Please stop developing websites that list nonprofits

Yet another website that catalogues non-profits was released into the wild earlier this week, as the Laura and John Arnold Foundation launched the Giving Library. For a sector that disdains duplicating efforts, maintaining online directories of non-profit organizations is a fairly crowded market. What all of these efforts to create proprietary listings of non-profit organizations have in common is an imminent threat of extinction by Google, which has a pretty serious competitive advantage in the indexing game.

Developing listings of nonprofits is not necessary with modern search tools. While it is fairly trivial to find an organization that wants to take a donor’s money, it is far more difficult to identify organizations that one believes will maximize their charitable dollars. To be fair, organizations like Great Nonprofits and Charity Navigator are attempting to solve this bigger problem of helping donors identify effective agencies to invest in, although neither provides compelling analysis to functionally move outside the sphere of simple cataloguing (yet).

Indeed, the growth in influence of GiveWell underscores the value of analysis over indexing. The problem of course is that the deeper analytic approach is research intensive, and does not scale. Therefore, we are instead bombarded with superficial efforts to simply create nonprofit listings or develop laughably linear four star rating systems.

And where is the evidence that donors need a website dedicated to listing non-profit organizations? Results of the 2012 Millennial Impact Report suggest that, at least among web-savvy donors between the ages of 20-35, people are perfectly capable of learning about non-profits through organizations’ websites, newsletters, and social media channels without the assistance of intermediaries.

Which brings us back to the analysis problem. Donors do not need help finding organizations, they need help selecting organizations based on their evaluative criterion. GiveWell simplifies the process for a certain set of donors by articulating their own criterion and providing investment advice to donors who are inclined to adopt GiveWell’s utility framework.

The more difficult issue then is to develop ways of matching donors to effective organizations that address issues that are consistent with the donor’s own values. This is a matter of substantive impact evaluation and donor utility elicitation. Neither of which have anything to do with hiring a web design firm to throw up yet another nonprofit digital dumpster.