My Senior Thesis: How Can Great Charities Raise More Money?

Update: Charity Science, an organization whose work I admire, has added my thesis to their page on charitable giving research. I highly recommend their site for more information on the topics discussed here.

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After months of work, I’ve finally finished my thesis:

Charitable Fundraising and Smart Giving: How can charities use behavioral science to drive donations?

It’s a very long paper, and you probably shouldn’t read the whole thing. I conducted my final round of editing over the course of 38 hours in late April, during which I did not sleep. It’s kind of a slog.

Here’s a PDF of the five pages where I summarize everything I learned and make recommendations to charities:

The Part of the Thesis You Should Actually Read


In the rest of this post, I’ve explained my motivation for actually writing this thing, and squeezed my key findings into a pair of summaries: One that’s a hundred words long, one that’s quite a bit longer.

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Life in the Slums of Liberia

I try to use raw statistics to get a sense of what life is like in other places. This helps me avoid the selective nature of stories, though stories have their place after the numbers are in.

Here, a startling overview from Chris Blattman et al, in a survey of young Liberian men thought to be engaged in criminal behavior:

“On average the men were age 25, had nearly eight years of schooling, earned about $40 in the past month working 46 hours per week (mainly in low skill labor and illicit work), and had $34 saved. 38% were members of an armed group during the two civil wars that ravaged the country between 1989 and 2003. 20% reported selling drugs, 44% reported daily marijuana use, 15% reported daily use of hard drugs, 53% reported stealing something in the past two weeks, and 24% reported they were homeless.”

Measuring the Measurement Error: A Method to Qualitatively Validate Sensitive Survey Data

The entire paper is worth reading, and quite readable. Turns out that people are very honest in answering survey questions about “sensitive” behaviors when those behaviors are the norm within their social groups.

(The paper also provides a good lens for looking at cash transfers. In the hands of a man with $34 in the bank, who earns $40 a month, $500 might be enough to prevent multiple acts of theft or purchase a stable home. On the other hand, I’d guess that these men are more likely to spend some of the money on hard drugs than are families in rural villages.)

Belated Philanthropy

I’m trying to add more short posts to the blog, for fleeting thoughts that don’t warrant a manifesto. Short posts won’t be comprehensive, and they won’t bristle with defensive measures against potential criticism, but if you see something you don’t like, let me know. I like writing follow-up posts, and I’ll try to change my mind if you’re correct. (No promises.)


I live in a city where homelessness is common, though I wouldn’t say “pervasive”. In a given week, I’ll encounter two or three people who ask me for money.

If I gave a dollar each time someone asked, I’d be out $40 or $50 by semester’s end. I could afford this; I spend that much on myself in a week or two.

Still, I’m reluctant to give to street solicitors, for the usual reasons: I’m not sure where the money will go, I’m wary of being asked immediately for more money (as often happens), and I believe that there are better forms of charity, both to help the homeless of New Haven and to help humanity.

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