The Lazy Funder’s Guide to High-Yield Philanthropy

Six ways to do more with less.


This article was originally published by Stanford Social Innovation Review on April 5th, 2016 with the headline: The Lazy Funder’s Guide to High-Yield Philanthropy

Somebody once said that if you want to find the most efficient way to do something, you should find a lazy man to do it.

I have shouldered that burden at Mulago. Everyone else around here is decidedly not lazy, so I’ve had to go it alone. Lazy or not, though, we all share an obsession with squeezing the most impact we can out of the money we spend. We’re constantly thinking about new ways to find the best stuff and forever tinkering with systems to streamline the funding process.

We do a lot with a small team and we maintain a high standard. I wish I could say that it’s a combination of brilliant systems and preternatural instincts, but the truth is that it’s mostly about sticking to a set of core practices that have evolved over time. The good news is that these same practices are available to anyone looking for the optimal impact-to-effort ratio:

1. Figure out exactly what you’re looking for—and act.

It stands to reason that if you know exactly what you’re looking for, you’re more likely to find it, and with less effort. We, for example, look for organizations that:

  1. Tackle a basic need of the very poor,
  2. Have a scalable idea, and
  3. Have the capacity to deliver.

We have tight definitions for what we mean by each of those, and we can explain to someone exactly why they are or are not a fit. That means we can cull fast and focus our efforts on the high-potential stuff.

Dithering is actually a lot of work. Don’t. Do your homework, and take your best shot. You’ll get it wrong sometimes, but you probably would have anyway. Put in smart milestones, limit your initial investment to a year, and the worst that can happen is that you pay some well-intentioned-but-not-that-effective people’s salaries for a few months.

2. Don’t take proposals.

Proposals are a hassle to write, an ordeal to read, and still don’t give us what we need. At Mulago, we’re looking for very specific information, and we can get it much more efficiently—and enjoyably—with a smart one-pager and an hour on the phone. RFPs and application processes waste too much time for too many people, while generating huge piles of turgid stuff nobody really wants to read. While they occasionally unearth hidden gems (and a few, such as Unorthodox Philanthropy, have a low-hassle process), it’s way more efficient for us to find stuff through our network of doer and funder friends. If you don’t have a great network yet, find funders who do and shamelessly plunder their portfolios.

3. Give unrestricted funding.

We fund organizations, not projects, and we operate on the principle that if you don’t trust them to make best use of the money, then you shouldn’t give them any. It requires more effort up front to get to know the people and their systems, but it saves a lot of time poring over minutiae, and that extra effort pays off big as you continue to work together. Besides, unrestricted funding leverages the funding of less efficient funders, is much more valuable to the organization, and creates a healthier dynamic between doer and donor. It seems to be philanthropy’s best-kept secret. I don’t know why everybody doesn’t do it.

4. When it’s working, keep funding.

Unnecessary churn is a huge amount of work for all involved. Continued funding in response to growing impact saves huge amounts of time—time better spent helping out those already in your portfolio or indulging your vices. Come up with good performance milestones (as thoughtfully simple as possible), check in regularly, and bail only when dictated by a lack of progress or impact. You may have to lay off a couple of people.

5. Only fund organizations that measure (the right) stuff well.

I really hate to argue with good, dedicated people about the impact of their work. It wastes time, drains energy, and generally leaves me depressed. Organizations that measure the right things with smart systems—driven by genuine curiosity and a desire to iterate—are a joy to work with. They also save the lazy, impact-minded funder gobs of time and effort. We can’t measure impact ourselves, and it is an expensive hassle to continually bring in third parties to measure stuff for them. Sure, it’s important to do a big randomized control trial (RCT) when it’s needed and justified, but we recognize we’re fundamentally dependent on solid organizations measuring their own impact well. If we had to choose between a) an expensive RCT now and then, or b) continual measurement that is less rigorous, but integrated into operations and used for continuous iteration, we’d choose the latter; we’d rather have a movie than a snapshot. We’re really happy when we can get both.

6. Get out in the field.

Sounds like a lot of effort, right? Yes, but remember that this is about strategic laziness: A little hustle is permissible if it leads to greater efficiencies and a net saving of time and effort. Spending time on site is the best way to understand the context of the work, understand the model, analyze the organization’s systems, and—most important—get know the team. (This game is really about the people—good teams rarely have terrible ideas, and lousy operators can mangle even the best ones.) You can learn more in a couple of well-conceived days in the field than you can with an endless ping-pong game of emails, documents, and crackly Skype calls. And when you see enough stuff, you start to recognize patterns and develop good instincts. Besides, it’s fun.

That’s it. Now you too can luxuriate in a heady mix of sloth and high standards. At the very least you’ll get out of the way of progress. And if you find time hanging heavy on your hands, call me: Chances are there’ll be some decent surf, and every Wednesday night is Bad Movie Night.