My Goodness

All for ONE

Should I give to charities that raise awareness, or only to charities that take direct action?

Dear Patty and Sandy,

Why should anyone donate money to charities that raise awareness about issues instead of charities that take action in correcting the world’s problems? It seems like common sense to donate to a charity that funds breast cancer research instead of to a charity that raises awareness about breast cancer. What’s the evidence to support advocacy rather than direct action?


P.S. I raise the question because I notice that you’re donating one-quarter of the proceeds from your column to, an awareness-raising charity.


For the sake of this discussion, let’s define advocacy as: efforts to bring about change through public awareness and activism and/or changes to public policy, public practice, or the law.

During the startup phase of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, I asked the same question Dylan is asking. At the foundation, we initially presumed, like Dylan, that our dollars and efforts should go directly to those creating change for the neediest—a new drug for TB, a new vaccine for HIV/AIDS, a new school in Cleveland. It was our assumption that if we were lucky enough to support the development of a new and effective vaccine or educational approach that worked—and evidence backed it up—then governments, policymakers, and the public would respond to ensure that effort was spread where it would do the most good. In other words, we assumed that advocacy wasn’t necessary because proven results would be just as effective. But we were dead wrong—and it didn’t take us long to learn that. We saw that cost-effective vaccines that would save millions of children’s lives were not being purchased or delivered by governments and donors, and that improvements in our schools were not happening at even a fraction of the appropriate pace. Why? Because the poor and the disenfranchised and the very young and the very old have far too little access to information that can help them help themselves—and far too little say in our political and financial systems that so often determine what services they will or will not receive.

History has shown that an informed, concerned, mobilized constituency is often a prerequisite to great social change. This mobilization ensures not only that the public is engaged—but also that policymakers understand the importance of the issues and have the information they need to take action. Scores of nonprofit organizations have proven how advocacy can be effective, from the March of Dimes for polio, to the NAACP for civil rights, to the National Organization for Women for women’s equality.


Are all advocacy organizations effective? Of course not. You should treat the decision to donate to an advocacy group just as you would any other donation. Do you believe in the mission? Do they have the organizational capacity to achieve the mission? Are they doing it in the most effective way they can? Atlantic Philanthropies published a report that outlines why foundations should consider funding advocacy and what questions they should ask before funding advocacy, and gives several examples of successful advocacy efforts.

The benefits of advocacy can be harder to evaluate than direct service—so don’t necessarily use the normal “child fed per dollar‘“metric. Organization Research Services’  Guide to Measuring Advocacy and Policy does a good job of laying out the key outcomes we should care about when evaluating advocacy, including notable shifts in social norms and increased public support.

A recent study that used a more traditional methodology showed that for each dollar invested in a handful of advocacy groups in New Mexico between 2003-07, the groups garnered more than $157 in benefits for New Mexico communities. If ONE can get a return like that—in dollars donated to their causes, lives saved from preventable diseases, or educational attainment for the most disadvantaged—I may give them a lot more of my money.

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to and Patty and Sandy will try to answer it.

In our ongoing effort to do better ourselves, we’re donating 25 percent of the proceeds from this column to—an organization committed to raising public awareness about the issues of global poverty, hunger, and disease and the efforts to fight such problems in the world’s poorest countries.