In late April 2017 Vipul Naik sponsored my creation of the timeline of Against Malaria Foundation. I spent around 33 hours working on the timeline in all. In the process I had various thoughts about the organization that didn’t suit the timeline format. This page gathers some of these thoughts.
Some of these thoughts may come across in a “devil’s advocate” kind of way. Indeed, as AMF is so highly regarded in EA circles, part of my interest was to think “What could an intelligent and motivated critic dig up about AMF?”
One thing I found odd was how little information there is about the two main people running the organization, Rob Mather and Andrew Garner. I think I read just about every biographical blurb about Rob Mather that’s available on the internet, and I still have no idea who he is. He was supposedly a successful businessman, but what was the company he worked for? Who were his clients? When did he graduate from university? If you look at the old trustees page, you might notice that for many of the biographies, people list where they’ve worked (“Brand Director for Sainsbury’s supermarkets and prior to that Marketing Director for Coca-Cola across Central Europe and for L’Oreal in the UK”, “Lehman”, “Executive Director of Capital & Regional Plc, a UK listed property company”, etc.), but this is not the case for Rob Mather. We are talking about a guy running a charity that has raised over $100 million who appeared out of nowhere in 2003.
I think Andrew Garner is similarly a mystery. Yes, you can find his barely-active Twitter account and some old publications in physics, but aside from that, there isn’t a lot that I could find.
I think for an organization so small, one really does have to look at the people to understand the organization, and the fact that both of the co-founders are basically mysteries is pretty strange, especially given that AMF is touted as being exceptionally transparent.
AMF’s headcount is also inconsistent. Their job posting gives five people, but their “People” page only lists three. Maybe Sean Good (listed on the AMF Wikipedia page, and apparently the AMF treasurer) counts as the fourth, but who even is the fifth?
For a charity that is listed as a top charity or recommended charity at various effective altruist evaluators, I thought that the history of AMF revealed something far less reflective and “EA-minded” than one might suppose. The original “Swim For Terri” event seems like the epitome of ineffective altruism: swimming to help a single two-year old who was badly burned, and doing so only because one was persuaded by a television documentary.
I was also not aware that AMF had been doing a bunch of “fundraising gimmicks” like partnering on Nightmare: Malaria and holding events like Madness Against Malaria. But did these things actually matter? The reason I was even writing the timeline is because (apparently) AMF has done a good job in being transparent and was lucky enough to stumble on bednets as an intervention.
Another thing I find weird is that many people, when talking about AMF, say that AMF “distributes” bednets. But this isn’t actually the case; AMF manages the logistics of taking in donations, buying the bednets, and coordinating with the actual bednet distributors. The following description, due to GiveWell, seems way better: “AMF works by sourcing, evaluating and negotiating deals for net distributions”.
AMF also had tried since 2009 to achieve tax-deductibility status in Australia, but only in 2015 did it actually achieve this. It’s unclear to me whether this means Australian tax law is somehow really complicated, or whether AMF messed up and applied for the wrong thing. See e.g. this 2013 post and this GiveWell blog post.
Overall I didn’t get the impression that AMF is exceptional as an organization. It is somehow good at asking for things/asking a bunch of different people for things.