Learn how to give effectively

We want to help others. But how can we be sure we’re having the best possible impact?

Summary

Giving effectively is one of the best ways we can improve others’ lives. By approaching charitable giving with the same level of thoroughness we approach our personal spending with, we can increase our positive impact, oftentimes substantially. In essence, giving effectively involves taking action on the basis of where our charitable giving can do the most good, rather than some or a little bit of good.

It’s not always immediately clear what the most impactful giving opportunities are. But as a general rule of thumb, donors can maximise their impact by supporting cause areas that are large in scale, neglected, and tractable.

Once you’ve chosen a cause to focus on, the next step is to pick a charity that is well-positioned to make progress on it. Indicators that a charity is effective include reliance on evidence, cost-effectiveness, transparency, room for funding, and a strong track record. And contrary to popular belief, how much a charity spends on overhead is often far less important than these characteristics.

In practice, we recommend donating based on a trusted charity evaluator’s recommendations, such as GiveWell or Animal Charity Evaluators, or donating through a reputable fund that is focused on effectiveness.

By giving effectively, we can make the world better for all its inhabitants, for generations to come.

Combining head and heart to help more


If you’re reading this, you probably care a lot about helping others. You want to make the world a better place. Indeed, it’s natural for us to want others’ lives to be free of suffering and full of joy, and donating to charity is one way to contribute to this goal.

Moreover, it’s also normal to want to get the most value for our money in many areas of life. We shop around until we find the best products that suit our needs and fall within our budget. We carefully invest our retirement money to get the biggest returns possible. This makes sense: since our money is finite, we should try to get the most out of it when we spend or save it.

But often we don’t approach charity with the same level of thoroughness — and this can dampen our impact. This lack of scrutiny about where our donations go can be a problem, as many of us would agree that it’s better to do more good rather than less good, all else equal. But by failing to carefully consider where our donations can do the most good, we might miss the very best opportunities to help others.

In 2009, two philosophers at the University of Oxford — Toby Ord and William MacAskill — set out to explore this problem by researching which charities do the most good with each dollar spent. It wasn’t enough for the pair to do some good — they wanted to ensure their donations were helping others as much as possible. As it turns out, they found that the very best charities are far more effective at helping others than average ones. In fact, some experts estimate that the best charities are often ten to hundreds of times (and sometimes thousands!) more effective than average ones. The two also found that some charities do little good, or even cause harm!

Intervention cost-effectiveness in global health in order of DALY per $1,000 on the y-axis, from the DCP2.

Intervention cost-effectiveness in global health, in order of DALY per $1,000 on the Y-axis, from the DCP2. Compiled from The Moral Imperative Towards Cost Effectiveness by Toby Ord.


The pair concluded that a tremendous amount of good could be done by carefully combining the head and the heart to analyse and compare charities based on how effective they are at helping others. From this conclusion came Giving What We Can, an organisation dedicated to creating a culture where people are inspired to give a meaningful amount to the world’s most effective charities.

We think for most people in high-income countries, effective giving is one of the best ways to have an impact. Let us show you how.

What does it mean to give effectively?


Give → using our resources to benefit others

We give to charity because we want to help others. When we see suffering in the world, it’s natural to feel an emotional pull to do something about it. Giving to charity is one way to turn this emotional response into direct, positive action.

image shows different ways of giving


Effectively → achieving the best results with the resources we choose to give

In essence, giving effectively involves taking action on the basis of where our charitable giving can do the most good, rather than some or a little bit of good.

There’s reason to believe that choosing where to give can be more important than choosing how much to give. Since charities often differ considerably in how effective they are, it’s worthwhile to take the time to research which can produce the greatest benefit with each dollar.

It’s important to remember that doing the “most good” is a target to aim for, not a standard you should expect to hit every time you try to improve others’ lives. In this sense, it’s more of an active question rather than a set of answers — one that you’ll need to think carefully about, and one that you may never have the perfect answer for. While it’s nearly impossible to tell if any specific action we take is going to do the “most good,” we think it’s a goal worth striving for regardless.

Why is it important to give effectively?

By giving effectively, you can significantly increase your positive impact on the world.

There are many pressing problems facing the world — from extreme poverty, to the mistreatment of nonhuman animals, to existential risks that threaten the survival of humanity. Moreover, there are millions of charities to choose from, and it isn’t always clear which we should support. But taking the time to compare charities is critical if we’re going to have the biggest impact we can. By giving to the world’s most effective charities, we can increase our positive impact on the world substantially, often more than by simply increasing the total amount we give. Let’s see how this is true with an example.

Suppose a donor is considering making a $1,000 donation to one of two charities: Charity A, which offers corrective surgery for blindness-inducing cataracts, and Charity B, which provides sightseeing dogs to individuals with limited vision. On the conservative end, it costs around $1,000 to reverse a severe case of visual impairment. Conversely, it typically costs about $70,000 to support a guide dog from birth to retirement.

This means that donating to a charity providing this surgery is able to do at least 70 times more good than training a guide dog with each dollar donated. In other words, $1,000 worth of donations could only fund a small fraction of the cost of training a guide dog, while the same amount could prevent someone from going blind in the first place.

Even though this example is hypothetical, the numbers in this example are real. And more importantly, the tradeoffs involved when choosing between charities are real. Any donation made to train guide dogs cannot also be made to provide corrective surgery. By donating to one, we end up making an implicit value judgement about the goodness of the other.

In his essay on the moral imperative toward cost-effectiveness, Toby Ord points out that failing to prioritise our charitable giving can mean thousands of additional deaths or illnesses. Because our resources are finite, we could lose out on the vast majority of the value of our donations if we donate ineffectively. Of course, all suffering in this world is worth trying to solve. But if we could reduce more suffering, isn't that better?

How to give effectively

With millions of charities to choose from, how can we tell if they’re effective? When deciding where to give, there are two important steps to consider:

  1. Find high-impact causes — ones that work to solve the world’s most pressing problems.
  2. Support the charities that are most likely to make progress on them.

Find high-impact causes

As individuals, we have limited resources and can't support every worthy cause. Therefore, we have to make some difficult decisions about where we spend our resources. As seen in the previous example, any dollar that goes to one charity cannot go to another. If you want to do as much good as possible, the first key step is to make sure you’re focusing on the world’s most high-impact causes.

It’s not always immediately clear what the most impactful causes are, as reasonable people can disagree about what the world’s priorities ought to be. But as a general rule of thumb, donors can maximise their impact by supporting cause areas that are large in scale, neglected, and tractable.

  • Scale: A cause area that is large in scale is one that affects many individuals and affects them severely.
  • