About a year ago, I took on the job of answering phone calls and responding to the messages that come to GiveDirectly’s email inbox. At the time, I had no idea what to expect, but I was happy to be involved with this “crazy new idea” of giving cash directly to the poor. It looked like great opportunity to help in a small way and to spread the word about evidence-based philanthropy.
As it turns out, answering GiveDirectly’s correspondence has been an education in itself, as well as an inspiring and emotional experience for me. Every day I get to interact with a wide variety of amazing people whose stories range from heartwarming to heartbreaking. I would like to share a few highlights from GiveDirectly’s inbox.
First, there are the messages from donors. Among the donors who write in, there is a spirit that goes beyond generosity; it is a spirit of duty and responsibility toward those who are less fortunate. Every day we get notes from donors who want to thank GiveDirectly just for providing a way to give their cash to strangers in need. Occasionally, we receive an apology message from a longtime supporter who has fallen on hard times and needs to lower or cancel a monthly recurring donation--these examples of selflessness fortify my faith in the general goodness of people.
Some of our donors have found creative ways to integrate direct giving into their lives. One woman gave in her father’s memory, to celebrate his lifelong connection to a community in Africa. Others give as a way of teaching their children. Couples have asked their friends and family for donations to GiveDirectly in lieu of traditional wedding gifts. One young woman used her bat mitzvah as a platform for fundraising and teaching her friends about GiveDirectly. Benefit parties have been thrown; a man bicycled across Australia to raise money and awareness of extreme poverty. Owners of small businesses, from a boutique to a bed and breakfast, have donated parts of their earnings to GiveDirectly. Recently we heard from a woman whose co-worker had pledged HALF of his annual salary to GiveDirectly--it is sometimes overwhelming to think of all the small and large ways that our donors share their good fortune, and how profoundly their choices can impact the lives of struggling families whom they will never meet.
Then, there are the messages from skeptics. Our donors are vigilant and keep us on our toes (“there appears to be a typographical error on page 10 of your annual report…”) and come up with creative solutions (“you don’t have a flyer for kids, so I created one...”). We also get messages questioning our recipients’ ability to spend wisely without our guidance, asking why GiveDirectly is not operating in developed countries, or suggesting that GiveDirectly website should be more flashy. We welcome these messages and respond with research and clear explanations of our operating model. Though everyone is not always happy with the answers we give them, I am proud to work for an organization that is transparent enough to reply directly to all of the questions that come our way.
Finally, there are the requests for money. These come from all over the world and are the most difficult messages to read and answer, because we cannot help. Most of the requests are for relatively small amounts of money-- and in many cases a relatively small amount could radically improve the requester’s situation. Though it is hard to say no, it also is a reminder of how meaningful a cash transfer can be to those whom GiveDirectly IS able to reach.
Before it became my job to respond to these requests for cash, I had not thought much about how very serious they are. In conversations with friends and family in the US about GiveDirectly, someone invariably laughs and says, “You give away money? How can I sign up?”. This seems kind of amusing until you are on the phone with a desperate person who has swallowed his pride and is asking for money to feed his family, treat a sick child, or keep a roof over his head. Whenever I hear someone question whether the poor will ‘become dependent’ or ‘take advantage’ of GiveDirectly’s cash transfer programs, I wish that they could speak to one of the people who reach out to us asking for help. No one would choose to be in that position.
My year in the GiveDirectly inbox has been a crash course in the strange mixture of inspiration and despair that surrounds any effort to tackle the huge problem of global poverty. Though it is disheartening at times to know that there are so many people in need whom we cannot help, it is profoundly encouraging that GiveDirectly is building a community of supporters who take joy in giving and do not despair in spite of the enormity of the challenge before them.
“How do you decide whom to give to?” is usually the first question I get when I describe GiveDirectly’s model. It’s also a question we think about a lot internally. Effective targeting is a core feature of the product we offer donors, and a moral imperative.
In 2013, we began to experiment with a new approach to targeting: giving cash transfers to all households in a poor, rural village. This “saturation” approach was much more inclusive than our standard approach of enrolling only households living in thatch and mud homes: 9 in 10 households were eligible with saturation compared to 5 in 10 with thatch only. (Households living in homes made fully of permanent materials like cement and iron sheets were excluded.)
