Rob Mather in discussion at Pembroke CollegeShirley Lo

“I have a certain cynicism when it comes to charity.” So says Rob Mather, founder and CEO of the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF), which GiveWell has awarded the title of top-rated charity for 2012, 2013, 2015, and 2016. It may be something of a surprise to hear these words coming from the man behind such a successful charity, yet they are typical of the attitude that has characterised Mather’s time running AMF. If only charities were more accountable, and more transparent in their activities, then people would be forthcoming with their donations, or so goes the reasoning. Mather is in no doubt: “there is a wall of money that could be released”, if only there were more trust in charitable work.

Mather certainly could not be accused of not practicing what he preaches. Against Malaria Foundation, which devotes itself to the distribution of mosquito nets, prides itself on its accountability and efficiency. One hundred per cent of public donations are spent on buying more mosquito nets, while central administration costs run at only 0.24 per cent of revenue, though Mather is at pains to stress that this does not necessarily make a good charity. 

What, then, is the key to AMF’s success? Mather argues that it is the trust that people can place in his charity, and their ability to track how exactly their money is being spent: “If I give money to a charity, I’m really keen that it has impact in some way.” 

Could it therefore be argued that too much public faith in charities is holding back efforts to improve accountability? “If one does inherently trust an organisation, I think that almost inevitably starts to squeeze out a desire to scrutinise it. If organisations come under scrutiny, it’s a great incentive for them to be impactful, efficient, arguably more transparent and accountable. I think that’s a dynamic you want to encourage.”

That naturally raises the question of whether charities could be more efficient, if only we were asking the right questions. Mather is diplomatic. “I think that’s true of almost every charity, and I would include AMF in that. I think we can all be more efficient and more accountable.

“I would seek a minimum threshold of accountability that we would hope to have all charities deliver… I’m not sure if it needs to be a requirement, but by encouraging charities to see the benefit of being more transparent, with things like impact and where money goes, you can have a terrific impact with your donor base, because they trust you more and want to give you more.” 

Against Malaria Foundation could be seen as part of a wider movement: that of ‘effective altruism.’ It’s an approach that is embodied best by the charity ‘Giving What We Can’, the Cambridge branch of which hosted the event. Started in 2009, its members are devoted to finding the most effective charities in the world, and then donating 10 percent of their income towards those. More than 100 of these members have been Cambridge students, with 25 in the past year alone. 

Perhaps this all sounds a little too good to be true. If AMF are able to win such plaudits, to increase the amount they receive in donations nearly year on year, and to most importantly have such an impact on the ground, then why are other charities not rushing to copy their approach? It’s a difficult question, and one to which Mather does not have a single answer. 

“The first thing is that our model is perhaps not suited to all. The answers we have won’t be applicable to some charities… I think there’s also a lag time, as when others come up with good ideas, we probably hear about them a number of years later.”

There is also a more troublesome side to effective altruism. Given that it encourages giving to charities that are deemed to be most effective, there must surely be a danger that charities which provide relatively easy and quick solutions, such as providing mosquito nets, are seen as more worthy than others. What of the charities tackling more difficult problems, ones that cannot be so easily solved or provide as immediate returns?

“I think it’s a really important point. Almost by definition, if you’ve got the most effective charity, then everybody else is not as effective, and that doesn’t quite square with me in that there are lots of really good causes and charities.”

But the difficulty of the task is no excuse for not improving transparency. “What I really want to see is much greater levels of clarity; charities that really explain clearly what impact they seek to have, who communicate what impact they do have… if I know what’s happening, and I’m really confident about what’s going to happen to my money, then that will inspire many more donors to give much more money, not based on effectiveness, but their own personal interest areas and greater comfort areas.”

The approach of AMF cannot be applied to all charities, as Mather himself readily admits. Nor is the idea of effective altruism entirely unproblematic. Yet looking at the successes of the Against Malaria Foundation, and the conviction with which Mather speaks, it is hard to deny that his approach might be a fruitful one for other charities.