Why Are We So Bad at Doing Good? Founders Pledge on How to Make Charitable Giving More Impactful

Photo of Natalia Kaptur

Natalia Kaptur

Jan 20, 2021 • 9 min read

Hunger. Disease. Forced migration. Many of us have a solution to these problems at heart.

We’re donating our savings to charities, which collectively amounts to billions of dollars a year, and yet the problems don’t seem to go away. Of course these are complex issues, but is it possible that the way many charities approach them is simply ineffective?

Founders Pledge, a London-based initiative, aims to disrupt the current state of charitable giving. Its mission is to empower entrepreneurs to do immense good by funding the most impactful solutions to the world’s most pressing problems.

At September’s Disruption Forum Sustainability, we asked Layal Marten, Growth Lead at Founders Pledge, about their approach.

Read the interview to learn why giving to charity is not necessarily the same thing as doing good and how the most successful entrepreneurs can solve the world’s biggest social problems.

Natalia Kaptur: David Goldberg, Co-Founder and CEO of Founders Pledge, often raises a bold question: “Why are we so bad at doing good?” Are we really that bad?

Layal Marten: People conflate giving to charity with doing good.

Some of the biggest charities in the world have been working for over a hundred years trying to solve problems which nonetheless persist. That’s not to say they are doing a bad job. Rather, the problems are very, very difficult.

When we talk about doing good at Founders Pledge, we mean finding the highest point of leverage to affect the problem almost before it starts.

The question that we often raise is: Do you build the classrooms and then the children will come or do you make sure that the children’s health is taken care of and that poverty is alleviated and you've gone way upstream in order to solve the problem that's prohibiting them from entering that classroom in the first place?

How does Founders Pledge tackle this issue?

Founders Pledge is a community of entrepreneurs finding and funding solutions to the world's biggest global challenges.

The best entrepreneurs in the world are successful because they solve problems at scale. So if we can harness that collective resource, that brainpower, and turn it towards doing good, that group is probably going to make the most disruptive and most effective change to some of the world’s most long-standing, institutionalized problems, such as climate change, healthcare, and education.

Layal Marten quote Founders Pledge

We enlist founders of successful companies to donate a percentage of their earnings to initiatives that have the biggest impact on solving these problems.

Could you share some names? Who are the founders that have already made the pledge?

We have over 1,500 founders from 35 countries, from companies like WeWork, Uber, Swiftkey, Klarna, Dataminr, Funding Circle, and many others - some of the biggest companies in the world.

How do you shortlist founders? Is there a specific type you’re looking for?

We’re looking for someone who is going to be an advocate for philanthropy, doing good, and exercising data to find the most impactful ways to make a difference.

It has to be somebody who is not just using the donation as a tax offset but someone who's deeply interested in understanding why doing good can be hard and how we can help.
My and my team’s role is finding the right kinds of members that will increase the pledge values and the amount of funds that ultimately flow to really high impact causes and charities.

Who determines these causes? Do the founders already know which solutions they want to support?

There's not really a typical approach.

In my opinion what differentiates entrepreneurs from “typical” philanthropists is that there is a lot of cause elasticity. The issues they are concerned about tend to be time-sensitive - at the moment we hear a lot about climate change, biosecurity, animal welfare - but also based on one’s experience. For instance, in San Francisco and London people see homelessness, so this is their major concern.

I see, it can be very subjective. So in the end how do you determine which initiative to support?

Our team looks for solutions that are very scalable, very tractable, and at the same time neglected, where the impact of your dollar is much higher than it would be if you were giving to the more obvious and easy to find charities. We want to go as far as we can and fund the highest point of leverage on that particular problem. That really resonates with entrepreneurs.

Could you give an example?

We have a member who lost someone they loved to cancer and the mandate they gave us was to make the biggest difference possible to cancer rates. Our research team found that ensuring that macronutrients for children in developing countries are at the right levels reduces the incidence of stomach cancer later in life by 63 percent. If you apply a very non-humanistic ROI to that, that's the most impactful action you could support in order to reduce cancer rates.

Here’s another one: people might say they want to support education, but what they actually mean is democratizing potential, and they might ultimately fund a salt iodization program to eliminate iodine deficiency, which impacts brain development and impairs cognition. That is, instead of building classrooms and finding teachers, you’re going a lot further afield to make sure that a child's cognition is at exactly the same level as that of every other student that walks into that classroom.

How much money have you been able to raise so far?

To date, we have over $3 billion in pledges, of which $475 million has already been moved into the charitable sector.

Did you observe any change in donating due to COVID?

Yes, but not necessarily in the way we thought we would.

Some people who hadn't yet decided what causes to support chose to give to COVID response because it's so visceral and so acute in our lives at the moment.

Others thought, “What can I do that will change the system that was broken, that prevented us from being better equipped to handle this?”

However, we’ve also seen people who ramped up giving to their particular cause. I heard someone say “I wish climate change had Corona’s publicist” – a very crude way of saying that if it were in the zeitgeist and in the public consciousness the way COVID has been, people would steer their giving towards that. People can feel the urgency now. They see the results of not supporting pandemic preparedness, and hence can picture what will happen in ten years if we don’t help fight climate change now.

The COVID crisis definitely opened up conversations around preparedness, system change, and existential threat.

What are the exact causes around these issues that people want to donate to today?

For climate change, our research has shown that the highest-impact approach is to support advocacy for innovation in neglected low-carbon technology, which they can do by contributing to the Founders Pledge Climate Fund.

When it comes to education, people can make a big impact in low-income countries where both the education levels and spending are both lowest. We recommend several effective charities: Teaching at the Right Level Africa, Educational Initiatives, Iodine Global Network and the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition's Universal Salt Iodization.

Similarly, we recommend a number of charities to people who want to support women’s empowerment worldwide: StrongMinds, Bandhan's Targeting the Hardcore Poor programme and Village Enterprise.

What do you see as a major challenge in convincing entrepreneurs to join the Founders Pledge?

People say to me, “I don't like being told what to do, even if it's by myself.” They don’t want their past self to have told their future self what to do.

I think every entrepreneur that I’ve ever come across is time-strapped, is completely mission-driven, and wants to do something right now. Their business is taking everything they've got. So they say, “I want to give but right now I haven't got the time for this”

I also think that being a successful entrepreneur means being quite lonely. You set out to build something and the bigger it gets, the farther away you are from what you set out to do. And it gets difficult - the days are really long and the years are really short. You sacrificed so much to do it.

Layal Quote 2.png

Giving should feel like a reward for that. It should allow you to give yourself a purpose, bring your family into it, and have some time and space to solve problems. We know you're good at doing that because you've proven it, and if you turn your attention to solving the world's biggest social problems, that’s incredibly fulfilling and deeply purposeful.

This is a reward you give to yourself: to say that, when it's all done, you'll still have a purpose and challenges to solve.

For a deeper look into impactful giving and sustainable growth in general, check out Disruption Forum Sustainability. You can get on-demand access to all sessions by signing up here.

Photo of Natalia Kaptur

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Natalia Kaptur

Natalia is a free and rather wild spirit that loves to travel, ride her motocross bike, and...
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