January 27, 2017

Podcast: Getting the Most Bang for Your Charitable Bucks

In a country with more than 1.5 million nonprofits, determining how and where you can do the most good with the money you have can be daunting. That’s the raison d’être for the Center for High Impact Philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania, which works to help people understand, and maximize, the effect of their giving, whether they’ve got a few bucks or a billion to spend on good works.

"It’s not really about the amount of the gift; it’s how well you’re giving so that you’re creating positive change," says Kat Rosqueta, the center’s founder and executive director.

In this edition of the Business of Giving, Ms. Rosqueta expounds on the center’s four pillars of high-impact giving: aim for social impact to create positive change in the world; build on past evidence and experience to push for greater change; get the most "bang for the buck"; and commit to continuous learning and adaptation. She also talks about the center’s annual "High Impact Giving Guide," which offers an array of "handpicked opportunities" for gifts that can make a difference across a wide range of causes and at any donation level.

Listen to the full interview below, and/or scroll down to read a transcript provided by the Business of Giving.


Denver: One the biggest reasons people don’t give more to charity is because they’re uncertain whether their contribution is having the desired impact. And in a nation where there are over 1.5 million nonprofit organizations, it can be a daunting enterprise for an individual to be sure that they are getting the most out of their charitable buck. But that is why we have entities like the Center for High Impact Philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania to help navigate these philanthropic waters. And with us this evening is their Founder and Executive Director, Kat Rosqueta. Good evening, Kat, and welcome back to the Business of Giving!

Kat: Great to be here.

Denver: Why don’t you begin by telling us:  Exactly what is high impact philanthropy? And give us an overview of what you do at the Center for High Impact Philanthropy.

Kat: Happy to. So, high impact philanthropy, for us, is the practice of trying to do the most good with the money you have. It’s characterized by four things. It’s a focus on the social impact.  So: what’s the positive change in the world you want to create?  It’s informed by what we say is the best available evidence. So, when you’re practicing high impact philanthropy, you’re really trying to build off of what’s already known, and push to create even more change. No surprise for a center that was founded by the School of Social Policy & Practice and the alumni of the Wharton School– which is the oldest collegiate business school. We always think “bang for the buck;”  that’s another aspect of practicing high impact philanthropy. And then the fourth is a real commitment to continuous learning. Some of the challenges that philanthropy is trying to tackle– these are tough– and it’s not like other people haven’t tried to address it before. One way to make sure you’re still making progress is really being open to learning and course correcting as you see you need to.

Denver: Does the center focus on any particular areas as you search for organizations that are making a meaningful impact?

Kat: Our mission is really to help all donors, and so the only reason we haven’t focused on certain issues is just a capacity issue. There’s nothing out of bounds. We’re probably best known for our work in global public health and development, as well as our work on domestic US children’s issues and education. But we’ve touched all sorts of topics, including hunger, homelessness, disaster relief, addiction. We don’t rank which is the best cause to give to. We think there are a lot of great causes that donors are and should be giving to. But whatever the cause, what we’re trying to figure out is: How can those donors’ funds do the most good?

Denver: When people think about high impact philanthropy, they very well may be thinking of those billionaires, those mega donors, or those well-heeled foundations  really trying to fully leverage those big, big gifts. Can high impact philanthropy be practiced by just the average donor?

Kat:  Absolutely. That was one of the biggest, I think, misperceptions. When we started this center, people assumed that our guidance would only be useful for the billionaires. And we joke around the team that if we only cared about the billion-dollar gifts, we ought to be called the “Center for High Input Philanthropy.”  Because for us, we’re really focused on: What are the results?  We just released our annual High Impact Giving Guide, and you’ll see there are opportunities for people to make a meaningful difference in the lives of others for $2, $100. It’s not really about the amount of the gift; it’s how well you’re giving so that you’re creating positive change. 

Denver: You talked a moment ago about one of your four pillars, and that was evidence– evidence of what’s working and what’s not. But as you know, evidence can have many different meanings to different people. What does evidence or evidence-based mean to the Center for High Impact Philanthropy?

Kat: We have a pretty broad definition of evidence, and part of our definition comes from the fact that we’re a multi-disciplinary center.  We are taking what we hope is the best thinking from law, from social science, from the hard sciences. For many people in this space, evidence is the results– the findings of randomized controlled trial studies– and that is the classic definition of scientific evidence. It is still the gold standard for understanding cause and effect, and attributing a certain effect to a particular cause or intervention. That’s great. For sure, when we see that kind of scientific evidence, we absolutely use it. But our guidance is meant to help folks in the real world… where there are lots of other different factors to consider… where there are not silver bullets or sure bets.

