The genetic tree of aid

Just as DNA is the “genetic code” of life, non-profit organizations encode their existence in the text of their mission statements, fundraisers, project proposals, and reports. I pulled this information from 2,988 projects on GlobalGiving in order to create a genetic tree of how all projects and causes relate to each other, using a method I described previously. This is the result.



  • Education has many flavors. Education for “literacy” is closely related to inspiring (supporting hopes and dreams) and poor kids or orphans. It takes on a different flavor when the focus is on “for girls,” or “for women,” or “child sponsorship.” And farthest from these are education projects focused on sustaining the school itself, such as alumni fundraisers and “booster clubs” that provide books or musical equipment from well wishers.
  • Most categories are people-centered, not thing-centered. This algorithm is “unsupervised” and self-organizes the groups based on similarity in the language used by organizations. The major types of “beneficiary” groups in the world are women, girls, orphans, animals, wildlife, pets, youth, teens, children, refugees, leaders, and entrepreneurs.
  • Health did not resolve into its own cluster. Health one of the largest categories of projects on GlobalGiving. Health projects are mixed into all the other categories, except for cancer. Cancer is primarily a first-world problem and gets its own small category.
  • Disaster, crisis, and emergency relief work is conjoined with youth and teen crisis support work.  Perhaps it’s not just the word crisis, but also the way organizations approach the problem that leads to similar language.
  • The two competing “super-families” of aid work focus on (1) addressing the problem and (2) addressing how people feel about the problem. Within the “addressing the problem” super-family, there are two main sub-families: (1a) responding to threats and (1b) donating stuff. If you follow the branches up the tree, that’s what I see, at least.


Bonus: Addressed versus unaddressed needs

The above projects are limited to successful projects – those that raised money. Below is a similar map of nearly 3000 projects that did not raise any money. These are the unaddressed needs of the world, as NGOs see them. The themes are generally the same, but not identical.


While it’s not statistically definitive, it suggests that the “changing how we feel about problems” fraction of the unfunded mandates map is much smaller than the “dealing with the problem” part. Aids, violence, and the environment loom as larger issues here. The problems of the dark global underworld also loom larger – child trafficking, rape culture, domestic violence, slavery, reproductive rights.

The concept of “feeducation” pops out too. That’s a term I just coined, where you run a school in order to both feed and educate poor children. Parents send their kids to school for meals, and the learning sometimes comes along for the ride. For whatever reason, this idea doesn’t attract as much funding as either a feeding program or an education program.

In a future blog post, I’ll contrast the difference between – borrowing language from evolutionary biology here – NGO “genotypes” and “phenotypes.” These charts describe the genotypes of all aid projects. These are the intentions, aspirations, and blueprints for projects. But by contrasting these with all the progress reports and community stories about NGO work in other databases, we can construct a genetic tree of the “phenotypes” – real world effects of these efforts with their intended impacts. Contrasting the idea with the reality – this is what comparing genotypes with phenotypes is all about. We are not our DNA, and projects are not impact. Whatever the people affected by these projects describe – that is the real impact of our good intentions.

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