Impact Journeys

The simple path to impact

Published on
2017-08-01
Written by
Ben Medlock
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"Quite a lot of philanthropy still relies on guesswork or gut feeling, and I didn’t want to perpetuate that."

I approached my donation with an entrepreneurial mindset: looking for the area where I could make the biggest difference, and then for the most promising strategy within it. I believe in using data to make decisions (it’s what’s guided me in both my business and in academia), and I wanted to take a similar approach to my philanthropy. The Founders Pledge team was there at every stage to support with their expertise and research when I needed it.

Why I chose malaria prevention

My personal aim was to maximise the impact I could have with my donation, so the first step was to decide on the problem, or cause area, where I could do the most good. To decide, I used a framework common in charity evaluation: Importance, Tractability, and Neglectedness.

Importance

This one is pretty self-explantory - I wanted to help focus on an urgent problem. Malaria is a life-threatening illness that affect children and pregnant women worst. It also reinforces existing cycles of poverty, malnutrition and undereducation, impacting much more than just health. The World Health Organisation estimates there were 212 million cases of malaria in 2015 alone, and 429,000 deaths.

Tractability

This means that I wanted my a good chance of success in relieving the problem. There are of course many other incredibly pressing problems in the world, but Malaria is one where effective interventions are already known - they’re just not being implemented fast enoguh. I think a lot of people underestimate how difficult it actually is to make sure philanthropy is doing good. I chose Malaria because it’s not only very preventable, but we also know of extremely effective solutions.

Neglectedness

Neglectedness is perhaps a more unexpevcted factor to prioritise, but one that will make sense to any entrepreneur reading: The less attention a problem receives relative to it’s scale, the less likely it is that the best solutions have already been funded by someone else. This means that incredible solutions may be underfunded, and your counterfactual impact is higher. Because Malaria is such a well-known problem, it may seem like it’s already ‘being covered', but the data tells a different story: in 2015, the World Health Organisation estimated that 43% of people at risk in sub-Saharan Africa had no protection. Overall, Malaria funding was at less than half of the funding goal for 2020.

Finding the right organisation

There are many of strategies for preventing malaria, but the evidence points to one that is especially successful, though deceivingly low-tech: effective distribution of insecticide-treated mosquito nets. Top-rated charity Against Malaria Foundation was not only that most effective at delivering this intervention according to experts, they also demostrate all the qualities I could ask for in any organisation (whether in the social or private sector):

They're effective and efficient

Their nets are bought, distributed and monitored for only $5 each (charity evaluator GiveWell’s estimate). In terms of how many lives you can save per dollar spent, this is better than any other charity I’ve seen - not just in malaria prevention, but charity as a whole.

They’re transparent

All their information is available online, and you can track their distribution through videos, images and maps. 100% of public donations are spent on their actual programs.

They’re data-driven

They have really impressive processes in place for distribution, and for monitoring the long term use and impact of the nets. As an entrepreneur, I’ve really come to appreciate the importance of these things.

Their model is scalable

With plenty of room for more funding, and concrete plans for how to scale, I knew AMF would be spend my donation productively. (Givewell also does estimations on this.)

Seeking certainty in a complex sector

A fair bit of philanthropy still relies on guesswork or gut feeling, and I didn’t want to perpetuate that. I wanted to know for sure that my donation would make a real difference, and I wanted to maximise its impact to do even more for the people I sought to help.
I know that coming to grips with the sector can seem daunting, especially when you’re approaching it with limited prior knowledge of these issues, but I found Founders Pledge’s support made the process much simpler. Because I gave to AMF, I now know that my donation alone has provided 66,300 bed nets, and protected 240 villages. That knowledge alone has made the experience so much more rewarding.

-- Ben.

Ben Medlock

Author

As co-founder and CTO of SwiftKey, Ben Medlock invented the intelligent keyboard for smartphones and tablets that has transformed typing on touchscreens. The company’s mission is to make it easy for everyone to create and communicate on mobile.

SwiftKey has been named the No 1 hottest startup in London by Wired magazine, ranked top 5 in Fast Company’s list of the most innovative productivity companies in the world and has won a clutch of awards for its innovative products and workplace.

Ben has a First Class degree in Computer Science from Durham University and a PhD in Natural Language and Information Processing from the University of Cambridge.