We thought saturation might reduce tension and conflict in the community, costs, and/or gaming, while continuing to reach extremely poor people. Starting in mid-2013, we randomly assigned 19 villages to saturation and 18 to thatch only. After the first transfer, we administered a follow-up survey with more than 90% of recipients and conducted focus groups in six villages in order to get quantitative and qualitative measures of tension and conflict.
The data, though not conclusive, surprised us.
First, it’s not clear that saturation villages experienced less tension and conflict. We looked at several indicators in the follow-up survey, including the percentage of recipients who heard complaints in the community, the nature of those complaints, and observed crime or violence. Only about half the indicators were lower in saturation villages.
Second, the focus groups indicated that tension across both types of villages was low – mostly rumors and some awkwardness. And nearly everyone, when presented with the situation we face, said to prioritize households living in thatch homes.
Third, saturation did not significantly reduce costs or gaming. In saturation villages, enrollment costs were < 5% lower and the percentages of households falsely posing as eligible during enrollment were comparable (4.3% vs. 3.6%).
All this suggests that targeting thatch-only does not actually cause significant tension or conflict, as we’d feared – nor does it cause significantly different levels of tension than saturation. Given that, we’ll likely continue targeting poorer families living in thatch and mud homes. But we’ll also pilot the inclusion of some iron-roof households who are extremely poor. Although we know iron-roof households are on average less poor than thatch, we also know that there are exceptions. We’re considering a few approaches to identifying them, such as applying additional objective criteria (e.g., elderly, widowed, or visibly disabled) and accepting community-based nominations of a fixed number of “special” cases.
So how do we decide whom to give to? By continually experimenting and refining our approach based on data and feedback from recipients.
Fast Company has just named GiveDirectly one of the world's Top Ten Most Innovative Companies in Finance . The list highlights enterprises that "exemplify the best in business from across the economy and around the world." GiveDirectly is the only one on the list focused exclusively on finance for the poor in developing countries, and was chosen for distributing more than $6 million to about 30,000 impoverished people in Kenya and Uganda in the past year.
|Members of our Kenya and Uganda field teams gathered in Mbale, Uganda for last weekend's GiveDirectly staff retreat.|
I had the great pleasure of attending our first East Africa staff retreat this past weekend. Eight members of our Kenya team made the six hour trip from Kisumu to Mbale, the hub for our Uganda country operations. We spent three days together visiting recipients, sharing lessons learned, and getting to know one another better. I was struck by a few things about our growing team that I wanted to share:
First, each individual truly embodies the values of GiveDirectly. Over the course of our discussion, people kept coming back to how important it is that we let the poor exercise choice and promote a culture of transparency within the organization.
Second, there is strong interest in pushing our model further. We had many animated discussions about different ways to do targeting, follow-up, and adverse event management. People were eager to put new ideas on the table ("What if we helped the mobile money agents in Uganda with cash management?") and to problem-solve tough situations ("How do we handle cases where spouses disagree about how to spend money and are at an impasse?").
Third, everyone shares a sense of building something that's never been done before. The news that we had met Good Ventures' matching challenge was met with joy and celebration. Staff are invested in the product we’re delivering and the system we're building so that we can reach as many poor households as possible.
This team represents the front line of GiveDirectly: they introduce our program to recipients, provide on-going support and information, and collect the kind of detailed, household-level data that makes us unique. I feel privileged to be building a world-class model for direct giving alongside this group of very committed and talented individuals.
|After two days together in Mbale, our front line team is energized and ready to get back to the field!|
It’s official – poor families in Kenya and Uganda are getting the full $5M match from Good Ventures.
In just eight weeks, thousands of people have given $5,019,543 directly to the poor. What this community has done is just remarkable:
- 4,000+: individual donors
- 32: countries represented
- $1: smallest donation
- $100,000: largest donation
- 3.4: bitcoins donated
- 11,478: shares of stock donated
- 30: companies providing matching gifts
- 430: Googlers who participated in a record-breaking employee giving drive
- 1: bake sale (that we know of)
I’m proud to offer a service that so many people trust to create real impact for their dollar. The fact that demand for it is so strong means real change is happening in our sector. This comment from a recent donor online captures the shift well: “I'm giving because of GiveWell’s recommendation. This form of charity feels weird to me, but I'm not going to let that stop me. I'll be very interested to learn more about what impact this form of giving has on the recipients.”
