Let’s Democratize Donations: An interview with Agora’s Founder

A guest post from Linch Zhang, originally posted on HuffPo.

The nonprofit sector occupies a surprisingly large proportion of the US economy. In 2014 alone, nonprofits received over $250 billion in individual donations (foundations, in contrast, gave just over $50 billion). Yet this giant sector can be lacking in transparency .

Data on nonprofits are often poorly collected, locked in proprietary formats, or in the hands of foundation grantmakers but not available to the general public. Worse, when individuals do evaluate charities with data, they often focus on factors like “overhead” or the “fundraising ratio”, which is at best only slightly beneficial and at worst irrelevant to what the beneficiaries actually want.

Agora for Good, an ambitious Bay Area and NYC-based startup founded in 2014, is hoping to fix or ameliorate some of these problems.

I sat down with Angela Rastegar Campbell, founder of Agora for Good, to discuss her plans for Agora, why she decided to found the company, and challenges that she sees for nonprofits down the line.

Linch: What is the elevator pitch for Agora for Good?

Angela: Our generation has the power to end the world’s greatest challenges: extreme poverty, inequality, illiteracy, environment sustainability, and more. We have the resources. We’re just not allocating them effectively. Even though we have a lot of data about proven interventions, and thousands of organizations are doing amazing work, that information is not easily accessible to aspiring donors. Most people make giving decisions based on familiarity or branding, and many choose not to give at all.

Agora for Good’s mission is to present people with the option to give more effectively.

Linch: What made you decide to build Agora for Good, rather than working directly, “earning to give”, or continuing to advise foundation grantmakers?

Angela: I’ve always been interested in development, especially women’s health and women’s rights. In high school I learned that my grandmother had an arranged marriage when she was about eleven, which deepened my interest, and while I was in graduate school, I spent time working in India with women who had been sex trafficked.

As I started to learn more about human trafficking and gender equality globally, I was amazed by how complex the system was, and how many different sectors interacted to create the conditions that gave rise to something like human trafficking. I realized change wasn’t as simple as funding a single sector or intervention.

After Stanford Business School I spent 3 years working in a major philanthropic advisory firm, Dalberg.  I worked with some of the most important players in international development, including the Gates Foundation and the World Bank. My husband Alex, a data scientist, and  I realized how, on one hand, we have a lot of information about effective interventions, and on the other hand, that information isn’t always effectively shared and used to coordinate efforts. We also saw how difficult it was for individual donors to access that information that already exists.

We want to build an information architecture that simplifies the process of finding effective charities and facilitate increased transparency and trust in philanthropy.  You can read more about our product pipeline and how we plan to change the sector in our post here.

To me, Effective Altruism means finding the most effective ways of supporting the causes that you care about. We want to make it easy for everyone to be able to do that, and make it easy for people to apply data and critical thinking to their giving. We hope this process will shift more people towards giving to the most effective charities as they learn.

Linch: From what I understand of the website, Agora for Good’s product has two main services for donors:

  1. It allows donors to donate more cheaply and efficiently to their preferred charities.
  2. Agora for Good sets up funds by cause area so that donors interested in specific global issues, such as global health or women’s empowerment, can be assured of donating to the “most effective” charities in those cause areas.

Can you walk me through the distinction?

Angela: The idea is for donors to build their personal ‘virtual foundations,’ to support all of the causes they are passionate about, with the lowest fees around. We want to democratize effective giving. So this includes enabling donors to create a portfolio of all of the organizations they want to support: everything from the hospital where their grandmother was treated, to newer organizations supporting pioneering global health interventions, to ‘funds’ of nonprofits we help them find.  Agora helps you donate to the most effective charities that do what you care about.

We draw on data from expert organizations and foundations, such as GiveWell and the Skoll Foundation, leveraging their extensive expertise on what they have seen be most effective to design funds across each cause area.  We also want to provide donors with exactly the kind of impact information, from randomized trials to foundation endorsements, that expert organizations use to evaluate charities; donors can therefore make their own judgements informed by the relevant evidence.

Living Goods is a GiveWell standout charity. Agora for Good allows donors to donate quickly and efficiently.

 Linch: If a donor already has a non-profit they want to support, why should they use Agora to give?

Angela: Donors often have a lot of insight about the organizations they support and are involved in, and we’ve built a place to share that knowledge.  Every time a gift you make a gift through Agora, you can leave an endorsement for that organization on their page.  Those endorsements factor into an general ‘Impact Score’ we’re building into our site- and we want to seed the platform as much as possible with effective philanthropists. These reviews are a powerful non-monetary way to support great organizations, and are also a way for donors to publicize and record their own donations, allowing others to see where those whose judgement they value give their support, and hold themselves accountable to their own commitments to effective organizations.

We also want nonprofits to keep 100% of their gift (covering transaction fees is up to the donor, and we’re adding a way to take that on if the donor chooses not to). So it’s also probably the best way to get more money to the organizations you love.

