Effective Giving: Emmanuel Ministries Calcutta

One of the biggest obstacles to effective giving to the global poor is simply lack of data.  In traditional investing, even those of us who know nothing about finance have access to scores of mutual funds that pick the “best” stocks for us and package them in a portfolio that minimizes our risk. And of course there is always the most basic feedback loop of all: the bottom line. Your investments either go up or they go down.

But if your goal is make investments that reduce poverty for others, things are not quite so simple. In this case our data points are typically limited to what organizations tell us about themselves through their appeal letters, websites and marketing campaigns. There are few independent evaluators of organizations that tackle poverty to help us choose where to invest (givewell.org is one excellent exception—look for an upcoming blog post on them.) This lack of data is even more pronounced when it comes to social entrepreneurs who work within newer or smaller organizations—many of whom are doing exciting, effective work, as I wrote in my last post.

What we need much more of is a kind Rottentomatoes for relief and development organizations. So what follows is one Yelp-style review of an exciting organization we supported this Christmas.

I recently spent some time in Kolkata, India getting to know various organizations that work with the poorest of the poor. I was especially impressed with Emmanuel Ministries, which is right down the street from the headquarters of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. Founded in 1971 by social entrepreneurs Vijayan and Premila Pavamani, they work to empower street children, addicts, the unemployed, and slum dwellers, all of which you can read about on their website. Here’s why I was impressed by them:

  • As I talked to their leadership and staff, they all articulated a holistic approach to their work which integrated a deeply Christian worldview with a sophisticated grasp of recent scholarship in community organizing, vocational training, addiction recovery, etc.
  • Several acquaintances in InterVarsity and Word Made Flesh with experience in Kolkata spoke very highly of Emmanuel and their reputation in the community, as did leaders from local churches and other NGOs. They have worked successfully with organizations I respect like TEAR fund and Compassion International.
  • I was especially impressed by my visit to their Christian school, Calcutta Emmanuel School. Uniquely, its students come from among the poorest families in Kolkata, but the school has achieved India’s highest accreditation standards. The principal and other school leaders claim that nearly 100% of graduates go on to college. I talked to more than ten high school students and indeed, they all had detailed plans for their college careers.

If you have any knowledge of Emmanuel Ministries, please add your thoughts below.

9 thoughts on “Effective Giving: Emmanuel Ministries Calcutta

  1. Love this post, and I couldn’t agree more that it would be great to have a GiveWell equivalent for smaller social enterprises and organizations to compensate for the gap in data and knowledge between donors and actual on-the-ground operations at these NGOs. (Why don’t we start one, if someone hasn’t already? Wouldn’t it make for an awesome thesis or project for one of your students?!)

    On that note, I am somewhat wary of _framing_ any evaluation like the one you did above as a Yelp- or RottenTomatoes-like revenue. By virtue of being user-generated, these reviews are entirely subjective, and positioning any evaluation as such risks reinforcing, it seems to me, what is already a lack of empirical, data-driven emphasis on results in this space. Not to say the qualitative reports, e.g., the reputation of the NGO on the ground and among its end beneficiaries, isn’t useful; I strongly believe it should be balanced with quantitative evidence as well.

    • Ada, I agree 100%. We need a lot more than amateurs like me sharing their impressions of a week-long visit. We need more than qualitative data, no matter how rigorous. Still, since that kind of data is hard to come by now, I think even an anecdotal, Yelp-like post such as this one is a step in the right direction. Some on-the-ground vetting like I was able to do with Emmanuel Ministries is certainly better than nothing.
      (And maybe you should start a Givewell for smaller, faith-based orgs 🙂 ) I’d fund you…

  2. One thorny question raised here is how we as Christians should integrate religious criteria into our selection of charities.

    My current solution is to compartmentalize. I set aside a portion of giving to address poverty, and try to find the most effective charities in that respect (via givewell).

    But I assume that, even though it’s clear that alleviating extreme poverty is certainly part of God’s overall Mission, there may be important aspects of God’s Mission which will not yield the best scores in poverty reduction, and thus will never be picked by an organization like givewell.

    Thus, I set aside another portion of my giving to promote the work of specifically Christian charities. I assume an organization will be more effective at achieving God’s *overall* goals for the world if it’s making decisions in a spiritually aware manner, working under a scripture- and prayer-guided, Christian worldview.

    This immediately raises questions. Is this method of compartmentalization itself flawed? And if not, how should I allocate my funds? How much should I give towards the charities proven most cost-effective at reducing poverty, vs. charities aimed at spreading the gospel, assuming these two do not coincide? My ratio is currently about 3:1 (three times as much to effective, yet secular, poverty reduction) Should the ratio be 1:1? 1:2? 10:1? 1:10? How do I figure out what’s best?

    (And, I have no idea if *anyone* is figuring out which charities are most cost-effective at making genuine disciples. Is this sort of thing even measurable?)

  3. Hey Gary,

    Here’s another site this guy I know was doing: Nonprofitinvestor.org (site seems to be slow or just down) – Twitter = @nonprofitinvest

    BTW – we’re moving forward with the app! Wireframes underdevelopment by our mobile UX guy + two of our top devs are really excited about it so they’re going to build it! And we have a GREAT/branding name for it. Will keep you posted.

    Interesting point Ang makes about compartmentalizing. We’re trying to figure out what charities to back.


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