One of the happier moments of my year comes when I sit as a judge on the panel that chooses the winner of the annual Longford Prize. It rewards people or organisations doing outstanding, sometimes controversial and usually little-reported work on the rehabilitation of prisoners. Every nomination contains an amazing story, so it's hard to pick, but the question that really helps is about range and impact. How many people's lives are affected, and by how much?
It is a question trustees should be asking regularly when presented with uplifting presentations on their charity's work by the management team. On paper, projects can sound great. In case studies and anecdotes, that impression is confirmed, but it all has to be grounded in numbers. It's not just a case of quantity over quality, but rather that charitable funds must bear some relationship to the proportion of the target group being supported by them.
The issue is one that shouted out at me when William MacAskill's new book, Doing Good Better, landed on my desk. This associate professor of philosophy from Oxford University quotes a startling statistic - 75 per cent of charitable initiatives have no impact, with some not only neutral but harmful. He reaches this conclusion by looking at the numbers.
It's a sobering message, but also one that involves some value judgements. MacAskill advocates helping those in developing countries rather than those in the UK on the basis that most of us here are 100 times richer than the world's poorest 600 million people. Logical? Certainly. The tax breaks that come with charitable status for private schools is one obvious example of how money ends up with institutions that need it least. And I have travelled sufficiently to the developing world with charities such as Cafod, Save the Children and Mary's Meals to know the difference between need here and need there.
But if you get too fixated on numbers, you risk comparing apples with pears. Of course, £100 spent in Malawi will affect more lives than £100 spent in London, but that doesn't mean the latter £100 is wasted.
Another Longford Trust programme gives university scholarships to young serving and ex-prisoners. By MacAskill's yardstick, this scheme would probably equate to money badly spent. Not only is it only for the UK, but it also gives significant sums (typically £1,250 a year) to individuals, when that money could make an impact on many more lives.
But what scale of impact? And what would be the broader context of such spending? Would it, for example, create role models for others behind bars? Or shape individuals whose stories challenge the prevailing belief in society that most prisoners will just keep reoffending? That is a potential impact on many lives. The sums aren't so simple, but they illustrate the sort of judgements that every trustee must make.
Peter Stanford is a journalist, was a charity chair for 20 years and is now a trustee of Circles UK