And so we borrowed definitions of evidence from our colleagues in public health, from the law school.  And that includes things– not just scientific evidence– but also looking at knowledge from the field. What is the wisdom and the learned experience of practitioners, of beneficiaries, of some of the funders who have been giving for a while? We’ll also look at what we call informed opinion. So this is the kind of knowledge that won’t get into an academic journal, but its good policy analysis can fit into that… great case examples. What we find is that if we’re tapping all three sources of evidence — scientific research evidence, informed opinion, and field knowledge — that helps us really zero in on some of the best and most promising practices. It’s that overlap of evidence that we feel the most confidence in.

Denver: It sounds like a good blend. Well, one of the reasons I think we depend on evidence is because we’re often not very good at gauging what programs are going to work, and which ones are not. For example, I bet there was a lot of smart money placed on “Scared Straight” and how it would decrease juvenile delinquency. Tell us about that program and what the evidence actually showed.

Kat: The Scared Straight– exactly as you described– was meant to reduce juvenile delinquency. So, the way it worked is: you would take a young person who was getting into trouble. And if they stayed on that path… maybe they had already been arrested, they were going to land in jail. And what you would do is take that young person and actually bring them to a prison, to a jail, have them talk to inmates there.  The idea is that by exposing them to where they might end up, you would scare them off  the ” crooked path” they were on, and onto the path of the “straight and narrow.”

Denver:  That sure does sound good. 

Kat: Intuitively! Any of us who are parents are probably thinking, “Yeah, that makes sense, and I’d probably use some form of Scared Straight for my kids.” But the evidence points to the fact that not only does it not work, it doesn’t reduce juvenile delinquency!  In some cases, it actually increases the likelihood that this young person might wind up getting into trouble and being arrested. I’m referring to some of the hard, scientific evidence from randomized controlled trial studies. Those findings point to the fact that in this case, you probably would’ve been better off leaving those kids alone. They would’ve landed in a better place. That’s an example of:  When you have evidence from any one of those three circles, make sure you use them because you could inadvertently wind up harming the very kids you want to help.

Denver: Well, let’s go to the other side of the coin. There are several organizations that you have vetted and reviewed and analyzed and come to the conclusion that they have high impact. One that you cite is the Nurse-Family Partnership. We had the CEO, Roxane White, on the show a while back.  But, boy, it really deserves repeating. Tell us why you recommend them?

Kat:  Nurse-Family Partnership is an example of a model that we’ve seen successful in lots of different settings. It’s the home visitation model. The idea is that you have a family that is vulnerable and at risk of not succeeding. In the Nurse-Family Partnership case, it is a woman pregnant with her first child– low income, often isolated, not a lot of resources. A registered nurse visits that soon-to-be mom when she’s still pregnant and makes sure that the woman goes to her prenatal visits, is planning ahead, and making sure the house is safe for when she has to bring in a newborn, has people to call and techniques to help when–again, those of us who are parents: three in the morning, and you’re frustrated, and you’re exhausted: What do you do? Make sure she has enough food… and healthy food. And then when the baby is born, that registered nurse continues to visit, making sure mom and child are going to the pediatrician appointments, has age-appropriate toys. Those regular visits result in the kind of success we want for these families.

So, unlike Scared Straight, where you actually in some instances saw an increase in juvenile delinquency with the kids that were followed in this program, you have dramatic decreases in arrest compared to an almost identical cohort. You saw decreases in emergency room visits. You saw decreases in instances of child abuse– again, compared to a comparable group– increases in school attainment. These kids were staying in school. And all of those decreases in bad things and increases in good things means that:  for every dollar that’s spent on this program for a high-risk family, we as a society get over $5 back.

Denver: That’s a nice return. I know moms delay having a second child, and she herself gets back into the workforce…  Just so many holistic benefits, not only to the child, but to the mom as well!

Kat: Exactly.

Denver: When it comes to an organization that is saving lives around the world and where you get another nice return on your investment is the Measles & Rubella Initiative. Tell us about their work and what they’ve been able to achieve.

Kat: That is a great example of how you don’t need to be a billionaire to make a meaningful difference in a child’s life.  In this case: Protect them from deadly diseases. So measles and rubella– those are diseases that are treatable, preventable, but there are children around the world who don’t get those vaccines. And so for $2, a donor can protect a child from measles and rubella by supporting the kinds of campaigns that are out there to make sure that children who are not vaccinated get those life-saving vaccines.

Denver: There’s a concern we have in this country about the reading gap in low-income communities.  And that gap is only going to close if you really have highly skilled and well-trained teachers. And there’s an organization in your town…Philadelphia… called the Children’s Literacy Initiative that does that quite well. Tell us about them.

