Philanthropedia: Capturing Expert Recommendations of Nonprofits

This is my newest column for the Chronicle of Philanthropy. You can find the archive of my past columns here.

A Philanthropic Network Passes On Recommendations of Worthy Charities
March 7, 2010 | Chronicle of Philanthropy

In all the talk about measuring results in philanthropy and how best to determine which nonprofit groups are effective, a simple fact is often overlooked. All across the country, foundation program officers, senior nonprofit staff members, and academic researchers know which nonprofit groups are doing great work.

Now a new group called Philanthropedia is working to capture this knowledge about top nonprofit groups and make it available to everyone.

This sort of information, personal recommendations from people in a good position to pass judgment, is a fundamental process that people use to make decisions.

Getting recommendations from experts can mean asking your friend who loves to eat out what she thinks about the new restaurant in town or consulting a book review in The New York Times before choosing your next novel. Recommendations from trusted experts are so valuable that we often pay large amounts of money to gain access to them before making critical investment, legal, or medical decisions.

Philanthropy itself is largely built on recommendations. Studies show that one of the main reasons donors give to certain groups is that a friend asked them to do so.

When those friends are fellow supporters of organizations and not professional fund raisers, they are in effect recommending a group that deserves support. But while those sorts of recommendations motivate action, they are not unbiased or delivered by an expert.

Philanthropedia is working to make expert recommendations of nonprofit groups as accessible as the expert recommendations that help shape our decision making about which movies to see, restaurants to patronize, or retirement strategies to deploy.

Working with a quickly expanding network of experts that includes grant makers, nonprofit staff members, scholars, and other experts, Philanthropedia is making available expert recommendations on topics that include organizations working to curb climate change, improve education, extend small loans to struggling entrepreneurs abroad, and reduce homelessness in the San Francisco Bay area.

Co-founded by Howard Bornstein, a former employee of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Deyan Vitanov, an entrepreneur who had previously built an online community for computer programmers, Philanthropedia began operations last year with extensive support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

The Philanthropedia team uses a survey methodology similar to one developed by the RAND Corporation to use expert recommendations in situations involving a large degree of uncertainty.

Given the nonprofit world’s current inability to systematically measure the effectiveness of nonprofit programs or even agree on what attributes make for a well-run organization, Philanthropedia’s approach makes a lot of sense.

The big weakness in Philanthropedia’s model is that the recommendations it offers are only as valid as the expertise of the organization’s network.

Because so much of philanthropy is not based on evidence, it is quite possible that the nonprofit groups recommended by the organization’s experts are not truly the most effective ones. It could be that the people in the network have biases that produced flawed ideas about what makes a nonprofit group successful.

However, in a recent background paper, Philanthropedia showed that the nonprofit groups it recommends have little in common based on how much money they raise, how well known they are, and their age, number of employees, and accountability ratings from Charity Navigator.

This means that the experts are picking up on something else. Given that the experts are foundation employees whose job it is to analyze nonprofit groups, researchers who have spent years studying conservation, education, poverty, and other topics, and nonprofit senior staff members who see firsthand the activities of their peers, it seems likely that many of the groups Philanthropedia recommends are among the best.

In the wake of the Haitian earthquake, the Gates foundation, the Ford Foundation, the charity research group GiveWell, the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for High Impact Philanthropy, and the nonprofit Acumen Fund all made grants or offered recommendations of which organizations were in the best position to help.

Each of them listed Partners in Health as one of their choices. While this fact does not guarantee that Partners in Health is the most effective nonprofit organization working in Haiti, it does offer a useful piece of information for donors trying to decide what groups to support.

Philanthropedia offers the potential to gather this sort of information for different causes and to offer recommendations that are international, national, or local in scope.

What is fascinating about Philanthropedia is that its process is not only effective but it is also inexpensive to run and easy to expand.

Other organizations working to identify outstanding nonprofit groups by conducting original research may offer some advantages compared with Philanthropedia.

But Philanthropedia’s system allows it to analyze far more nonprofit groups by simply bringing to light what experts already know.

Philanthropedia could quickly become a great way for donors to learn from the people in the best position to know which organizations are the most effective.

Sean Stannard-Stockton is chief executive of Tactical Philanthropy Advisors in Burlingame, Calif., and author of the Tactical Philanthropy blog. He is a regular columnist for The Chronicle of Philanthropy.