Donation Dashboard

Donation Dashboard is an interesting philanthropy experiment from a team at UC Berkeley. The idea will be familiar to anyone who has ever used Pandora to find music to fit their tastes, Netflix rating system to find movies or iTunes recommendations to get turned on to new music.

Donation Dashboard describes themselves:

Donation Dashboard uses machine learning techniques to recommend a customized portfolio of good causes based on your personal ratings of sample non-profit organizations.

Here’s how it works: you are presented with brief descriptions of non- profit institutions and asked to rate each in terms of how interested you are in donating to it. The system analyzes your ratings in light of others’ ratings and does its best to allocate your available funds in proportion to your interests. Your customized “donation portfolio” is presented in an easy-to-understand pie chart that you can save at the site for future reference.

Donation Dashboard, which is being developed by the Berkeley Center for New Media, extends machine learning techniques used by commercial websites to recommend movies, music, and books. Donation Dashboard goes beyond existing charity ranking sites by statistically combining your ratings with the ratings entered by your fellow good samaritans to compute a portfolio customized to your interests.

I tested the system and found it easy to use and liked how it gave me recommendations as well as created an “asset allocation” pie chart that suggested how much I should give to each of the recommendations (scaled to my interest level).

Their are two reasons why I think this kind of system is useful in philanthropy:

  1. Nonprofit impact is at least partially qualitative. While no one would want to use a peer recommendation engine to decide a purely quantitative question (like, what airline is the safest to fly), these systems work great for highly qualitative decisions such as which book you’ll like. Nonprofit impact is a mix of qualitative and quantitative outcomes. So while a peer recommendation engine is not the end all solution, it is a good starting point for donors.
  2. This kind of system is useful when your universe of choices is very large and the number of choices that fit your interests is also large. This is why professional (and non-professional) investors use peer recommendations to identify investment ideas that warrant further research. There are a number of different takes on peer recommendation services for stock picking, but Stockpickr is a good example.

I think there are good quantitative ways to examine how effective a nonprofit is. But with over a million nonprofits, sorting through the haystack to even figure out which nonprofits deserve a deeper look is tough. I think programs like Donation Dashboard can be a useful tools for philanthropists.


  1. Tidy Sum says:

    I highly recommend the gizmo for agoraphobics, the homebound elderly, Internet addicts, and the overworked antisocial donor.

    But isn’t one of the ongoing critiques of TP fans is that we have enough drive-by giving in this world?

    But I’ll bet you a pack of Marlboro’s that my favorite wealth philosopher at would agree that the best entry point for giving is using our own social network unmediated by an algorithm.

    Most people are most satisfied with their giving when they have relationships with organizations, their work, or a particular issue.

    God forbid, we talk to our friends, families, neighbors and even go out and explore a rich civic culture in our own backyards.

    If folks really need Donation Dashboard to get leads, I think they need to get out more often.

    I also wonder if these gizmos reinforce the dynamics that commodify nonprofits and their work.

    As Akron blues great, Eddie “Laundromat” Watson sings: “Philanthropy is best when it begins with participation not a donation”.

  2. Make sure you see my FT column, Givers: Go Out and See For Yourselves. I didn’t mean to suggest that you should just give to the charities listed by Donation Dashboard. It is a great way to source ideas. Just because iTunes says that I might like a song doesn’t mean I buy it without listening to it first. Talking to friends a family is a good way to source ideas as well. But with 1.5 million nonprofits, I think Donor Dashboard is a great tool. Especially because my friends and family might have some shared values with me, but everyone in a community doesn’t like the same music or the same nonprofits.

    Tidy Sum, you should know me well enough by now to recognize that I’m not a tech obsessed philanthrocapitalist. But I do like tools and think that embracing a tool doesn’t force you to behave a certain way.

    Tools are good. Dogmatism is bad. You can use tools without accepting a philosophy. The battle over defining philanthropy in the 21st century doesn’ have to be partisan.

  3. Great post! I’m happy to see another tool like this out there; I tried a similar widget ( but found it a bit limiting. I think these types of technological tools are helping to expand a donor’s portfolio as technology seeps ever deeper into every aspect of our lives. As you say, it’s not the only way, but it’s a great opportunity to “source ideas.”

  4. Thanks for the note Solomon. I think we’ll see many more tools like this in the future.

  5. ross says:

    for the younger (err…my) generation, a well-placed gizmo could make the difference between involvement or not – maybe if the site was widgetized as a facebook app? though as it stands, it’s kind of boring and there’s really no sociality built in other than the invisible recommendation technology – but the future is bright!

  6. Ross,
    What would sociability look like?

  7. ross says:

    i’d have to advocate for more user-generated, peer-review data (wiki-style) for the non-profit descriptions. (has that non-prof review wiki out there yet?)

    group giving plan? processing the input from multiple partners and creating a portfolio from the joint data.

    maybe the key toward sociality is not building out the social functionality, but to create a portable app that can jive with existing platforms. i guess i’m feeling like this tool is better served as part of a basket of tools to inspire beginner givers. like, where’s the site i got to if i’m giving for the first time and need info. and maybe donation dashboard should be there.

  8. Jason Dick says:

    I think this kind of organization is a good idea but also could be problematic. One of the beautiful things about the internet is that small nonprofits that do not have the marketing budget and history of a large organization can compete to make a difference.

    My concern is that these nonprofits would not be included in the study when often times they have a better % to program than some of the larger organizations. So you miss a huge world of venture philanthropy because they are an unknown entity.

    I hope that this kind of system would allow nonprofits to submit themselves or new organizations to their database.