Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about foundations, nonprofits and their impact


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, (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.

buy-cash-coins-9660Culture trumps strategy, it’s often said in business. At companies and nonprofits alike, culture can be defined as “the way we do things around here.” It’s tough to change culture.

Culture helps explain the way that most foundations invest their endowments. The way they do things — the way they’ve always done things — is to turn to investment consultants, stock pickers and, more recently, venture capitalists, hedge funds and private equity funds, all in an effort to outperform the markets as a whole. It’s an approach that has been failing for about a decade, and yet they go on, shipping large sums of dollars off to Wall Street money managers that could be devoted to curing disease, fighting poverty, improving education, supporting the arts and the like.

The disappointing performance of foundations endowments has been a frequent topic of this blog, here and here and here. My story in the new issue of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, headlined Billions Squandered, has more to say. The key takeaway:

Nearly three out of four U.S. foundations underperformed the global markets for stocks and bonds during the five-year period ending in 2016, according to Foundation Financial Research [a company that has compiled a database of foundation endowment returns].

Foundations manage about $850 billion in assets. Those that fail to match market returns are missing the opportunity to earn billions of dollars each year.

Of all the activities foundations engage in, the investment performance of their endowments may be the least scrutinized–in part because most foundations decline to disclose their returns. But it’s one of the most important things that foundations do, and lately they have not been doing it well. Continue reading


Again and again, Americans have been told to eat less meat, or to stop eating meat altogether. The message has been delivered by doctors at the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society and the Mayo Clinic, by environmentalists at the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, by Paul McCartney, Food Inc and Michael Pollan’s Food Rules and, of course, by animal protection groups ranging from PETA and The Humane Society of the US to The Humane League and Vegan Outreach.

Is anybody listening?

New research from Gallup indicates that the number of Americans who identify as vegetarians or vegans has remained flat for two decades. The percentage of vegetarians and vegans has been stuck at about 5 or 6 percent since 1999.

Nor are Americans consuming any less meat, it seems. To the contrary, per-capita consumption of cows, pigs and chickens is expected to reach record levels this year, the USDA says.

For anyone who cares about farm animals, this is discouraging news. It is, arguably, a sign that animal advocacy is failing, although we can’t know for sure. Without animal advocacy, meat consumption might be growing even faster.

In any event, the rise in meat consumption is a reminder that we don’t know as much as we should about animal advocacy and, for that matter, advocacy of all kinds. What messages persuade people to change their minds about eating meat–or about climate change, immigration, gay marriage or global poverty? How can advocacy become more effective? Not enough people in the worlds of philanthropy, nonprofits or social justice are thinking systemically about these questions. Continue reading


A training session for would-be chicken farmers in Rwanda. Photo by Emily Urban.

There’s not enough critical reporting about philanthropy.  It can feel churlish and even uncharitable to find fault with those who seek to serve others, particularly when they do so with a big heart and the best intentions. The trouble is, as the poet Robert Burns observed in To a Mouse:

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
          Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
          For promis’d joy!

Such, I regret to say, could be the fate of a project called Tworore Inkoko Twunguke, which means “Let’s raise chickens and make a profit” in Kinyarwanda, the national language of Rwanda. The $2-million project is the brainchild of Donnie Smith, the former chief executive of Tyson Foods, and it is being funded by the Africa Sustainable Agriculture Project, Smith’s family foundation, and by USAID.

My story about the project has just been published by The Salt, NPR’s website about food. It describes the project as

a textbook example of what can go awry when experts arrive in a distant place with good intentions and a solid understanding of what works in the U.S., but without much grounding in a local economy or culture. Rwandan farmers, for example, are more likely to own goats than poultry, so they had to be taught to raise chickens. (Many had never eaten chicken.) More important, this small, landlocked central African nation lacks the physical and economic infrastructure needed to support a modern chicken industry. So it’s hard to see how the farmers will be able to raise chickens for profit once aid money goes away.

