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Research analyst provides perspective on charity donations

Stephanie Wykstra, a research analyst at GiveWell, an independent charity evaluator, spoke about the effectiveness of charities on Wednesday and the work her organization does to see whether charities really make a difference.

About 15 students and faculty members gathered at the Philosophy Office Building on the College Avenue campus to learn about the work of GiveWell, including its goal to increase transparency for philanthropies, Wykstra said.

“I started thinking to myself, ‘Why isn’t there some group telling donors what charities are doing and how it compares them — not just [in] financial metrics but how effective they are to help people and which are doing the best work?’” Wykstra said.

There are times when charities are not effective in executing its goals, Wykstra said. One example includes an initiative called PlayPumps, in which the charity Water for People uses a merry-go-round to pump water in rural villages instead of the usual water pump, making pumping water harder and more exhausting.

“This is a story where initially there was a great narrative, people really jumped up and supported it,” she said. “But when you talked to the people in the village, they said, ‘Give us back our hand pumps.’”

GiveWell investigated the effectiveness of PlayPumps and observed that the women in the village were left to do the pumping because everyone else was worn out from the difficulty of powering the merry-go-round.

“Nothing is hidden, and nothing is kept secret,” Wykstra said about what her organization uncovers.

Yetzenia Leiva, vice president of the University’s chapter of Giving What We Can, said she was surprised at the PlayPumps case and thinks it is convenient for donors to find out a charity’s effectiveness.

“It is great that they do this work because then we don’t have to,” said Leiva, a Mason Gross School of the Arts junior. “When you hear about charities, you just think about how there are so many, but GiveWell helps narrow it down so you know where to give.”

Part of the research process includes gathering information from the Internet through charities’ websites, talking to those involved in the charities over the phone and visiting the charities to see what work they do.

“We research the background of the charities with the help of individuals with expertise in that subject matter,” Wykstra said. “We compare the information and categorize each organization by formulating heuristics and investigating through documents and evaluation reports.”

GiveWell’s founders, Holden Karnofsky and Elie Hassenfeld, began the organization as concerned charity donors. Their supporters and colleagues now fund GiveWell’s research.

The research shown on GiveWell’s website is reviewed carefully, with accuracy as the organization’s No. 1 goal, Wykstra said.

“We solicit evaluations from experts with relevant subject matter expertise,” she said. “We get independent outsiders to let us know if we missed anything or disagree with our conclusions. We also track really carefully the money moved.”

Benjamin Lin, a School of Environmental and Biological Sciences junior, said GiveWell gives people a feeling of dependability.

“No one would want to be blinded by charities and give away money that won’t be put to best use,” Lin said.

Boris Yakubchik, president of the University’s chapter of Giving What We Can and a University alumnus, said GiveWell encourages students to get involved with giving to charities.

“It is probably the best organization out there trying to figure out what is the best place to give and which charities are the most cost-effective,” he said.

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