We look forward to sharing more on the impact of this money over the coming year – our teams in Kenya and Uganda will start enrolling recipients in the next few weeks.
We now accept stock donations, which can be a very efficient way to give in some cases because of tax benefits. Contact us at email@example.com for details.
5. Giving What We Can Trust (UK).
Last, we have a new option for donors in the United Kingdom. Giving What We Can and GiveWell have partnered to allow UK-based donors to give to GiveWell’s recommended charities with Gift Aid. After you give on the GWWC website, they will claim Gift Aid on your behalf and send funds to our US bank account quarterly. I’ll be writing more soon about giving from the UK.
And as always, you can give online, by check, and by wire/ACH – and we always appreciate your ideas on other ways you’d most like to be able to give directly!
|Cash transfer recipients gathered for a village meeting with GiveDirectly staff in Kawo village, Uganda.|
From the beginning, our goal at GiveDirectly has been to build an efficient and scalable platform to deliver cash transfers to poor people around the world. After months of planning and execution, we are very happy to announce that we now have a program up and running in a second country: Uganda! While we considered a number of countries for expansion, our decision came down to Uganda’s strong mobile banking sector and large population of people living on less than $1/ day, as well as the regional expertise we had developed in East Africa.
With support from a Google Global Impact Award, we successfully identified and enrolled nearly 1,000 extremely poor households in the Eastern Region and are in the process of delivering $1 million in direct transfers using two electronic payments providers: Ezee Money and MTN Mobile Money. Expansion into Uganda represents an exciting and critical step in our trajectory as an organization. And as the team member who was most directly involved in establishing this new program, I was thrilled to see the robustness and scalability of our model validated first-hand.
While cash transfers are simple conceptually, building a successful program involves a great deal of complexity, problem-solving, and attention to detail. When I arrived in March, I quickly learned that despite its proximity to Kenya, Uganda would present us with many new implementation challenges. We had to learn a great deal about the environment and make a number of critical decisions: Which region, district, and villages should we start working in? How do we design the interface with a new mobile money platform? How are households and communities structured and how does that affect our targeting? How do we build our field team? Here are a few of the specific challenges we overcame:
- Because government is more decentralized in Uganda, we had to invest a significant amount of time up-front in meeting officials at many levels to secure permission and buy-in
- In the extremely rural areas where we chose to work, few households possessed government IDs (required to register for mobile money) so we had to find creative ways to expedite ID procurement
- We faced a new set of last-mile payment challenges because mobile money agents in rural areas have less capacity overall than in Kenya; we had to work closely with our partners to provide customized and high-quality registration and payment services to our recipients
- A large variety of languages are spoken in Uganda; when recruiting local staff, we had to find well-qualified candidates who spoke both English and a fairly uncommon local language, Ateso
While we had to customize our platform in various ways, the core components of our approach translated extremely well to the new setting: a multi-layered, technology-driven system of checks and audits to ensure the integrity of our processes; a focus on transparent and respectful communication with recipients and communities about our program; and a commitment to building an exemplary team of local staff to man the front line.
Perhaps most compelling for me was seeing a similar evolution of thinking among our staff and recipients as I had previously seen in Kenya: from initial skepticism about both the validity of the approach and our ability to deliver on our commitments, to tremendous excitement when cash actually reached the hands of the poor and began to have a transformative impact on households. Take a look at the video clips at the end of this post that show two of our Field Officers discussing their initial reservations and why their thinking changed.
Bringing GiveDirectly to Uganda has been a deeply rewarding experience for our team, and we look forward to applying the lessons we learned in Uganda to future expansion in East Africa and elsewhere. I look forward to sharing more about our program and recipients in Uganda in the coming months.