What’s more, the entire undertaking is expensive — it will cost more than $2,300 per farmer, assuming that the target of reaching 750 farm families can be met. Nearly halfway through its three-year lifespan, the project has signed up about 170 farmers.

The story is the first of several that I researched during a 10-day visit to Rwanda in April and May. All the stories are designed to explore the effectiveness of philanthropic and government-funded efforts to alleviate poverty. While it’s impossible during such a short trip to reach definitive conclusions about what works and what does not, my hope, at the very least, has been to learn more about how foreign aid and philanthropic projects are evaluated. What do we know about alleviating poverty and how to do we know it? My travel expenses were kindly funded by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.

Back to chickens: The Rwanda project has so far managed to train farmers to raise backyard chickens, about 100 per flock, which doesn’t take a whole lot of time and so can be carried out alongside whatever else the farmers are doing to generate income or food for their families. Rwanda’s temperate climate is well suited to chicken farming, and farmers seem to have embraced the project. So long as USAID and Donnie Smith’s foundation are involved–this is a three-year project, but it could be renewed–the farmers will be guaranteed a market for the chickens. That’s the good news.

The difficulty is, Rwanda lacks both a reliable supply chain for broiler chickens and robust markets where they can be sold. Currently, the eggs of a fast-growing, super-efficient breed of chicken known as the Cobb 500 are flown in from Europe. (Whether so-called improved breeds make happy chickens is a different question. See my 2016 blogpost, The next frontier for the animal-welfare movement? Broiler chickens.) To provide high-quality feed for the chickens, Smith’s foundation built a feed mill that also functions as the hub of the USAID project. Selling the chickens has been a challenge. It’s hard, for the moment, to see how this project will survive on its own.

USAID isn’t known for doing rigorous evaluations, and this project is no exception. The agency commissioned a baseline survey to measure the income and nutrition of the farmers, and it will do another survey after the project ends. Those studies will provide insight into the immediate impact of the project, which is important, but they won’t tell us much about its sustainability or, importantly, about whether the aid money could have been better spent.

That’s a fundamental question about any philanthropy or government aid. It’s also the reason why we need more than good intentions. With limited money available to help the global poor, governments and NGOs need to spend what resources they have as wisely as they can. One option, always, is to give money to extremely poor people and let them decide how to spend it. That’s what GiveDirectly does, and why it remains my favorite charity. I’ll take a look at their work in Rwanda in an upcoming story.

All that said, I hope Donnie Smith and his partners at the University of Tennessee, who are implementing the chickens project, find ways to overcome the obstacles they face. Poverty in rural Africa is worse than most people imagine. (I’ll always remember meeting a mother with a newborn baby who lives in a home with no electricity or running water. Take a moment to contemplate the future awaiting that child.) Smith could be enjoying a comfortable retirement, after working for 30 years at Tyson, and instead he’s putting his time and money into helping some of the neediest people in the world. That’s commendable. By email, after the story ran, he told me: “Truly great accomplishments are rarely achieved when there is a clear line of sight to success.” He’s in this for the long haul, and so I hope to take another look at the Tworore Inkoko Twunguke project in a couple of years to see how it’s going.

You can read the rest of my story here.


Wayne Pacelle, in happier times. Photo credit: TedX Manhattan

Well, that didn’t take long.

Less than six months after stepping down as CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, Wayne Pacelle is returning to the animal welfare movement, this time as a part of a political action committee called Animal Wellness Action.

Pacelle left the Humane Society (HSUS) in February under a cloud, as a flurry of accusations of sexual harassment led to revolts among donors and staff–although he retained the support of a majority of the HSUS board until the very end.

The new political action committee, which was registered in May by David Harvilicz, a lawyer and entrepreneur, is affiliated with a small nonprofit called the Animal Wellness Foundation, whose president is his wife sister, Dr. Annie Harvilicz. Dr. Harvilicz is the founder and chief medical officer of a veterinary clinic and pet care company called Animal Wellness Centers, based in Los Angeles. Marty Irby, a former executive at the Humane Society who oversaw its equine protection and rural outreach departments, is the PAC’s executive director.

