Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about foundations, nonprofits and their impact

The giving season is almost upon us, and so millions of Americans soon will turn to Charity Navigator or GuideStar for help in vetting nonprofits. Unfortunately, neither is entirely up to the job. 


That once again became clear to me when I began looking into a charity called Alley Cat Allies that, by coincidence, is headquartered just a few miles from my home in Bethesda, MD. Alley Cat Allies is, to be blunt, a mess. Even so, it has been given the best possible scores by both Charity Navigator and GuideStar.


This is a big problem for the nonprofit sector, and one that deserves more attention from foundations (Hewlett, Gates, Raikes) that are trying to improve the practice of philanthropy and the performance of nonprofit groups. 


The Chronicle of Philanthropy just published my story about Alley Cat Allies, a group that has been around for decades and advocates for feral cats. Alley Cat Allies is not a mom-and-pop charity; it brought in nearly $10m last year. 


The story is behind a paywall, so you’ll have to trust me when I tell you that Alley Cat Allies has engaged in a variety of questionable dealings in recent years. It used charitable donations to acquire two residential property in Arlington, VA, including the home next door to the home of its executive director, Becky Robinson. (I’m told this helped resolve a dispute with the neighbor over Robinson’s backyard full of cats, but could not confirm this.) Amazingly, in neither case did Robinson inform the full board that Alley Cat Allies was buying the properties. (One board member learned about the real estate dealing from me!) The board chair, a woman named Donna Wilcox, for years has been a full-time, paid employee of Alley Cat Allies, which is crazy. How can a paid staff member evaluate or provide oversight of her boss? (Wilcox left her job days ago, she wrote on Facebook.) The board, which includes some well-credentialed folk, including a PhD economist with the FDIC, has not met this year.  Top executives get generous pay. The organization pursued a costly copyright lawsuit against a former freelance photographer and his wife, for what appears to me to be no good reason. Employees say it’s an awful place to work. Etc.


And yet….those stellar rankings.


I write this not to critique Michael Thatcher, CEO of Charity Navigator, or Jacob Harold, CEO of GuideStar, who are doing the best they can with limited resources. I like and admire both of them. But they don’t have anywhere near enough money or staff to independently examine hundreds or thousands of nonprofits. They might have uncovered the governance problems at Alley Cat Allies by closely reading its Form 990, but they could not have known that the charity was buying the house next door to its executive director. To their credit, neither claim to be watchdogs, although they are often portrayed or perceived that way.


What can the charitable sector do to better evaluate nonprofits? That’s hard to say. Maybe community foundations could come up with lists of best local nonprofits. Maybe other funders could focus on niches that they care about, by evaluating the education nonprofits that try to help poor kids get through college, or the climate-change advocacy groups, and then recommend the best of them, explaining why. (Animal Charity Evaluators does this for animal welfare groups, but, of course, that didn’t stop donors from sending money to Alley Cat Allies.) Independent evaluations collected by others could then be distributed on broad-based platforms such as Charity Navigator and GuideStar. Maybe there’s an opportunity here for Feedback Labs or the broader feedback movement, to reward well-run nonprofits that listen to those they are trying to serve.


Meantime, what’s a donor to do? By all means, consult Charity Navigator and GuideStar. They will spotlight problems with a nonprofit after those problems become public, and they will help you, as a donor, avoid fake charities that spend most of their budgets on fundraising. But do a little of your own digging, too. Research a charity with as much seriousness as you’d research a car, a vacation or, for some, a restaurant. Or give to a nonprofit that you know well and trust. Or turn to organizations like GiveWell or the Center for High Impact Philanthropy, which identify a small number of effective charities.


Do keep giving if you can. Thankfully, charities like Alley Cat Allies are the exception and not the rule.


sleepoversfb-900_1274-88a172This is an image from the Facebook feed of a man named Macintosh Johnson. Pictured is Katie Meyler, the founder of a charity called More Than Me that operates schools for poor, vulnerable girls in Liberia, like the girls in the photo. Macintosh Johnson and Katie Meyler were lovers. They ran More Than Me together until 2014 when Johnson was arrested and charged with raping at least 10 girls–likely, there were more–who studied at the MTM Academy, More Than Me’s flagship school. Two years later, after a jury trial in which he was neither convicted nor acquitted of the rapes, Johnson died in prison of AIDS.

