are also overhead costs to aid, albeit out-sourced, aren’t they ?

    And where is the evidence that the Grand Price winner benefits the poor more than it hurt them?

    Posted March 17, 2010 at 6:14 am | Permalink
  3. avam wrote:

    Glad you’ve highlighted “smart giving” – the more people that are aware the better. How about putting a link to CharityFacts (the whole website is quite useful to the whole aid debatel) on your ‘blogroll’ or in your resources section?

    btw- (“the first was a satire, which we’re no longer allowed to talk about”) – seriously?! Says who? the blog police? Of all the people you would think could take criticism, I would have thought a satirical site would be it. Go figure.

    Posted March 17, 2010 at 7:47 am | Permalink
  4. geckonomist wrote:

    Someone named “Schimmelpfennig” nominating “smart (money) giving”.

    You couldn’t make it up.

    Posted March 17, 2010 at 8:34 am | Permalink
  5. Joel Bassuk wrote:

    interesting post. the point is a good one: moving donors past the % of admin vs program costs, toward evaulation and accountability…

    however none of those organizations you list really seem to be doing that.

    user reviews can be helpful but don’t supply real data about eval/accountability. the model is a good one, but seems better suited to the travel industry (eg, TripAdvisor) or digital camera reviews (

    similarly, the real value-add of Philanthropedia remains to be seen.

    i don’t like to be a nay-sayer, since i do believe people must move past the admin % figures, and the *right* aid is ultimately the most important thing in a crisis. but not sure how your post moves things forward concretely. seems further education is needed… i’ll hope that maybe user reviews might help toward this…

    Posted March 17, 2010 at 9:28 am | Permalink
  6. Saundra wrote:

    For anyone wondering what geckonomist is getting at, my last name, Schimmelpfennig, is German for moldy penny. One story about its origin is that it’s a Jewish German name and during times of persecution the family was forced to change their name to something derogatory – so the last name essentially means dirty money. The other origin story is that the family were frugal or misers and would bury their money in the ground. When they dug it up it had tarnished.

    So yes, Geckonomist, someone with a last name that either came from persecution or from being very careful with their money did nominate Smart Giving in aid. Thanks for joking about it, because with a last name like mine I can never get too many jokes.

    Posted March 17, 2010 at 9:38 am | Permalink
  7. Matt Richmond wrote:

    Moldy penny. Hah. That’s funny

    (lighten up, geeze)

    Posted March 17, 2010 at 9:45 am | Permalink
  8. Saundra wrote:


    Geckonomist is well-known for criticizing others yet hiding behind the anonymity of a made up name. If you believe enough in your convictions to criticize others you should be willing to stand behind your criticisms and open yourself up to the same from others.

    I believe in my convictions, have never hid my identity, and have sacrificed a lot to have whatever impact I’ve had. Thus to have someone that is unwilling to reveal his name make a high school joke about my name is irritating.

    Had it been someone else, I doubt I would have reacted the same.

    Posted March 17, 2010 at 10:24 am | Permalink
  9. Daniela Papi wrote:

    I love that there are so many voices joining in to ask the donors of the world to smarten up. The cries of “they are just trying to help” are no longer valid. We can’t tiptoe around the shoe givers any more and pretend we agree that they are great for “saving the world” when we know that their efforts are not only a waste of resources but can also cause harm.

    Our organization has a partner tour company which is designed specifically to educate travelers and change the way they live, travel and give. Our motto is “Adventurous Living. Responsible Giving.” as we want to change the way people give after traveling with us. This is a way we feel that we can have the most impact on the development world: by changing the way people are voting with their money. If we continue to vote on wasteful self-indulgent initiatives or give in ways that support the moral imperialism we must be projecting by giving people our smelly shoes, we are taking away resources from initiatives designed to make an impact.

    Thanks Saundra and Bill for not being afraid to speak up!

    Posted March 17, 2010 at 10:41 am | Permalink
  10. David wrote:

    Hm. Also not sure how these “Best Aid” prizes are better than anything else. Just bc they say they are? Where is the independent evaluation on their impact/effectiveness?

