Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about foundations, nonprofits and their impact

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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.

3 thoughts on “Journalism about changing the world, effectively

  1. Kevin Watkinson says:

    I have my doubts over whether Vox coverage will be particularly objective, particularly in relation to animal welfare. The Guardian sponsored articles mostly (or all) appear to frame the issue of animal suffering within the preferred perspective of Open Philanthropy. That is there are some egregious harms committed to other animals within the system of animal farming but these issues can be solved through “ethical” exploitation rather than non-exploitation.

    Overall though “effective animal advocacy” is ideologically driven by Singer’s pragmatism, which is in my view a reflection of the issues Anand Giridharadas raises in “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World”. For instance, a quick look at the ACE top and standout charities suggests that all of their top picks and all but one standout pick could be considered MarketWorld aligned (the only exception is the NonHuman Rights Project which operates outside of the general advocacy arena). Effective altruism recommends a blend of veg advocacy and a narrow form of welfarism whilst marginalising other forms of advocacy either through ignoring them (simply funding that which is aligned with preferred ideology) or actively undermining them through organisations such as the Centre for Effective Vegan Advocacy (backed by the Greenbaum Foundation).

    If Holden Karnofsky or effective altruism were to generally be interested in a diverse range of value aligned opinions and approaches then they would fund a wider range of organisations / give them more money than they already do, whilst challenging the ideological leanings of “mainstream” effective altruism, this is the case under uncertainty, and yet uncertainty hasn’t led to supporting many organisations which would challenge a standardised EAA identity. This is partly because it conflicts with the EA notion of the trust network and expertise, most of which seems to have been derived from organisational leaders such as Cooney, Shapiro, Friedrich, Ball, Pacelle (backed by Singer) who dominated the animal movement with a focus on financial rewards (and win wins) rather than issues of justice. This appears to inform the “pragmatic” ideology of effective animal advocacy / welfarism and the broader donor network of Open Philanthropy, ACE, Tofurky, Greenbaum, Dr. Bronner’s for instance.

    Were Vox to explore foundational issues in some detail, particularly in relation to Animal Charity Evaluators, the Open Philanthropy Animal Welfare Programme and CEA backed EA Funds then i think that would be encouraging in relation to how EA principles are applied, and yet i also find it unlikely they would choose to do so.

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    1. Marc Gunther says:

      Very thoughtful comment, thanks. I agree that these issues deserve attention.

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  2. Meredith Moore says:

    Marc – Keep the skeptic in you alive and well tended. It is what makes your coverage more valuable. We can count on you for open-eyed analysis and exploration that is unfailingly enlightening and interesting, and often motivating.

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