The University of York’s RAG international charities: a good choice?

Background

Each year universities across the UK take part in RAG events. RAG is a ‘backronym’ of  ‘raising and giving’. Students engage in a range of activities and adventures in order to make as much money as they can for selected charities. Last year, the University of York RAG campaign raised a very impressive £80,000 which will be distributed to the charities selected by the student body.

This selection process initially involves charities applying to receive funding. The applications are then reduced to a short-list by the RAG team, before all students have the opportunity to vote for the charities they prefer from this short-list. This year, 2 local, 1 national, and 2 international charities were selected to receive funding.

I am skeptical about the process used to select these charities. And given the amount of money involved, having an adequate selection process could potentially be the difference between life and death for many people.

It’s understandable that the University wants to donate to local and national charities, as these are ones that will benefit the University’s standing in the local community, and will engage students on issues that may affect their own lives, or their friends and families. But when creating a short-list of international charities, clear and precise criteria must be used to ensure a worthy choice is presented to the students to select the winners from.

What Criteria Should We Use?

The first and most prominent criterion should be cost-effectiveness. As Giving What We Can point out, some charities can be as much as 1000 times as effective as others. So if RAG donated £100 to one charity, this could have as great an impact as donating £100,000 to another. Given that each charity can expect to receive £5-10k, it’s easy to see the importance of intelligent, targeted donations. Other important criteria for charities should be transparency and accountability (i.e. willing to share information about their expenditure ) and room for more funding. (i.e. actually have goals that can benefit from extra finances). These are the criteria used by GiveWell to rank the charities they review.

WaterAid and Medecins Sans Frontieres

This year’s international charities selected by the University of York are Water Aid and Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). So, how well do they meet the above criteria?

GiveWell has recommended MSF for their disaster-relief efforts. They are also described as being “unusually transparent”. However, despite this positive view of MSF, GiveWell do not consider them to be cost-effective overall, at least not compared to their top charities

GiveWell contacted WaterAid with the intent to thoroughly review them. However, they have now been ‘deprioritized‘. This means that subsequent investigations revealed the charity was unlikely to meet the criteria to be one of their top charities, possibly because WaterAid were unwilling/too slow in providing responses to their queries, or because they were unable to provide strong enough independent evidence of the effectiveness of their work.

Giving What We Can are also skeptical about the cost-effectiveness of water-related construction programs generally (building “boreholes, stand posts and dug wells, or infrastructure that improves sanitary conditions, such as sewerage, septic tanks and latrines”). They claim that “their cost-effectiveness has been estimated as less than a tenth that of some other ways of promoting health”. However, they are much more optimistic about programs that seek to improve behaviour regarding sanitation and hygiene. Perhaps WaterAid will eventually show that their work in this area is as cost-effectiveness as the top recommended charities. They do not yet appear to have done so.

Conclusion

Though WaterAid and MSF have undoubtedly made improvements to the living standards of a large number of people, the top-rated charities would likely have aided many more, and to a greater extent. Whilst the University of York international charity recipients of RAG aid should not be determined entirely by the criteria I have discussed in this article (York may have long-established links to particular communities or causes), such criteria must surely play a large part.

I would therefore encourage the RAG team to clearly publish the criteria they use, and the weightings for each one, in order to apply pressure onto charities to demonstrate their evidence of effectiveness, their accountability and their costs. Ultimately this will help us determine what form of charity works well and what doesn’t, and hence allow us to improve as many lives as possible.

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