Q&A: Charity Intelligence managing director Kate Bahen on evaluating charitable impact and African food self-sufficiency

Farm Radio International is honoured to once again be named a five-star charity by Charity Intelligence Canada and to be on the charitable sector watchdog’s 2023 list of Top 100 Charities.

Last September, our head of stakeholder engagement, Christian Robillard, sat down with Kate Bahen, managing director of Charity Intelligence, to ask how Farm Radio stacks up against other charities that Charity Intelligence evaluates (the answer: we punch above our weight in delivering impact). Charity Intelligence Canada is a Canadian charity that researches Canadian charities for donors to be informed and give intelligently. Through rigorous and independent research, Charity Intelligence aims to assist Canada’s dynamic charitable sector in being more transparent, accountable and focused on results.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Christian Robillard: Could you share what Charity Intelligence looks for when it evaluates charities?

Kate Bahen: It’s always to help donors and to write a report that a mom in a kitchen can read or a millennial can read. A three-minute short read that encapsulates what you need to know about this charity, what you need to know to make an informed giving decision. And then when you do the benchmarking and you stack one charity up against another charity, then you start to give intelligently.

This whole sector — the whole area of looking at charities, analyzing charities — is emerging. It began in about 2002 and it’s happening around the world. So we’re just the Canadians doing it in Canada. There are some financial metrics. Cents to the cause is cost efficiency, but you can’t judge a charity by one metric alone.

You look at the balance sheet and you want to make sure that a charity actually needs money. Because there are so many charities that are fundraising because they can, and they already have millions of dollars, tens of millions, hundreds of millions, in some cases, billions of dollars in the bank. And so, as a donor, you’re thinking, is this the best place for my dollar to go? But then you have to go beyond the financial metrics. That’s the foundation. And in Canada, we have the issue, unfortunately, of transparency. We’re still battling so many charities not being financially transparent, not posting their audited financial statements on their website.

Then the quality of the annual reports, the results reporting — I always see that as a proxy for accountability. If you took the time to read a charity’s annual report, is it a good read? Do you understand how the last year went? Is it frank and forthright about its results? And then the final step is impact measurement, which is where we have a team of three or four PhDs and economics masters in different areas who are going through and measuring the social return on investment, the cost benefit analysis for every dollar you donate. What’s the estimated impact a charity is having? That’s very difficult. But we have over 280 impact measurements on our website for donors to read, which I think right now is one of the largest in the world.

CR: Are there certain areas that Farm Radio truly excels in when it comes to the charity intelligence available?

KB: Yeah, across the board. [It’s] a five-star charity. It’s in the top 12 per cent of Canadian charities. Farm Radio ticks every box. It’s financially transparent. Its financial metrics are fine. Then you go to the deeper level of analysis. For its annual report, an A grade — that’s world-class reporting back to its donors, an A grade for accountability.

Then when you do the impact measurement, there’s an extraordinarily high impact for this charity. Impact is the difference a charity makes. And there are many do-gooders. And then there are good doers. Some charity models just don’t work. They can put all the passion, all the blood, all the sweat, tears into a program, but at the end of the day, there’s no difference that you can measure in the people who use the charity’s programs. That’s what impact is. Impact is, did this charity make a difference for every dollar you put in? Was it average impact? Was it good impact? And Farm Radio is high impact. For every dollar you put into Farm Radio, we’re seeing extraordinarily high results coming out of that.

CR: Are there some areas that Farm Radio can improve upon when it comes to the annual evaluation and how it is that we report on our impact?

KB: It’s always the kids at the front of the class who are getting A’s who want to know how they can improve. You’re doing everything right. Keep doing it. I would just say, as a data analyst: data quality. We still want to see better data quality. And it’s charities that have that learning attitude of “We’re doing good. What can we tweak? What can we innovate in our programs?” And testing that: AB testing, using that program data to improve.

That’s a challenge for every organization, every individual, every company, but when you are an organization that embraces that learning culture, you’re thinking always of the African farmer. How can we keep doing what we’re doing? Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Because what you’re doing is working. But you’re always striving for how you can do better. And that would be data quality.

CR: Is there something that you think makes Farm Radio different than a lot of the charities that you’ve come across in your time?

KB: I think what people sometimes miss with Farm Radio is how it is in the right place at the right time with an extraordinary model that is low cost. It costs $1.87 to inform one African farmer each year on how to improve their food production and crop yields, mitigate climate change, improve irrigation, use new fertilizers and crop rotation. $1.87 is the cost per African farm radio listener. And this is part of one of the most important success stories of the last decade.

As an economist, I look back, in 2011, people were looking at sub-Saharan Africa with very bleak forecasts because food imports were expected and projected to triple to $90 billion a year. Now, any block of countries paying $90 billion a year to feed themselves, to import food, that’s going to be financially crippling. That didn’t happen. And if you look at the economic data between 2011 and the most recent year from the World Bank, 2019, sub-Saharan Africa’s food production has been one of the most powerful success stories. It doesn’t make headlines, but it’s there. Africa is feeding itself. You look at the middle-income countries: Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Kenya have joined South Africa as some of the agricultural powerhouses.

And the lower middle-income countries where Farm Radio is working did not have to import their food. They are feeding themselves. Through innovation and information, the productivity of African farmers is matching its rising population. It is matching, as people improve in their income, their diets and change. They eat better. So you have a rising population and at the same time, because of changing income levels, you have a growing demand for food. Africa is feeding itself. And at the same time, all the projections are saying that Africa still has the most underutilized arable land left in the world.

Impact is, did this charity make a difference for every dollar you put in? Was it average impact? Was it good impact? And Farm Radio is high impact. For every dollar you put into Farm Radio, we’re seeing extraordinarily high results coming out of that.

– Kate Bahen, managing director of Charity Intelligence

And when you come in with Farm Radio’s information — a channel to inform and educate farmers about how to unleash that potential, how to build the economic foundation for a continent that can feed itself, can grow, can rise in income — it’s extraordinary. And when you think of George Atkins’ drive through Africa in the late 1970s, so many people would see despair and poverty. And yet his vision, his ability to see the possibilities, to see the potential, has transformed those countries. And it’s extraordinary that in this global success story, Farm Radio was there at the right time, in the right place, working in middle- and low-income countries with an extraordinary charity program that delivers information to unleash that potential.

I think it’s one of the most exciting Canadian charity success stories. I think it’s a tragedy that most people don’t know about it. And I understand and I appreciate that stories are powerful and I appreciate that most people give with the heart. But I really hope Canadians start to give with their heads and to look at the data. Because when you look at charities through a data lens, you see a whole different perspective. And you see these gems like Farm Radio. Right now, you’ve got an operating budget of about $7.3 million. And the goal and the vision is through innovation and information to double and reach 40 million more African farmers.

That’s extraordinarily exciting. You’ve got a model that works. Now that model needs to scale.

Listen to the full conversation:

View Farm Radio International’s profile on the Charity Intelligence website.

Kate Bahen is the managing director of Charity Intelligence.

Christian Robillard is the head of stakeholder engagement at Farm Radio International.

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