You should give with your head, not with your heart — this is the underlying philosophy written about by Dan Kaldec for TIME.com, in “Philanthropists of the World: You’re Doing It Wrong!”  and the book by Eric Friedman, Reinventing Philanthropy: A Framework for More Effective Giving.  If a donor is to give money in the most effective way, he or she should identify charities that do the most good in terms of human lives saved for the least amount.

While this is a neat theory, appealing in its simplicity, it does not seem prudent to shun all other charitable action for its sake.  There are many nuanced challenges that deserve attention—from human health to environmental degradation and the intersections in between.

Consider the challenges of the marine world.  The ocean is the life support of our planet.  It is our food, water, oxygen, global temperature balance, and our best carbon sink.  One of the most pressing threats to the seas, ocean acidification (OA), is not just about the shells of marine snails dissolving — it is about food security.  When one in seven people rely on seafood for their main source of protein, but OA is damaging food webs and larval fish development, ocean health directly impacts human health.  Sea level rise will not only affect our insurance rates — it will increasingly cause migrations of human populations and add pressure to already volatile refugee situations. When the U.S. Department of State and others recognize the implications of a changing ocean for national security, direct action for ocean conservation becomes a direct action to save lives.

With this in mind and after reading and reflecting on the theories of effective philanthropy, we asked, can we identify strategies that are more effective than others for saving the ocean?  This question moves beyond standard metrics of cost effectiveness, overhead ratios, and other financial calculations into the ability to connect results achieved to specific actions.

Measuring the Impact of Non-Profit Initiatives

Most not-for-profits adequately manage their funds and track their activities, but often do not have the processes in place to know if their work is advancing positive change.  Like other non-profits, we at The Ocean Foundation (TOF) track our activities, the early results of that work (indicators), observable changes attributable to this work (outcomes) and the ultimate long-term positive impact we have (goals).  This echoes the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s method, which includes tracking activities and measures of execution as well as impacts and measures of change.

Our effectiveness initiative, however, was designed to be more data driven: to connect evidence of proven effective conservation actions to positive impact in the marine world.  We collect data so we can report real, measurable results towards our mission to support and strengthen those organizations dedicated to reversing the trend of destruction of our world ocean. For example, we track progress towards increasing awareness and understanding of marine issues by the number of peer reviewed articles published, citations, conferences attended, or audience reached, among other indicators. To protect habitats and species of concern, we track data such as the number of animals rehabilitated, sea turtle nests protected, or mangroves replanted as well as more rigorous data such as the population of species or biodiversity of an area designated for protection.

spalding table

We support our mission through fiscal sponsorship, grant-making and core projects all directed at saving the ocean.  Our goals are defined as our IRS Form 990 program areas—Protecting Species of Concern, Conserving Marine Habitats and Special Places, Building the Capacity of the Marine Conservation Community, and Expanding Ocean Literacy.

In order to ensure the funding directed toward these goals is used as effectively as possible, we created an evaluation system that cuts across our services and projects to address all of our varied work.  Recognizing the diversity of programmatic activities, and drawing from extensive research, we identified five strategies that our programs utilize to achieve their missions.  These strategies are 1) research, 2) a model or demonstration project, 3) policy or advocacy, 4) community engagement, and 5) direct actions or interventions.

TOF is now in its second year of collecting effectiveness data.  We use our criteria at three levels: to inform intake of projects and grantees, to evaluate our work on an annual basis, and to think critically about the performance of our programs.  When considering a new project or grantee, our knowledge of effective strategies helps to inform which we accept.  For example, addressing sea turtle bycatch is a compelling threat to work on, one that strums the heartstrings with photos of individual charismatic species being caught, tangled, and maimed. However, we know that intervening earlier has much more positive impact for a sea turtle population as a whole. Ensuring more sea turtles make it to the wild by protecting nesting beaches and releasing hatchlings is not only a more cost-effective method, but also a more effective method for rescuing populations and species on the brink of extinction. We can identify activities and life history stages where interventions will have the greatest impact, and follow through by committing resources to proven effective strategies and rejecting those projects that seek to capitalize on charismatic imagery with no data-backed evidence of success.

The monitoring and evaluations process also allows TOF to assess our own work, determining which program areas, strategies, or activities generate positive results and which do not.  We generate, therefore, both quantitative and qualitative results that we use in assessments of our work, and to inform our work moving forward.  By tracking our results, donors can know they are giving to programs that use proven effective methods to address important ocean issues.  We can give in a smarter way to protect our most critical resource-driver of climate, provider of food, means of transportation, and source of inspiration — our ocean.

Mark J. Spalding is President of The Ocean Foundation, serves on the Sargasso Sea Commission, and is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Blue Economy at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies.