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:
- 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.
- 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.