Kat: Children’s Literacy Initiative is really focused on making sure that children are able to read at grade level, particularly by the end of grade 3.  Because there’s a lot of research that points to the fact: If they can read at grade level by grade 3, we’ve given them the right start. There’s an expression “Learn to read by grade 3; read to learn afterwards.”

It was founded in Philadelphia, but the success of the program has meant that it’s now operating in multiple cities around the country. What it does is prepare teachers… coach teachers — kindergarten through the early grades — in the best techniques for teaching literacy. It also makes sure that it’s not just how to teach to read, but how to manage a classroom when you’ve got different levels of readers– making sure they have the right spaces, so they can do small group reading that can really help students who need a little more attention; making sure that they have the right books and that they’re planning across grades and classes so that all the kids in that school can read at grade level.

And they’ve not only shown remarkable success in Philly but at one point, they were given a federal grant to scale up, precisely because so many other communities wanted to have that kind of program. 

Denver: That’s great. Let me ask you about a broader question about disaster relief. I don’t think there’s a more impulsive contribution decision we make than in the aftermath of a disaster. We are compelled to help, and we want to do something right away. And, Goodness knows! Everybody is asking us for a contribution at that time as well. But this is also an area where you see a lot of concerns about how the money is being used, whether it’s being used  wisely and effectively. In fact, you read a lot of stories about how it’s actually being wasted. What advice do you have for people looking to have a real impact with their contribution after a disaster, whether that contribution is a big one or just a modest one?

Kat: I think there are three pieces of advice when giving after a disaster. The first is, you’re absolutely right–the images that often come in the news, the scale of the damage; it’s hard to see that and not want to say, “Oh my god, I’ve got to help. I’ve got to help right now.” One not very effective way to help that people are often compelled to do is to give in-kind donations– organize a blanket drive, or get lots of bottles of water. That’s the one thing not to do. Often after a disaster, things are really chaotic.  There’s a lot of need. In particular, logistic systems– like communications and roads, and even airports, that capacity is really scarce! 

Denver: That’s for sure. In fact, in the emergency disaster business, they call in-kind contributions the “second disaster.” 

Kat: Exactly!  Because now, you’re not only dealing with the people who are affected, you’re dealing with:  “What are we going to do with all these blankets and bottles of water?” So I know it’s well-intentioned but that’s Rule no.1. Keep yourself from doing that. Because really, what is most helpful are financial donations that allow the first responders on the ground to meet whatever the needs are that they’re finding.

So, then it gets to:  If I’m going to provide a financial donation, what kinds of organizations to look for? There are really two kinds. The first are  expert first responders. They go to these disasters around the world, and they know how to bring in global supply chains and to work in some of the most challenging circumstances you can imagine–Doctors Without Borders or Médecins Sans Frontières, the French name. Those are the kinds of very specialized first responders that are always there; they’re experts in that kind of intervention.  We have a list of those kinds of first responder organizations in our High Impact Giving Guide and on our website, so folks can find them.

The second kind of organization takes a little longer to find, so this is where donors might need to have a little bit of patience. But that patience often pays off because these are the local organizations who know the language, who know the terrain, who have the trust of the people already. It’s that combination of the expert first responders– that are often big– and the really smaller local organizations who know the people and the culture and will be trusted… and know who’s missing and know which road to get through– that takes a little longer to find. But there are organizations like ours, Disaster Accountability Project, the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. If you’re willing to be patient, we all find those organizations eventually.

And that gets to the third piece of advice which is: Often donors can have impact in the rebuilding effort, long after the headlines fade. So that means, yes, you’re prompted to help because the images are so bad… and you feel horrible.  But sometimes you can do more good by waiting a little bit, tracking what’s going on, waiting until those local organizations are identified… and giving money then– when those communities really need the capacity to rebuild, but the camera crews are no longer there.

Denver: Yes, that is exactly what we need to do. We don’t have a long view on these things. We want to do it. It’s that incandescent moment; it’s that CNN moment! And then, it just fades away, and we completely forget because some other disaster has come along to take its place. 

Kat: Exactly.

Denver: What about food drives? This is one of the great American charitable traditions– collecting canned food. Is that an effective way to get food to those in need? Or, are there better ways of doing it?

Kat: You’re right. It’s absolutely an American tradition, and it’s a way that communities visibly show that they care about those who are less fortunate. And unlike, say, Scared Straight program– like we talked about earlier– it’s not like they do harm. They do help, and it is a way that you can get food to needy families. But if you were going to take $10 and buy some cans and put it in your food drive, that $10 could go a lot farther if you donated it to one of the original food banks… or Feeding America.