Linch: Why are you a for-profit organization? What is your funding model?

Angela: We could have been a nonprofit, and there are days when I wish that we were a nonprofit, because I think it would help us quickly trust with our users.

But we want to be separate from the sector that we’re trying to change. We are a for-profit to ensure that our survival is directly dependent on achieving our mission of transforming the philanthropic sector. Rather than asking for donations ourselves, we want to be in a position where we’re only making money if our our users find value from our products: if nonprofits are successful at attracting fund and retaining donors, and if donors are using our platform.

Linch: How does Agora for Good pick cause areas to create expert-designed funds?

Angela: We use the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We’ve grouped these goals into  6 main cause areas: poverty, equality, education, environment, infrastructure, health.

Linch: Do you plan to create funds outside of the SDGs? For example, the UN did not set goals for the welfare of non-human animals in intensive animal agriculture, or long-run security concerns with certain emerging technologies.

Angela: We are open to what donors want, and are excited to see how the platform evolves. Adding in causes like animal rights or existential risk are definitely of interest.

Linch: How do you ensure the validity or effectiveness of charities outside of your primary cause areas?

Angela: We don’t plan to review every piece of data our site collects; rather, we hope to be the data ‘clearinghouse’ that allows others to systematically review nonprofits.  We’re already partnering with groups like ImpactMatters to conduct audits on the information uploaded.  Our goal would be to have random and public audits or reviews of the data uploaded, with severe consequences for false data. But the sector is so far from that today (meaning, so little data is collected and aggregated) that the first step, and a big win for us, is to start this data collection process.

Linch: What are some of your hardest challenges in setting up Agora?

Angela: There are many! As a two sided marketplace, we want to serve both nonprofits and donors, and it can be hard to know where to focus our efforts early on.

The second issue is that the sector as a whole suffers from distrust. Nonprofits are skeptical of outsiders helping them, especially a for-profit company. Historically, professional fundraisers have taken up to 85% of every dollar they raise, and it can be difficult to convince nonprofits that we’re not looking to take advantage of them

Linch: What do you think are the greatest challenges facing Agora in the coming years?

Angela: Technical talent is definitely one of our bottlenecks right now.  A related problem is that there are so many different beneficial features we could add to our platform, and figuring out which features to prioritize and roll out first will be a difficult challenge in the years ahead.

 

Team Agora, enjoying a meal

 

Linch: How do charities benefit from Agora for Good?

Angela: We offer nonprofits the software to transform the way in which they engage their donors.  Donors today – especially younger donors – have new standards around transparency, data, and donation software.  As many as two thirds of donors do not complete their gift online because of a poor checkout experience!  We aim to help nonprofits not only offer a better experience, but understand better what content to share and how to talk about their impact, on their own terms.

In addition, many charities are working in sectors that lack the established history of and resources for lengthy evaluations and rigorous assessments, yet are bringing promising new ideas to the table alongside a commitment to effectiveness. By providing multiple paths for moving up our search “rank” system, Agora aims to reward creative ventures as well mature organizations, and expose donors to new ideas in the charity sector.

 

The Boma Project in East Africa has found new donors via Agora.  

 

Linch:  If a lot of your value-added is to help non-profits be better at sharing their stories with their donors, how do you ensure that Agora for Good does not eventually become part of the problem? Namely, that many nonprofits are optimized for telling compelling/viscerally attractive stories rather than optimized for helping the beneficiaries. How can Agora for Good help the most effective organizations tell the best stories, rather than the most interesting/cool/emotionally striking?

Angela:  It’s a great question, and one that we think a lot about.  We are building an ‘impact scorecard’ that will reward nonprofits in our database for transparency and measured results. We’re also giving nonprofits the ability to upload third party evaluations, both for their unique interventions as well as more general industry findings, in a way that is accessible for donors. Powerful stories and images are critical to engaging donors, which is why we’re trying to make not just the technology but also the behavioral insights about what works available to all nonprofits. And one more thing on the topic of efficacy: it’s actually more complex that just sorting interventions by more or less effective, we believe it’s also important to differentiate mature interventions that have reliable results, from newer initiatives that have less data but are really innovating and have the potential for massive impact. We want donors to be able to select organizations that match their own impact risk tolerance.

Linch: Do you plan to donate some of Agora for Good’s profit or equity?

Angela: Yes!  We’ve pledged to give 1% of our profits to our funds.

Linch: If our readers could have a single takeaway from this interview, what would it be?

Angela: We have a broad plan to help revolutionize the sector, but we have a long way to go. We are still in the early stages right now, and we welcome feedback.
So please, visit Agoraforgood.com, look through our cause areas and platform, maybe even set up a giving basket for the charities that you care about! And if you have any questions or suggestions, we would love to hear them!

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