All of this is according to ProPublica, the nonprofit news organization, which on Oct. 11 published a long (13,000 words) and absolutely devastating investigative story and a  45-minute documentary, both called Unprotected, about More Than Me. Here’s the trailer for the film, which argues, persuasively, that More Than Me missed opportunities to prevent the rapes and didn’t respond adequately after they became known. The school, for example, failed to test all of Johnson’s potential victims after learning that he had AIDS. This is a heartbreaking story.

Last week, Meyler, who is 36, took a leave of absence from More Than Me. Skip Borghese, the charity’s board chair, has resigned. In a statement, More Than Me said it was “deeply profoundly sorry” and acknowledged that it had failed the rape victims. But Meyler has insisted that her only mistake was to hire Macintosh Johnson. On the very day the ProPublica story appeared, she paid to be interviewed on a Liberian radio station where she defended herself and More Than Me’s work.

Here’s the thing, though: Katie Meyler didn’t build More Than Me on her own. She had lots of help. She has been financed by foundations and U.S. government agencies that, arguably, should have known better, especially once the rapes came to light; she won a popularity contest funded by JPMorgan Chase that awarded More Than Me a $1m prize to build MTM Academy; she was repeatedly lauded by credulous reporters; and she benefited from the persistent appeal of what has been called the white savior complex, a mindset that regards people in Africa, especially children, as helpless victims awaiting rescued by western do-gooders. Continue reading

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Dylan Matthews

Can journalism supported by a traditional foundation ask tough questions about what foundations are doing right–and doing wrong?

Future Perfect intends to try. It’s off to a promising start.

Launched this week by Vox, with the support of the Rockefeller Foundation, Future Perfect plans to “carve out a space, away the regular news cycle, to cover and think about crucially important issues that are currently undercovered,” writes Vox’s Dylan Matthews, who with senior policy editor Elbert Ventura will oversee the site.

Global poverty. Malaria. Communicable diseases. Farm animal suffering. Existential risks to humanity, including runaway artificial intelligence. Organ donations.

That list may sound familiar. Those are causes that the effective altruism movement has identified as important and neglected. Future Perfect is “deeply inspired” by the ideas of effective altruism, according to Matthews. He has done more than any other reporter to bring the movement into the mainstream.

He writes:

Effective altruism has hit on a really fundamental, important insight: Relatively few people and organizations conduct themselves as though they’re actively trying to do as much good as possible. To some degree, that’s okay (not everyone has to act with that goal in mind), but it leaves a lot of obvious, high-impact ideas on the table, ideas that begin to come into focus if you start looking at the world through this lens.

Put another way, effective altruism argues that all of us can and should make value judgments about which nonprofits do the most good. Simply giving from the heart is not OK.

Importantly, effective altruists also pays close attention to costs. Nonprofits talk all the time about the good that they do, but rarely are they explicit about the costs. And, of course, costs matter a lot. It’s all well and good, say, to want to educate girls in Africa, but if one school spends twice as much as another per student, that’s an important data point for donors.

Future Perfect will live on the web and in a weekly podcast hosted by Matthews, who has been with Vox since its launch. In the first episode of the pod, he interviews Alexander Berger of the Open Philanthropy Project about effective altruism, and explains why he gave a kidney to a total stranger two years ago. (For more about effective altruism and Open Philanthropy, the giving arm of Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and his wife, Cari Tuna, you read my long story in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.)

Among other things, Future Perfect will report on big philanthropy. Matthews writes:

We’re also going to be interrogating the decisions that big foundations (like the Gates Foundation, Open Philanthropy, and even our sponsors at the Rockefeller Foundation) are making. We’re trying to figure out the best ways to do good, and that means critically scrutinizing what existing institutions are trying.

