Looking Beyond the Buzz
by Joy

GiveDirectly has received some media attention lately. We’re thankful for it, as it allows us to share our work and ideas with more people who might want to help. NPR’s in-depth profile on our work in Kenya reached a broad audience and sparked further discussion in other outlets and the blogosphere. While it’s exciting to see our message spread, I want to take a moment to put it in perspective by sharing how our team thinks about media.

We are happy that coverage of GiveDirectly has brought at least two important ideas into the public conversation about giving. One is the growing role of evidence and data in decision making in philanthropy. It’s encouraging to see tools like randomized controlled trials discussed on mainstream outlets like The New York Times and MSNBC, not just in economics journals. Another is the concept of cash transfers as a benchmark for other interventions. We firmly believe cash is not a panacea for poverty, but do think it is worth measuring the returns a family can create for itself if simply given the money it would have cost to deliver another intervention.

Mainstream press provides a good forum to discuss some issues. It isn’t as well suited to others. There are many topics that should be part of a balanced, nuanced discussion on the role of cash but won’t create headlines or drive page-views. First, execution of a cash transfer program is a lot harder than it seems. We spend a lot of our time solving problems like – to draw on recent examples – a dishonest staff member who tried to intimidate recipients and a recipient whose husband stole her transfer (which will be the subject of a later post) — and how to mitigate them at scale. Second, there are open questions about how to maximize the impact of our work. Though the existing literature is extensive it doesn’t conclusively answer all of the questions we ask ourselves. For example, do simple “nudges” influence recipient spending towards higher return or longer term investments? What is the long-term impact of our transfers on household poverty? What are the impacts on village-level economies? Our goal is to build an organization that can address these operational and research challenges – and is transparent about the fact that we do not have all the answers.

I am thrilled when the press gets more people thinking and talking about hard questions about charity and development – but do not count on it to tell the whole story. That’s why we turn down most media requests and don’t have a “Press” page on our website. Instead, as the buzz builds around cash transfers, we are doubling down on delivering a great product for our recipients and donors and asking ourselves the hard questions about why we do what we do. I hope you will keep asking us the hard questions, too.