That’s because, in this country, we have a surplus of food, and we have a whole logistics network that can take the surplus. And I don’t mean bad food; I mean things like a package of carrots were mislabeled, so the retailer it was supposed to go to won’t accept it.  Or there are potatoes– perfectly healthy and nutritious– but they’re the wrong size for the processor that was going to use them. All around the country, we have this surplus. Feeding America and our network of regional food banks can take that surplus and redistribute it. And so instead of spending $10 for a can of sardines and a jar of peanut butter and jelly– that’s about how far $10 might go– you could donate it to Feeding America or the food banks. They will draw from that national or regional surplus, and it’s only 10 to 20 cents handling fee. So your same $10 could feed a family of four for almost a week, as opposed to feeding a couple of people lunch.

Denver: Yes. Open up a can and empty out the contents.  And then collect money in it, and send it to Feeding America.  You’ll be a heck a lot better off.

Kat: Absolutely. 

Denver: I would imagine high impact philanthropy would find a pretty enthusiastic and interested audience among millennial donors. Has that been the case? 

Kat: We have found it to be the case generally, although I would say: not just millennials, but anybody who has now grown up used to getting information. It’s a part of this. It’s not just a shift in generation. It’s a shift in how we’re doing giving. I think partly because young people…everybody wants to do better than their parents, “I’ve got a smarter way to do it!” And they’re ambitious, and they’re energetic. They are consumers of our guidance and our principles. But what is most encouraging to us is that we’re seeing donors of all age groups getting more confident in their giving. They’re getting more confident,in part, because they have access to better information, and there are people who are helping them.

One recent example:  this year we partnered with Fidelity Charitable, which is the largest donor-advised fund. It’s second only to the Gates Foundation in the number of philanthropic gifts that it gives each year. They have tens of thousands of account holders who are thinking of giving gifts. This year, they shared our guidance with all those account holders via an email, and they mirrored our guidance on their website. So now, all of a sudden, you’ve got people who don’t have to spend days in the library or searching and asking a lot of people to find information that’s already been prepared for them. Fidelity is delivering it to our account holders. We make all our information for free. There are other nonprofits like GiveWell and The Life You Can Save and GuideStar. These are all philanthropic intermediaries who are making it easier and easier for donors to access great information that can help them feel more confident.

Denver: Is there any evidence that people are actually making different philanthropic decisions? I’m not talking about the mega donors or the foundations again. But the average person, are they still pretty much giving to the organizations that they have historically given to… or giving to the organizations that their friend asked them to support?  Or, is there really some kind of evidence that shows: No! They’re changing the way they’re going about this?

Kat: Our team doesn’t really study trends in philanthropic giving, so it’s not an area that I can speak directly to. What I do know is that even with our work, I still don’t think I’ve met an individual that I would describe as “Oh, they’re 100% high impact philanthropic giver!” Philanthropy plays lots of different roles in people’s lives. What we do know is for the part of an individual’s philanthropic portfolio– where they’re really focused on social impact– they now have more and more tools and groups that can help them do that. And they’re sort of bonding with each other to do that as well.

Denver: Well, one of the best tools and resources that we’ve alluded to is your website. Tell us about that and particularly, this High Impact Giving Guide that you distribute on an annual basis. 

Kat: We started distributing that guide about six years ago when we realized that throughout the year, we’re learning about all sorts of great philanthropic opportunities. We wanted to make sure that that knowledge got out there. We are a university-based center, so there are two things that we are really committed to:  public information and education. What we found was that year over year, that Giving Guide has gotten more and more attention because we release it at the end of the year when, depending on your estimate, about 30% of giving or more is happening in these last three months of the year.

So what you’ll see in the Giving Guide is a set of handpicked opportunities that are meant to demonstrate the breadth of ways people can give.  So it’s not just one topic. You’ll see things on civil rights, education, housing, poverty. It’s meant to illustrate all the different ways people can give. We have a special supplement there specifically on disaster relief. We also put together a list of resources. So, if for some reason you don’t find something in this year’s guide that appeals to you, here are other resources that we’ve looked at that provide really good information.

Denver: Well, it’s exceptionally well done, and it gets a little bit better every year, dare I say?

Kat: Thank you.

Denver: Well, Kat Rosqueta, the Executive Director of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania, I want to thank you so much for being on the program this evening. If one of your resolutions in 2017 is to make your charitable giving more meaningful and have greater impact, no better place to start than with the High Impact Giving Guide. For those people who want to get their hands on this guide, what would that website be?

Kat: You can find it for free at

Denver: It was a real pleasure, Kat, to have you on the show. 

Kat: Thank you.