This is welcome news. Foundations–arguable the least accountable institutions in America–deserve more scrutiny, for better or worse. Future Perfect has already spotlighted some success stories, and warned about a possible flop.

Here, for example, is a deeply-reported, nuanced story  by Matthews about programs that, at a reasonable cost, help extremely poor people “graduate” from poverty. It explains how they work, what we know, and what we don’t know about programs run by such NGOS as BRAC, Trickle Up and Village Enterprise. [See my 2017 blogpost, Village Enterprise: Alleviating poverty, delivering results.]

Equally impressive is Kelsey Piper’s thoughtful critique of Jeff Bezos’ $2bn gift to charity. Instead of jeering or cheering, Piper did some reporting about Bezos’s plans. (Always a good approach.) His promise to spend $1bn on preschools for children may not be the best idea, she notes pointedly, because “this has been tried before — and we really don’t know whether it works.” What’s more, she writes, Bezos isn’t starting small, with pilot programs to learn how to improve early childhood learning; he seems to be going ahead full bore, despite the fact that “starting at scale is a great way to waste a lot of money, and even do damage if your intervention turns out to be a bad idea.”

By phone, Matthews told me: “Keeping a critical eye on philanthropy — writing about philanthropic failures and successes — is going to be important going forward…We’re not here to be cheerleaders.”

Matthews hasn’t pulled his punches before. See, for example, his 2015 story, For the love of God, rich people, stop giving Harvard money. It begins: “There is a special plaque in philanthropist hell for John Paulson.” (This, from a 2012 Harvard grad, no less.) He has also written skeptically about elements of the effective altruism movement, including its focus on long-term risks, its lack of diversity and smugness.

Could the Rockefeller Foundation funding imperil critical reporting on philanthropy? The foundation gave Vox a $380,000 grant for 14 months to get Future Perfect up and running. Vox and the foundation were annoyingly vague about how this came to pass; it’s not clear to me whether Vox went to Rockefeller to ask for money, or whether the foundation approached Vox. Foundation support for journalism has been a godsend in recent years, but there’s always the risk that funding can distort coverage. You have to wonder, for example, about The Guardian’s reporting on factory farms, since it is backed by a grant from Open Philanthropy, which strongly opposes factory farming. (As do I, incidentally. But I want my journalism to be independent, and to challenge my priors.)

In any event, Matthews says that Future Perfect is a project that Vox believes in, and that it will persist, with or without more grant money from Rockefeller. “This is core to Vox’s mission,” he said.

You can sign up for the Future Perfect newsletter here.

LastChanceForAnimals-inviteLast Chance for Animals says that it is dedicated to ending the exploitation of animals.

The exploitation of women? Not so much, it seems.

Otherwise, why would the Los Angeles-based animal advocacy group honor Erika Brunson with an “Albert Schweitzer Award” at its annual benefit gala?

Those who have paid attention to the #metoo problem in the animal rights movement will remember Brunson. An 80-something interior designer whose clients are said to include members of the Saudi Arabian royal family, Fortune 500 CEOs and celebrities, Brunson served on the board of the Humane Society of the US where she steadfastly and unapologetically stood by Wayne Pacelle, its former CEO, even as he faced multiple, credible allegations of sexual harassment.

When Rachel Perman, who oversees charitable giving at Tofurky, asked HSUS’s board to investigate the complaints against Pacelle, Brunson responded to her in an email saying: “Are you out of your mind? Don’t you have anything better to do in life, than air your repressed sexual fantasies in public?”

Subsequently, Brunson told POLITICO: “This country is crazy. … It’s like this lynch-burning hysteria.” ** She suggested that women needed to “get tougher, don’t go around whining, saying you’ve been sexually harassed.”

Later, Brunson defended the HSUS board’s decision to keep Pacelle on the job in an interview with The New York Times. “Which red-blooded male hasn’t sexually harassed somebody?” she was quoted as saying. “Women should be able to take care of themselves.”

Say this about Brunson: She’s consistent.