"The first time I heard about GiveDirectly, I couldn't believe [an NGO could] just come in and give free money...and I thought people were going to waste it...." in this video, GiveDirectly Uganda field officers Rosemary Apolot and Charles Omoding share their initial skepticism about giving cash to the poor, and explain how their experiences with GiveDirectly recipients changed their thinking.
|A motorcycle is one asset that can continue to generate income for years after the initial purchase.|
GiveDirectly’s work has always been guided by scientific evidence. When we began sending unconditional cash transfers to Kenyan villagers a few years ago, we had every reason to believe that the money would change recipients’ lives for the better. Studies going back for years have linked cash transfers to positive impacts ranging from nutrition to household income to teen pregnancy rates.
However, until recently, all of the evidence to support our work came from studies of other programs--not our own. As a young organization with an innovative model, we could not be absolutely certain that our programs would perform as well as other cash transfer programs have in the past.
I’m happy to say that we now have the published results of a rigorous randomized control trial (RCT) on our own work. The study, conducted by independent researchers from Innovations for Poverty Action, gives us a clear picture of the impact that GiveDirectly is having in Kenya. The data offers a wealth of new insights into how recipients used their transfers and how it has changed their lives.
Some background on the design of the study: over the course of a year, the IPA research team conducted personal interviews with extremely poor residents of several villages, gathering information on their financial, physical, and emotional well-being. To understand the baseline conditions among our target population, the researchers collected data from control villages where GiveDirectly was not operating along with treatment villages where eligible residents received cash transfers. Within treatment villages, the researchers gathered data both from households that received cash and those that did not. This was done in order to capture any spillover impacts--good or bad--that might be linked to GiveDirectly’s presence in a village. There isn’t room to discuss all of the data in a single blog post, so I will share two results that really stood out for me. These findings offer encouraging answers to some of the most common questions we hear about what we do:
- Does a one-time transfer generate long-term impact? When we finally got to see the results of the RCT, I was struck by this encouraging piece of data: GiveDirectly’s cash transfers “increase investment in and revenue from livestock and small businesses. Revenue from animal husbandry increases...and total revenue from self-employment increases ...as a result of the transfers”. That represents a meaningful improvement in a family’s economic circumstances.I have tried to imagine a livestock or small business investment that would generate revenue after a year, then cease to do so – but find it unlikely. Considering other long-term studies have found income gains 4-5 years out, it is likely that many of these households will sustain the gains of the past year. While our study followed recipients for just one year, this finding strongly suggests that for many recipients, a one-time transfer can bring about lasting gains in household income..
- Will cash transfers generate conflict within households or communities? Our team has shared this concern from the outset. This is why I was amazed and encouraged by the finding of “suggestive evidence that cash transfers reduce domestic violence and increase female empowerment in both recipient households and other households in the same village [italics added]”. This means that in villages where some families received cash, the incidence of household conflicts was lower overall than in villages where GiveDirectly was not operating. This reduction in conflict was measurable even in households that did not directly receive cash; apparently--and contrary to our worst fears--there is a positive spillover effect on the community overall when some of its poorest families receive a cash windfall. Instead of causing conflict, cash may actually reduce it. Amazing.
These are two of my favorite findings from IPA’s RCT on our work. There are many more to share and discuss going forward, including the impact of cash on happiness and hunger, and a comparison between how men and women use their cash--that one may surprise you! We look forward to an in-depth conversation of the data and evidence that are helping to guide our efforts to channel resources to some of the world’s poorest households.
Technology is at the heart of what we do. We've built a secure, scalable and efficient platform that we'll use to deliver cash transfers to thousands of poor households this year, and now we're planning the next generation technology that will let us scale this platform up to serve millions of the world's poor across multiple countries. We're looking for an exceptionally talented individual to join our leadership team and spearhead this effort. If that sounds interesting, read on:
Chief Technology Officer: You are an exceptional leader who will (i) help craft our technology strategy, including development of real-time monitoring platform, mobile apps, remote sensing systems, and integration with payment providers, and (ii) manage a small team in executing this strategy, assisting in execution where needed. Given GiveDirectly’s rapid growth, your role will be fast-evolving and offer substantial opportunity to assume a diverse range of responsibilities. Ultimately, your task will be to develop the most sophisticated and transparent anti-corruption platform for distributing cash transfers. You have a distinctive track record of defining a technology strategy (i.e., anticipating and articulating an organization’s needs) and managing a team of engineers in a fast-paced environment to achieve it. You also have a top tier academic background and share our passion for the values and mission of GiveDirectly. If you fit this bill, we hope to hear from you at jobs[at]givedirectly.org with a CV and <200 word cover note.