What Pacelle will do at the PAC could not be determined. Efforts to reach David and Annie Harvilicz and Marty Irby via email, text and Twitter proved fruitless. The Humane Society, in a memo to its staff, said it had confirmed Pacelle’s involvement with Animal Wellness Action.

Before and after leaving HSUS, Pacelle said he did not harass women at the nonprofit. He has declined to address any allegations in detail.

“I absolutely deny any suggestion that I did anything untoward,” Pacelle told The Washington Post, days before stepping down.

His comeback is resurfacing old questions about how the board of HSUS handled the charges against him, while raising new ones about how HSUS intends to work with Pacelle in the future. With revenues of $230m last year, HSUS is the US’s leading advocacy group for animals. Continue reading


Emmett Carson, formerly of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation (Photo credit:The Chronicle of Philanthropy)

Emmett Carson’s reign atop the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, the US’s biggest community foundation, came to an end today. The foundation’s board, which hired a law firm to investigate allegations of workplace bullying and misconduct, said that the “SVCF clearly failed to provide a safe and inclusive workplace environment for its employees.”

“The unacceptable workplace behavior that took place at SVCF…should never have happened and there is no excuse for it,” the board said. “We are deeply sorry to our entire community, especially our past and present employees.”

The board said Carson would “end his employment with SVCF after more than a decade of service.” It’s all but certain that he was forced out.

For his part, Carson issued a statement touting his accomplishments and taking no responsibility for the troubled workplace culture that led to his stunning downfall.

“After 34 years of philanthropic leadership and scholarship,” Carson wrote, “I look forward to taking a much needed respite before resuming a career that has been dedicated to championing social justice issues and creating an equitable society for all.”

This is, at best, tone-deaf.

With $13.5bn in assets, most of it in donor-advised funds, the SVCF has become a favorite place for Silicon Valley’s wealthy to park their charitable donations before disbursing them. Its donors include Facebook billionaires Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, and Dustin Moskovitz and his wife, Cari Tuna, as well as founders of WhatsApp, GoPro and Netflix. It was Loijens’ ability to bring in the big donors that endeared her to Carson.

The back story to today’s events, in brief: Carson was placed on a paid leave of absence in April after The Chronicle of Philanthropy published a long story, reported by this blogger with help from Megan O’Neil of The Chronicle, which accused the  SVCF’s top fundraiser, Mari Ellen Loijens, of “engaging in emotionally abusive and sexually inappropriate behavior.” Former SVCF employees used words like  “toxic” and “terrible” to describe her conduct, and told us that she “demeaned and bullied her staff, made lewd comments in the workplace, and on at least one occasion sought to kiss a woman working for her.” Loijens resigned the next day.

Carson knew about her conduct, and tolerated it, ex-staffers said. But he ducked responsibility. He declined to be interviewed, and instead took to Twitter to defend himself. In a letter to donors, Carson wrote: “We investigate all claims of misconduct and take appropriate action to remedy the situation….the claims of sexual harassment were new to us.” This simply wasn’t true, former employees said.

Their allegations were confirmed today by the board, which released a 13-page summary of an investigation that the board had commissioned from the Boies Schiller Flexner law firm. Carson previously had commissioned a report from another law firm, Thompson Hine, but it focused on Loijens and, in retrospect, it appears to have been designed to let him off the hook. Boies Shiller Flexner conducted 82 interviews, primarily of current and former employees, and it reviewed 45 memoranda describing interviews by Thompson Hine.

Some excerpts from the Boies Shiller Flexner report:

BSF’s investigation was prompted in part by specific allegations of workplace misconduct at SVCF, including racial and sexual comments, some of which were published in the media. BSF’s investigation substantiated multiple allegations made in the public news reports. In the course of our investigation, BSF was also alerted to other specific allegations of misconduct engaged in by certain former SVCF executives, including racial and sexual comments, and other inappropriate comments and workplace behavior (such as berating and bullying), which have not been reported publicly but which are credible and have been substantiated through interviews and/or documents.