Brunson is a longtime donor to animal advocacy groups. Money talks. Maybe Last Chance for Animals hopes that she’ll bring some of her Saudi clients to the gala, where tables sell for as much as $50,000.

But honoring her with an award, at this moment, sends a terrible message to the women as well as men in the movement.

Emails and phone messages left with Last Chance for Animals were not returned. The group was founded in 1984 by Chris DeRose, an actor, who remains its chief executive. It’s a small organization, with less than $2m in annual revenues, according to its latest IRS tax return. Past supporters include Pamela Anderson, Ben Stiller, Courtney Cox and Kathy Freston, according to Look to the Stars.

** Lynch-burning hysteria?

Wayne_pacelle_5212919Last week, the Humane Society of the US announced a “reconciliation process” that is intended to heal its workplace. HSUS is inviting “anyone who may have experienced or witnessed sexual or other kinds of harassment, inappropriate workplace behaviors, a hostile work environment and/or retaliation” to share their experiences in confidential interviews with Kate Kimpel, a respected DC lawyer and advocate for women.

Aside from the language around reconciliation — it’s not the job of those who have been harassed to reconcile with those who mistreated them — this is welcome news. It’s an open-ended investigation, at last, into the widespread allegations of sexual harassment lodged against Wayne Pacelle, the former CEO of HSUS.

His behavior, it appears, enabled others to engage in inappropriate conduct and set an unhealthy tone for the organization; at least three other senior executives at HSUS have been accused of workplace misconduct affecting women in recent years.

A fish rots from the head down, as the saying goes. “Women could be preyed on for years,” said Kelly Dermody, a lawyer representing women at the animal advocacy group. By email, Dermody told me that she is pleased by this latest development: “The selection of Kate Kimpel as the outside investigator gives the whole process enormous credibility, and certainly serves my clients’ interests in advancing the mission of serving animals.”

By way of background: Pacelle resigned in February under pressure from staff and donors, a day after HSUS’s 31-member board abruptly curtailed an investigation into his conduct and, incredibly, voted to keep him on the job. No one has held the HSUS board accountable for its bungling–this is likely the biggest outrage of all–although along with the so-called reconciliation process, a governance review is underway at HSUS, as is a pay equity study and work “with culture experts on culture change,” the group says.

None of this should have happened, says Carol J. Adams, the longtime vegan advocate, feminist and author, and much of it likely could have been avoided had more animal rights activists paid attention to her work. The animal advocacy movement, she argues, should ally itself with broader efforts to secure social and environmental justice, whether for women or workers (particularly those in slaughterhouses) or people of color.

“The movement has to get beyond a single issue,” Adams says.

7ae3c4d0-ab9e-11e8-81c9-1b431fd718bc-rimg-w526-h295-dc838383-gmirBy chance, Adams visited Washington just before the HSUS announcement to talk about her new book, Protest Kitchen: Fight Injustice, Save the Planet and Fuel Your Resistance, One Meal at a Time. Its original title was “The Anti Trump Diet,” she said, and even now the book includes recipes for “Trumped Up Vegan Cutlets a L’Orange,” “Stop the Wall Taco Salad Bowl with Fire and Fury Salsa” and, naturally, “Impeach Cobbler.” Who says feminists don’t have a sense of humor?

Speaking at East City Bookshop, a women-owned independent bookstore on Capitol Hill, Adams noted that it has been 28 years since the publication of The Sexual Politics of Meat, her landmark book exploring the relationship between patriarchal values and meat-eating. Ever since, Adams has collected images that connect the oppression of women with the oppression of other animals.

“They treated women like meat”

The connections between demeaning animals and demeaning women are everywhere, once you are alert to them. Adams pointed to a recent New Yorker story by Ronan Farrow and Jane Mayer about Brett Kavanaugh that quoted a woman who socialized with boys at Georgetown Prep, his high school, in the 1980s, who recalled that male students tried to get girls drunk and then take advantage of them. “It was disgusting,” the woman reportedly said.“They treated women like meat.”