|Evidence suggests that cash can improve the lives of young women; we are conducting a small randomized controlled trial to find out whether it can also help them to finish secondary school.|
GiveDirectly locates recipients in remote, rural areas and securely delivers life-changing amounts of cash directly into their cell phone accounts. Over 97% of our recipients report having received their funds without incident – a testament to the robustness of our systems. However, we have a lot to learn from that rare 3% of cases where something does go wrong. One such case is that of Christine (not her real name), whose cash transfer experience caused us to rethink and improve our follow-up process.
Christine lives with her husband and child in a village in rural Kenya. She is one of a cohort of 18-and 19-year-old women who receive monthly cash transfers from GiveDirectly, as part of a special program for young women that is funded by a private foundation. A large body of evidence suggests that cash can improve the lives of young women in her demographic; we are conducting a small randomized controlled trial to find out whether the transfers can also help these women to finish secondary school.
As is our normal practice, GiveDirectly’s field staff had met with Christine at her home, provided her with a cell phone SIM card and explained to her that she would be receiving monthly transfers through her phone account to spend on whatever she chose. The GiveDirectly hotline number was programmed into her phone, and our staff told her that she could call us if she needed any help or if anything had gone wrong with her cash transfers.
As usual, GiveDirectly’s field staff called Christine’s cell phone after each transfer to verify that she had received it. During the phone interviews, our staff noticed that though Christine said she was well and had received her money, she needed a lot of help from her husband to answer questions; they suspected that Christine might suffer from mental illness. It was only during an in-person visit to her home, when independent researchers conducting a study on the program spoke to Christine separately from her husband, that her real situation was discovered.
Christine ’s husband had taken her phone and was withdrawing her cash transfers for his own use. Christine didn’t feel that she could call the hotline, and her husband was having another woman pose as Christine during our monthly follow-up calls. By talking to other people in the village, our staff later learned that her husband was known to be violent and frequently drunk.
We were faced with a difficult situation, and Christine’s safety was our first concern. Alcoholism and domestic bullying exist in all cultures and in all economic classes; although our cash transfers did not seem to be the cause of these problems in Christine ’s household, we wanted to be sure that we were not making things worse for her. At the same time, we did not want to cut off financial support to a young woman simply because she had been a victim of theft.
Our first step was find a way to contact Christine under conditions that would be safe for her. Our Senior Field Officer, Mike, arranged for Christine ’s sister to meet discreetly with her, and the two women called Mike when they were together. This allowed us to verify that we were speaking to the real Christine. She confirmed that her husband had stolen her money, and asked us to stop the transfers. She did not want to leave her husband and child, but she requested that we help her set up a new phone line so that she could receive cash without her husband’s knowledge. Since that time, we have confirmed that she has been receiving her transfers securely, and Mike continues to follow up with her each month with the help of her sister. Christine reports that the household has been peaceful since the change, and that she and her child are both safe and well.
We have not yet received final published results from the recent independent study on our cash transfer program in Kenya, but preliminary feedback from the researchers suggests that incidents of domestic violence by men against women decreased significantly in households that received cash transfers, and the reduction in violence was larger when the woman received the transfer. While cash transfers have been linked to reduced domestic violence for a majority of couples, Christine’s story is a reminder that each situation is unique, and we must be vigilant and prepared to respond to our recipients’ individual needs, should a problem arise. This is a special challenge in households where conflict already exists. We are glad to have resolved Christine ’s case without having to end her transfers; she chose to continue receiving transfers and now has money to buy things that may help her to improve life for herself and her family.
To better detect and prevent cases like Christine’s in the future, we now conduct in-person follow up visits for a randomly selected 10% of households. We are also implementing more rigorous protocols for staff to monitor and investigate suspicious cases--these are flagged for a follow-up phone call or in-person visit from an experienced Senior Field Officer. These precautions represent a cost increase—although we will still meet our efficiency target, which, for Kenya, is to keep delivery costs below 10% of each donor dollar received. We believe these extra measures are well worth the cost, because they enable us to protect our recipients and to fulfill our obligation to our donors more effectively.