Caroline Fiennes is slated to be the keynote speaker at Foundation Beyond Belief's upcoming first ever national conference. To pique your interest, we asked her a few questions.


SW: What is your giving and nonprofit background?

CF: I was brought up in a family which was always involved in volunteering and the community, so always thought that I’d work in it someday. My big passion was physics, which I studied, and clearly that’s very empirical and analytical: that led me into strategy consulting which is full of analysis, and eventually I decided to apply those skills to charity and philanthropy.

SW: Why is evidence-based giving so important?  How is this different from other giving?

CF: Because you make much more difference that way!

We tend to think that all charities are good, but it turns out that some are much better than others. I’m not talking about their administrative cost, but rather what they achieve. For example, it seems intuitively obvious that if children in school in, say, India have no text-books, then it’d be a good idea to provide more books. Plenty of donors and charities do that. But it turns out that sometimes that has no effect at all: mainly because the text-books are written only for the top ~5% of children so the rest can’t understand them anyway. A better use of your money might be designing new books.

That’s one of the things that physics really teaches: that intuition is a rubbish guide to reality!

Most giving is based on intuition. Actually the biggest driver of whether somebody gives is simply whether they’re asked – by a friend, a flyer through the door, or a fundraiser in the street

Evidence-based giving is different from that because it’s more deliberative: it starts with the goal in mind and seeks how to maximise the difference which can be made with the resources available.


SW: What trends are you seeing in giving?  In evidence-based giving?

CF: People do seem to be increasingly interested in evidence-based giving. The evidence for that(!) includes that the amount influenced by GiveWell (a US-based charity evaluator) are rising, and the growth in groups such as Giving What We Can and 80,000 Hours which encourage members to give in a way which maximises the difference they create.

It’s still small compared to gala dinners, marathon running and so on, but that’s fine because it’s a relatively recent development.


SW:  Why should giving be an important part of the secular/atheist/humanist community and ethos?

CF: Most people see something in the world which they’d like to change. Maybe it’s less child slavery, or better treatment of animals, or faster medical research, or better museums. ‘Giving’ in its broadest sense is one opportunity to achieve that. I put that in quotes because I’m including not just giving money, but also giving time, getting involved, and doing things: for example, if you organise a beach clean-up or get 50 people to sign a petition, that’s also advancing a cause that you care about.


SW: How can atheist and humanists become more visible givers without seeming to crave praise and attention?

CF: Well, a useful contribution which anybody can make is to be public about what they’re doing and why. For example, write a blog post explaining your choice of cause and your choice of charities or other organisations to support. Toby Ord, who founded Giving What We Can, for example does that. I don’t think he’s asking for plaudits but rather showing and normalising a more deliberative approach to giving.

SW:  What inspires you?  What inspires you to give?

CF: The opportunity cost, I guess, is what inspires me: the gap between what could be achieved and what is achieved. All those people who miss out because donors make the wrong call: backing the wrong causes or organisations, when better ones are available. In the earlier example, the children who miss out on good education because somebody funds more of the same unhelpful text-books, when they could have found out that those don’t work and funded something which does work. My book is dedicated to those people, and trying to eliminate that avoidable hardship and errors is what drives me.

SW:  What are some of the challenges ahead for evidenced-based giving?

CF: There are loads! First, we’ve got to get more evidence about what works & what doesn’t: a lot more. Then we’ve got to get more evidence about the effectiveness of different ways of giving, e.g, should you attach ‘restrictions’ to your funding, or should big funders sit on the boards of charities they fund? We don’t really know yet. Thirdly, we have much more to do to raise awareness that donors’ choices really matter: so that people want to give based on decent evidence. And fourth, we need to make it easy for people to find the evidence and understand it, because currently it’s hard to find even the little evidence which there is.

So we have our work cut-out! Giving Evidence’s ‘game-plan’ is around those four pillars. Other people and organisations work on various parts of the puzzle and we work with lots of them, but there’s still much to do.

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