The argument, if I understand it correctly, is that exploiting one group of beings — chickens, pigs and cows — makes it easier for the powerful to exploit others who are vulnerable, including women.

In Protest Kitchen, Adams and her co-author, nutritionist Virginia Messina, write: “The oppression of farm animals strengthens misogyny…Animal agriculture is a major vehicle for maintaining and disseminating misogynist attitudes…Female animals are forced to spend their lives producing babies, milk and eggs solely for human consumption.”

How, then, could animal advocates mistreat women at HSUS, Mercy for Animals and the Farm Animal Rights Movement? Partly it’s a matter of culture, as I wrote in January in The Chronicle of Philanthropy:

The culture of the movement creates conditions that are ripe for exploitation, insiders say. Female staff and volunteers are often idealistic, sensitive souls who empathize with the suffering of animals. They assume that men in the movement are kindred spirits. Bonding over their refusal to eat meat or wear animal products, they socialize as well as work together.

Adams argues that the narrow focus of the animal advocacy movement also comes into play. She told me:

To have leading animal advocates treat women as pieces of meat when they know exactly what a piece of meat was, is very disturbing…These were the men framing how to do advocacy in the movement, pushing the movement to be single issue, who then, as serial sexual exploiters, benefited from a movement that was framed in this way.

When I asked Adams whether the movement is coming to grips with its #metoo problem, she replied: “On a scale of one to 10, I’d say two. I just don’t think we’ve really dealt with it. I think we’re further behind than the culture at large.”

The HSUS “reconciliation process” hasn’t changed her mind.

“What took so damn long?” said said. “The HSUS Board made a terrible mistake in January, and this ‘reconciliation’ could begin with them saying so, and saying they should have fired Wayne.”

True enough. The lack of clarity and transparency around who did what to whom hasn’t been good for the movement, for the women who were harassed or, for that matter, for the men who accused of harassment, sometimes with little in the way of specifics to back up the charge.  This has led to debate about who should be welcomed back into the movement, and when. Pacelle, for example, is already attempting a comeback as a prominent volunteer with a new political action committee called Animal Wellness Action.

I asked Anna West, senior director of public relations at HSUS, whether the findings of the reconciliation process would be made public. By email, she replied:

We plan to make an announcement at the conclusion of the reconciliation process and expect, as part of that, to share information about the process and any resulting changes to the organization’s practices. We will be guided in our communications by our commitment to restorative accountability – accountability and transparency that facilitates healing and growth – and the protection of the identities and individual experiences of participants will be prioritized at all times.

Accountability would require taking a hard look at the role of the board, which, like most nonprofit boards, answers to no one but itself. That’s a problem with no obvious solution, and one that goes way beyond HSUS.

Photo of Wayne Pacelle by SlowKing4, via Wikimedia Commons

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Children in a mountain village in Rwanda. Photo by Sarel Cromer

Ah, scale. Foundations, nonprofits, anti-poverty programs all pursue scale. Advice on how to scale abounds, in reports and articles like Getting to ScaleStrategies to Scale Up Social Programs and Three Things Every Growing Nonprofit Needs to Scale.

But scale is not impact. Indeed, there’s often tension between the two. “If you have $1 million to spend, do you want to target 1,000 people or 100 people?” asks Andrew Zeitlin, a development economist who teaches at Georgetown. Unintended consequences arise when governments or nonprofits try to serve too many people with too few dollars, as Zeitlin and Craig McIntosh of UC San Diego found when they did a study in Rwanda comparing a conventional USAID nutrition and sanitation program with a program that simply gives people cash, with no strings attached.

Their study is the first to be released as part of a bold new cash benchmarking initiative at USAID that I wrote about last week in the New York Times, under the headline Is Cash Better for Poor People Than Conventional Foreign Aid? Some coverage of their study, in Vox and Quartz, said, at least in the headlines, that “cash won,” and while that’s arguably true, the study’s findings were more complicated: It found that neither the nutrition program nor the equivalent dollars given away in cash did much good, but that a larger amount of cash had significant impact.

