~ Posted by Robert Butler, March 27th 2012
When Caroline Fiennes taught at a school in Tamil Nadu, India, in the early 1990s there were times when her class was only half full. She discovered there were four main reasons for this: the transport was poor; the cost of the uniform was too high; the parents needed their child to work in the fields or take care of a younger sibling; or the child had intestinal worms, which causes malaise, lethargy and severe pain.
There are charities that deal with these issues. One pays parents when a child attends school. Over a year, this costs about $1,000. Another distributes school uniforms—with $1,000 you could get 10 children into school for an additional year. A third offers deworming, and for $40 a year (sometimes much less) this can keep a child in school for a whole year. The maths is obvious: when large numbers of children are unable to get to school, $1,000 spent on deworming is "25 times better".
The story of the school at Tamil Nadu opens Fiennes's new book "It Ain't What You Give, It's the Way That You Give It", which had its launch in London last night. A good deal of this sharp study overturns expectations. "I'll show you how to waste your entire donation," she writes, frankly. The book even has a good word for Goldman Sachs for creating pro bono a finance facility for an immunisation programme against diarrhoea. The bonds are credited with saving 3m lives and represent a much better use of the bankers' time, Fiennes points out, than having these bankers paint walls in a local community centre.
Many people consider low admin costs to be the sign of a good charity. Not so, says Fiennes, the mark of a good charity is its effectiveness. The book boils this thought down to a snappy equation: "impact = idea x implementation". Fiennes reserves her most stringent remarks for donors who expect charities to fill in complicated application forms, or place restricted conditions on their grants, or take up more of a charity's time (filling in reports, and so on) than is absolutely necessary. Anything that detracts from a charity's core activity takes money away from its beneficiaries.
Robert Butler is online editor of Intelligent Life