Sense and sensibility: How can we do good better?

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Doing good can be done better, according to Kellie Liket, postdoctorate researcher at the Erasmus University of Rotterdam. She advocates for a more rational approach in the charity sector. The connection with Max Foundation is plain to see. Founders Joke and Steven Le Poole had an emotional reason for wanting to save children’s lives. But the choices they made in developing their approach were conscious and rational: how can we save as many lives as possible?

But is the chosen approach still the most effective one? Max Foundation has asked Kellie Liket to investigate this. To find out more, I am talking to Marjolijn Hekelaar, the young researcher who has recently joined Liket’s research team.

Kind of an emotional person
Skype is on. We’re ready to go. Marjolijn tells me how she ended up on the research team. She went to University College in Maastricht and afterwards did her Masters in Amsterdam Conflict Resolution & Governance. “I see myself working as a policy advisor in development cooperation. But finding a suitable job as a junior in this area is not that easy.” Through a friend I heard that Kellie Liket was on the lookout for someone. “I was enthusiastic straight away; I would gain valuable work experience”.

Marjolijn Hekelaar

Why does Liket’s research appeal to Marjolijn? “I am kind of an emotional person. I usually let my feelings dictate the choices I make. I guess like many people. In the development aid sector, we tend to act on ‘gut-feeling’ too. But this doesn’t necessarily lead to making the choices that result in the highest impact. By putting effectiveness first, you might have to choose a different approach in helping people.”

The effect of worms
Take education in developing countries for example. It feels logical to give children school fees, so that they can go to school. But what if you discover that it’s more effective to put your money into a deworming programme? Apparently, in poorer regions, worms commonly prevent children from going to school. Marjolijn explains: “just to be clear, our goal is not to label certain methods as ‘wrong’. We simply want to show how you can invest your money more consciously."

School children in Nepal (photo: Henriëtte Berger)

Max Foundation’s approach in the spotlight
Kellie Liket’s team is analysing the methods that Max Foundation applies in Bangladesh. For example, based on our knowledge at the time, Max Foundation decided never to give away things for free, such as a latrine. We found out it more effective to make people aware of the need first. And then you create a demand. As a result, people become willing to invest in the latrine themselves. But, is this still the most efficient way?

We also learned to combine a whole set of interventions, such as nutrition education, prenatal support and sanitary facilities. That prevents child mortality better than when you apply these interventions separately. But Marjolijn then wonders: “People are also receiving multiple messages at the same time, does it really sink in then?”

What is the 'ideal mix' of interventions?
With the results, Liket’s team can determine if Max Foundation can make existing programmes more effective. Subsequently, they will create the ‘the ideal mix’ of interventions on paper. Finally, they will advise on how to set up a field research project, to test that theory. Marjolijn: “I think it’s quite brave that Max Foundation has initiated this. We might find that the approach is not working as well as presumed. And that can have consequences for the organisation.”

Marjolijn in Bangladesh (top right) during child growth monitoring, one of Max Foundation's interventions.

The role of the donor
Evaluating your work isn’t exactly unique in the development aid sector. But often what is looked at, is whether the money is spent according to the predefined project goals. And whether the donor can be served with the outcomes they consider valuable. “This is understandable. But it should be more important to know whether you have achieved the maximum effect with your budget. In other words, what knowledge have you gained from the project? Your learnings should be included in the plan as an essential outcome.”

This implies that more money should be allocated to solid impact measurement. A considerable challenge for fundraisers! Evaluation is not so tangible and therefore less attractive to finance. Also, when things appear not to work in practice, honesty to your donors should be possible. It’s up to charities to make these aspects more attractive: "learning is great!". But a change in mindset with those who are supporting them is needed too.

The lady with the plumbing tool
Last month, Marjolijn visited Bangladesh. As she puts it, Max Foundation certainly doesn’t go for the easy way. “To visit one of the projects, it took fourteen hours by car and another few hours by boat from the nearest town. By that time, you are really in the middle of nowhere. But the reason soon becomes clear. In that village people would otherwise, most probably, never be provided with basic needs such as safe drinking water.”  

On the way to a remote village in Bangladesh (photo: Carel de Groot)

I asked Marjolijn what stood out for her on the journey. “There was a lady standing next to one of the water wells that Max Foundation had placed. She stood there with a plumbing tool, obviously the technician. She looked proud, as if she was happy to be responsible for ‘her’ water well. Somehow that image really touched me”.  

It’s time to conclude our interview. Marjolijn has a comprehensive and clear way of talking about the research. And as far as we’re concerned, also a great ambassador for ‘doing good better’.

Apart from abovementioned research, Max Foundation will develop various workshops on the subject of effective altruism, or 'doing good better', and organise a summit. We will of course keep you informed through our newsletters and website.
If you want to know more about the Kellie Liket’s research, you can visit the website of the Impact Centre Erasmus via  

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