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Are Girl Scout Cookies Deliciously Evil? A Case Study in Evaluating Charities by Yourself

16 Post author: gwern 24 April 2011 09:19PM

I recently finished up an essay examining the Girl Scouts, their cookies, and their finances with reference to whether they are inefficient or corrupt.

What is the relevance to LW? (The essay is aimed at a general audience & assumes no knowledge of LW material, though it links heavily to LW in justifying why one should make predictions - such as about Girl Scout finances - before looking at data.)

Well, on occasion, people ask questions about SIAI that they could have answered by themselves, such as by looking through SIAI financial filings. This kind of annoys me. This essay serves as a demonstration how one could investigate a charity on one's own, without simply trusting GiveWell's recommendations (good though they surely are).

Reading SIAI's filings may be a future essay; until then, it is left as an exercise for the reader... (EDIT: One such reading is BrandonReinhart's extremely thorough SIAI Fundraising Article; highly recommended.)

Comments (6)

Comment author: BrandonReinhart 26 April 2011 03:06:16AM *  14 points [-]

I -- thoughtlessly -- hadn't considered donating to the SIAI as a matter of course until recently (helped do a fund raiser for something else through my company and this made me think about it). Now reading the documentation on GuideStar has me thinking about it more...

Looking at the SIAI filings, I'd be interested in knowing more about the ~$118k that was misappropriated by a contractor (reported in 2009). I hadn't heard of that before. For an organization that raises less than or close to half a million a year, that's a painful blow.

Peter Thiel's contributions compose a significant part of the SIAI's income. I notice that in 2009, the organization raised less than $100k from non-'excess' contributions. In other words, the organization is largely funded by a small group of big donors. I wonder how this compares to other organizations of a similar size? Is there a life-cycle to bootstrapping organizations where they transition from small pools of big donors to more stable funding by a broad contributor base?

Naive Googling says that grant writing is the traditional way for an organization to get funds. I think there is low hanging fruit here. In 2009, SIAI received no grants. Can the Less Wrong community create a task force with the purpose of learning about grant writing and then executing on a few?

What about enumerating non-standard approaches? For example, the Less Wrong community consists of a large number of software developers. Would it be possible to create a task force to create a software product with the purpose of donating it's revenue to the SIAI? (Various corporate non-competes might be a barrier, but maybe companies would give dispensation for charity work?)

Right now SIAI appears to be primarily dependent on several key contributors and conference income. Expenditures are close to revenue, so they don't have much in the way of savings. Diversifying income, building up savings...probably goals we can help the organization achieve.

(Removed my post to clean it up, get verification on a bunch of stuff and ensure I'm not doing any unexpected damage.)

Comment author: Raemon 22 May 2012 02:06:12PM 1 point [-]

I'm kind of confused why the girl scout cookie thing was worth investigating. If the prices went up a lot, does there need to be a better explanation than "people were willing to pay the increased prices?"

Comment author: gwern 22 May 2012 04:10:17PM 0 points [-]

I thought it was an interesting question, and I'd been involved in Girl Scouts enough (going on campouts, selling boxes with my sisters) that I had a personal interest as well.

Comment author: ESRogs 20 July 2011 06:25:58PM 0 points [-]

From 2006–2011, annual US inflation was close to 1% over that period and the net inflation was 9.25%.

If annual inflation was close to 1% then I would expect total inflation for the five-year time period to be on the order of 1.01^5-1, which is much less than 9.25%. Am I misunderstanding that sentence?

Comment author: ESRogs 20 July 2011 06:47:06PM 0 points [-]

If the councils & troops are charged $1.20 for a box and the baker then pays 20 cents to GSUSA, you could change the arrangement to the baker having no license fee, charging $1 a box, and then GSUSA taking 20 cents. Everyone makes the same amount of money in the end, but suddenly no longer are ‘70% of proceeds staying in the local Girl Scout council’.

If the councils & troops keep the remaining $2.80 per box, how is that not still them getting 70% of proceeds, regardless of how the other $1.20 is divided up between the bakers and GSUSA?

Comment author: DanielLC 25 April 2011 02:35:45AM -1 points [-]

What I really want to do is have a group of people working together. I suggest starting a wiki for this.