    Posted March 17, 2010 at 11:19 am | Permalink
  11. Laura Freschi wrote:

    From @philaction on twitter:
    I think @davidroodman deserves a shout too for his dogged examination of evidence in microfinance

    Posted March 17, 2010 at 11:31 am | Permalink
  12. Michael Clemens wrote:

    Multiple commenters here insist that Aidwatch is unjustified in recommending evaluation until the idea of evaluation itself has been evaluated.

    That is an odd stance. Would you oppose the creation of the US Food and Drug Administration, which evaluates pharmaceuticals based on randomized trials, until a meta-trial had been completed comparing patient outcomes under drugs that had been rigorously evaluated by the FDA to patient outcomes under un-evaluated pharaceuticals?

    A good first step is to do *any* rigorous evaluation at all, as Aidwatch suggests. Such evaluation remains mostly absent from the worldwide aid industry.

    Posted March 17, 2010 at 12:13 pm | Permalink
  13. Dan Kyba wrote:

    Kudos to the Best in Aid award. It is good to see the critical mass building up on this issue.

    When analysts do their initial scan of organisations seeking funding they will first check the web site and assess three things:
    1) transparency
    2) efficiency
    3) effectiveness

    Transparency – who are you, where and how are you registered, what is your governance structure and what are the individual biographies of the senior executives and board of directors.
    Efficiency – are there available to download several years (5 is good) of audited financial statements (not synoposes) including the auditor’s notes and signed comment.
    Effectiveness – are there independent third party evaluations of the organisation’s programme effectiveness. In other words no anecdotal cherry-picking.

    The last factor is a trend being driven by an honest desire by organisations to demonstrate that they do effective work and to put some distance between themselves and those groups that do not.

    When working in India, I helped prepare for my client a set of bylaws which included a provision that the membership at the annual meeting appoint, in the same manner as they would an auditor, an independent evaluator who would then report to the membership how effective their organisation is.

    This is a work in progress, but over time, I would expect to see a professional body of evaluators being formed with the same level of skill and accountability as we see with accountants.

    Posted March 17, 2010 at 12:17 pm | Permalink
  14. Matt Richmond wrote:


    I see, understood. I am not much aware of the aidwatch blog drama that goes on, sorry :)

    Posted March 17, 2010 at 3:18 pm | Permalink
  15. Great Post Dr. Easterly. Thanks for sharing this!

    Posted March 18, 2010 at 10:51 am | Permalink
  16. David wrote:

    he he…I’ve worked in the evaluation field…as a manager, and I promise you – if you think getting devt right is hard – wait till the verdict comes out on getting evaluations right. I have definitely seen way more bad independent evaluations than good ones. After all, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

    Posted March 18, 2010 at 4:57 pm | Permalink
  17. David wrote:

    That was only to say that no one should think that evaluation is next panacea. Though, I guess we haven’t had a panacea since micro-credit…

    Posted March 18, 2010 at 4:59 pm | Permalink
  18. Marc wrote:

    I definitely appreciate the direction of this post however after briefly mentioning who won the prize, there was very little analysis of the prize winner, rather there was your own slant on current aid issues and a small bit of self promotion (which I see you guys mention a lot) about which articles you’ve doled out to us have been read more than others.

    I am without a doubt on your side of the AID debate, but there are elements of aggression in your approach which can put off those who want to agree with you.

    Posted March 19, 2010 at 11:44 am | Permalink

4 Trackbacks

  1. By uberVU - social comments on March 17, 2010 at 12:09 pm

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

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  3. By ללמוד קידום אתרים on March 26, 2010 at 8:18 am

    ללמוד קידום אתרים…

    … קידום אתרים – חימום ביתי עם קמין זה דבר הרבה יותר מאשר נהג שנשכר לצורך משימה ספציפית. אז ברור כי במידה ויש צניחה בדרוג, צניחה שאינה מוסברת בצורה אחרת. ** מכיוון שרוב חיפושי העולם מתבצעים בגוג… Best in Aid: The Grand Prize ……

  4. […] with my Google Reader so this post is a little out-dated.  I thought it was worth linking to the Best in Aid award, given by William Easterly’s blog aid watch.  The winner?  The “Smart Giving […]

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    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

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