A better takeaway from the study would be that “everybody won” because USAID, the nonprofits running the programs, economist and the rest of us, are learning more about what works and what doesn’t in global development.

Unsurprisingly, one thing that doesn’t work is spreading too few dollars over too many beneficiaries. The nutrition and sanitation program, called Gikuriro and run by Catholic Relief Services, cost about $140 per household, and involved a mishmash of offerings in agriculture, health education, sanitation, savings and lending, all aimed at improving child nutrition and health. The CRS website says:

Parents who participate in the Gikuriro are happy and proud to be able to prepare healthy food using their own means. They are confident that their family members are no longer at risk of malnutrition because of what they’ve learned about creating balanced diets.

Unfortunately, that confidence was misplaced.

About the Gikuriro program, the economists Zeitlin and McIntosh write:

We uncover little evidence that directly confirms the program’s theory of change in driving primary child outcomes…No consistent impacts appear for consumption and wealth outcomes, or for health knowledge and sanitation practices.

In plain language, that means that the $19m allocated to the five-year Gikuriro program is mostly going to waste.

The equivalent amount of cash, distributed by nonprofit GiveDirectly, didn’t do any better in terms of improving the nutrition or health of children. It did help families drive down debt, which is no small thing. The Gikuriro program helped people save more money, through village savings groups.

But Zeitlin told me: “Spending $140 per household, over the course of a year, no matter how you do it, doesn’t seem to move the needle on the primary outcomes.”

Things got a lot more interesting when the economists looked at the impact of a payment of about $530 per household, an amount chosen by GiveDirectly, based on their best estimate of how much money it would take to improve people’s lives. In Rwanda, where per capita GDP is about $700, that’s a lot of money.

The study found that the larger transfer improved children’s diet, height and weight and even decreased child mortality.

In an essay in The Atlantic, Michael Faye and Paul Niehaus, the co-founders of GiveDirectly, write:

Households increased their productive assets by 76 percent, saved 60 percent more, and were able to consume 32 percent more than in the past. They were able to buy more varied food for their families. Children in these households were taller, weighed more, and were less likely to die early.

As it happens, the $530 per family cost is less than what USAID spends on some other nutrition and sanitation programs in Africa, according to Zeitlin and McIntosh. So it’s not an outrageous amount to spend to prevent malnutrition or stunting.

In a summary of their findings for the Innovations for Poverty Action, a nonprofit research group, the economists write:

Particularly in places where families’ inability to afford a nutritious diet is a major factor in malnutrition, unconditional cash transfers may play a quick and effective role in improving children’s nutritional status during a critical window of development.

But….what about scale! So long as no one is measuring impact — and most of the time, no one is — the incentive at agencies like USAID and among nonprofits is to “serve” as many people as possible. Nonprofits report on how many people they trained for jobs, how many textbooks they gave out or how many chickens they gave away, none of which says anything about whether people’s lives improved.

Last spring, for example, when I visited Rwanda to report this story, a Catholic Relief Services official gave me a report saying that the Gikuriro program had served 37,887 households, resulted in the construction of 14,854 improved latrines and provided 6,388 farmers with small livestock. But if the point of all that activity was to improve child nutrition and health, it does not seem to have done much.

“Obviously scale is good, but if it is coming at the expense of impact per person, it’s something we ought to rethink,” GiveDirectly’s Paul Niehaus told me. “Setting aside the issue of cash, the question of how much we’re spending per person in any program is one the things we’re taking away from the study.”

There’s lots more to say about all this. You can read a summary of the study, a blogpost from Zeitlin and McIntosh, this story from Dylan Matthews in Vox and these thoughts from Sarah Rose and Amanda Glassman of the Center for Global Development. A second study, already underway in Rwanda, will compare a youth workforce training program to cash; plans call for programs in Malawi, Liberia and the DRC to be evaluated rigorously as well. Kudos to USAID, GiveDirectly, Catholic Relief Services, google.org (which helped financed the research), Innovations for Poverty Action and economists Zeitlin and McIntosh for moving this important work forward.