Translation: the workplace culture was even worse than has been reported.


BSF’s investigation found that there were certain widespread workplace culture issues at SVCF, including a fear of speaking out or reporting workplace issues out of concern for retaliation, as well as a distrust of HR leadership. The top-down, “command-and-control” management style of SVCF’s former CEO and former senior development executive contributed to this environment.

This confirms what we heard: That Carson had no interest in listening to complaints about Loijens.

Wait. It gets worse:

There were other workplace culture issues at SVCF that were not as widespread, but that were serious and affected many employees. These included sexual, racial, crude, and otherwise inappropriate remarks and conduct that became “normalized” within certain divisions, as well as public shaming and bullying behavior exhibited at times by certain former SVCF executives. Unacceptable behavior by certain former SVCF executives was often inadequately addressed or overlooked…Employees were left with the impression that if they did not like the workplace culture, they were free to “get off the bus.”


Without citing Carson by name, the report says that his push for growth made matters worse. It says that employees

described a “results at all costs” attitude that impaired the work environment. In the case of at least one former SVCF executive, this meant that unacceptable workplace behavior was overlooked when that employee was achieving good results. Other times, it meant that the growth of the organization took precedence over the well-being of staff members who often worked long hours to maintain SVCF’s commitment to excellence and keep up with the organization’s growth. Regardless of how it manifested itself, this attitude—without proper checks—harmed workplace morale and helped contribute to an unhealthy work environment.

And where was the board? The report says:

Our investigation also revealed that the full nature, gravity, and extent of workplace concerns were concealed from the Board. With respect to the specific allegations of misconduct engaged in by certain former SVCF executives, our investigation concludes that the Board did not have knowledge about such behavior. With respect to the broader topic of an unhealthy workplace culture, our investigation reveals that the information presented to the Board by former SVCF executives in response to the Board’s requests for information was often incomplete and in some cases was presented in a manner that was misleading.

This is a further indictment of Carson, but it is not an exoneration of the board. Insiders tell me that Carson ran board meetings in an imperious manner, brushing off questions and criticisms. This should have been a tipoff  to the board that something was awry at the SVCF, and they should have pressed for more information. A good deal of the story was public, via these devastating comments on Glassdoor. The board is now doing all the right and predictable things–hiring consultants, putting clear reporting practices in place, and enforcing a “zero tolerance policy on retaliation,” exit interviews, etc.–but it could and should have been more vigilant.

In his statement, Carson accentuated the positive, describing his philanthropy as “visionary and disruptive,” before offering the very mildest of apologies:

We embraced change, took risks, believed that disruption could be a force for good, tackled seemingly impossible and intractable problems, and harnessed the creativity of Silicon Valley to go after audacious goals.

Recent events have brought to light that in the pursuit of these ambitious goals, some staff felt they were not sufficiently heard. Others felt that they could not trust that they could rely on the multiple systems in place, including an anonymous hotline, to report complaints or concerns and have them fully and fairly addressed.  I am sorry that this occurred and regret any role that I may have played in contributing to these feelings.

There’s something unsatisfying about this conclusion, several former staffers told me today. The board would not say that it fired Carson. It paid him for nearly two months — his annual salary is close to $1m — rather than put him on unpaid leave. The board did not say whether he had been given a severance payment as part of a settlement.

I’ll give the last word to Helen Dannelly, who worked at the SVCF more than a decade ago. By email, she told me:

This story made headlines because of the enormity of money under management at this organization, but the story to those of us affected by it was always about workplace bullying and harassment. Bullying occurs because people look the other way. It happens in grade school, it happens in the workplace, it’s happening at the highest levels of our government right now.

I’m very glad this chapter at Silicon Valley Community Foundation is so far behind me. I’m just so sorry that employees who followed me over the past ten years suffered the same abhorrent treatment.