Why Funders Should Go Meta

Paper by Stuart Buck & Anna Harvey: “We don’t mean the former Facebook. Rather, philanthropies should prefer to fund meta-issues—i.e., research and evaluation, along with efforts to improve research quality. In many cases, it would be far more impactful than what they are doing now.

This is true at two levels.

First, suppose you want to support a certain cause–economic development in Africa, or criminal justice reform in the US, etc. You could spend millions or even billions on that cause.

But let’s go meta: a force multiplier would be funding high-quality research on what works on those issues. If you invest significantly in social and behavioral science research, you might find innumerable ways to improve on the existing status quo of donations.

Instead of only helping the existing nonprofits who seek to address economic development or criminal justice reform, you’d be helping to figure out what works and what doesn’t. The result could be a much better set of investments for all donors.

Perhaps some of your initial ideas end up not working, when exhaustively researched. At worst, that’s a temporary embarrassment, but it’s actually all for the better—now you and others know to avoid wasting more money on those ideas. Perhaps some of your favored policies are indeed good ideas (e.g., vaccination), but don’t have anywhere near enough take-up by the affected populations. Social and behavioral science research (as in the Social Science Research Council’s Mercury Project) could help find cost-effective ways to solve that problem…(More)”.