Choosing a cause to support

As individuals, we are not able to help everyone in need and so we must make difficult decisions about where we use our resources. If you care about doing the most good you can do, it is important to support causes that offer the greatest opportunities for impact.

In the following video, Giving What We Can co-founder Will MacAskill discusses the importance of supporting high-impact cause areas:

A useful framework for selecting causes

To select a cause that offers you the greatest opportunity for having an impact, we recommend assessing each cause’s scale, tractability, and need for more funding.

  • A cause area that is large in scale is one that affects many individuals, and affects them significantly.
  • A cause area that is tractable offers a reasonable chance of making progress. It’s a problem that has some potential solutions.
  • A cause area that has a significant need for more funding is one that is not getting the attention and support it deserves.

Generally, donors can maximise their impact by supporting cause areas that are large-scale, tractable, and in need of funding. Below, we explore these factors further.

Prioritise causes that are large in scale.

The cause areas that are largest in scale affect many lives, and affect them a significant amount.

For example, curing a rare disease is good, but curing a similar — but more common — disease has a bigger impact because more people are affected. The sizes of the red rectangles in the charts below represent the size of impact:

Similarly, curing a disease which causes a small irritation would have a positive impact, but curing a disease that causes a lot of suffering would have a larger impact. It affects people more significantly:

Of course, the most high-impact cause areas affect many lives and affect them significantly:

Prioritise causes with tractable solutions.

The most tractable causes offer a reasonable chance of making progress. All else equal, we'd rather work on a problem that has some potential solutions, or at least has some opportunities for improvement.

For example, if your goal is to reduce the risk of human extinction, you're more likely to make a difference if you support pandemic preparedness than if you try to prevent the heat death of the universe. Preventing the heat death of the universe is not currently tractable, whereas preparing for future pandemics is quite tractable. Your donor dollars are more likely to have an impact if they support a tractable cause.

Prioritise causes that are relatively in need.

Causes with a large need for more funding can be fantastic giving opportunities. More popular causes (like those covered regularly in the news) may already be getting a lot of resources. Meanwhile, ongoing or less surprising problems (like the ongoing fight against malaria) tend to be more neglected. All else equal, you can do a greater amount of good by finding and supporting causes that have a greater need for funding.

Other factors to consider

  • Personal values. Which causes are you most passionate about? While we recommend selecting a cause primarily on the basis of its impact, you can choose between multiple causes with roughly equal expected impacts based on your personal values. You could also reserve a small portion of your donation budget for areas you're especially passionate about.
  • Expertise. If you have expertise in a particular area, you may be particularly well-suited to evaluate organisations working in that area. For instance, if you are a doctor, you might be able to maximise your impact by evaluating medical research and donating to the most promising projects.
  • Availability of effective charities working in the area. Some causes are large-scale, tractable, and in need, but perhaps they're in too much need. If there are no effective charities currently working on a cause, it might be better to either choose a different cause (until more options become available), invest in research (to help find tractable solutions), or invest in Charity Entrepreneurship (to help create new effective charities).

Cause areas we think are highly impactful

Using the frameworks discussed, we have identified four cause areas that we think are especially promising. Our research pages discuss each of these causes, including why we think they are high priority and which organisations you can donate to in order to make progress on them:

Join our community

If you have any questions about donation opportunities, please check out our giving recommendations, read our FAQ, join us at an event, or get in touch. We're happy to help maximise the impact of your donations.

If you haven't already, consider pledging to donate a meaningful portion of your income to help improve the lives of others. It can help you to live up to your values, meet like-minded people, and inspire others to follow suit.