12400476_10154467401849167_7487591190023249242_nFive years ago, a young foreign service officer named Daniel Handel arrived in Kigali, Rwanda, to begin a new assignment with USAID. Listening to NPR online, Handel heard a Planet Money story about the nonprofit GiveDirectly, called “The Charity That Just Gives People Money.” In the story, Paul Niehaus, a founder of GiveDirectly, which delivers cash transfers to the extreme poor, says: “We would like to see organizations make the case that they think they can do more good for the poor with a dollar than the poor could do for themselves.”

Handel, a development economist, was intrigued, He wondered whether USAID’s work in Rwanda and elsewhere could be compared to simply giving poor people cash. Would conventional aid projects to help the world’s poor — by giving them livestock, textbooks, toilets, job training or fertilizer — do as much good as simply giving them money and letting them decide how to spend it?

Perhaps surprisingly, given the lumbering USAID bureaucracy, we are about to find out, as I explain in a guest column published today in The New York Times.

Here’s how it begins:

In Matinza, a village in eastern Rwanda, Esther Nyirabazungu, a 63-year-old widow, lives with her son, daughter and two grandchildren in a hut with a dirt floor and no electricity or running water. Her life is hard, but not as hard as it was before she received six monthly cash donations worth about $100 each, with no strings attached, from a United States government trial program.

Her family had been malnourished, so Ms. Nyirabazungu first bought corn, soybeans, sorghum and a small amount of beef with her newfound funds. Then she purchased four goats, which cost between $28 and $46 each, and two chickens, which cost about $5 apiece. The goats had babies, which she now sells for cash to buy more food.

“The life I was living before and the life I am living now are very different,” she told me when I visited. “My kids are now eating eggs. They now eat meat. We were sleeping on the floor. Now we have a mattress.”

Ms. Niyabuzungu is more than a grateful air recipient. She’s one of thousands of data points in a groundbreaking series of independent evaluations that will benchmark existing USAID projects against cash.

This is a big deal, for several reasons. First, it is apparently unprecedented for USAID to simply give money to the poor, even though cash transfers are one of the most studied forms of development assistance. [See this excellent analysis of cash transfers by Dylan Matthews that ran just the other day on Vox.]. Giving away cash is controversial. As best as I can tell, USAID executives are worried, perhaps with reason, about how Congress or the White House will react as news of the cash giveaways gets out. When I first heard about the cash benchmarking initiative last year, I struggled to get the USAID PR folkd even to acknowledge its existence. (Not a word about the program appears on the USAID website, despite the agency’s supposed commitment to transparency.) When I began asking questions, a nonprofit research organization called Innovations for Poverty Action, which is working with USAID, took down a page on its website that previously had described the cash benchmarking work.

Second, and more important, USAID generally does a poor job of measuring the impact of its programs, experts tell me. In my story, Amanda Glassman of the Center for Global Development is quoted as saying that “most [USAID] programs and policies are not being evaluated rigorously.” Typically, the agency counts and monitors outputs: On the “results” page on its website, USAID says it has enabled 23m children to enroll in primary schools and it has reached another 21m children with “nutrition-specific interventions.” But are those children learning? Are they healthier? Who knows? The new cash benchmarking initiative will subject five USAID projects in Africa to randomized controlled trials designed by independent economists to measure how lives have been changed. As the results are released, we’ll learn more about which USAID projects are worth the money being spent on them, and which are not.

The stakes are high. Hundreds of companies and nonprofits live off grants from USAID, which spent about $13bn last year. Learning more about impact could shift dollars away from failing efforts and towards those that make a real difference.

“That’s why I think this is exciting,” Handel said. “It is really trying to help us try to maximize the efficiency of our programming.”

Handel and his allies at USAID deserve credit for shepherding the cash benchmarking work through the agency. GiveDirectly’s Paul Niehaus told me: “They work under real constraints. They should get praised for doing the right thing, testing and learning.”

The results from first cash benchmarking study, which was carried out last year in Rwanda, should be available any day now. My trip to Rwanda to report this story was made possible by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.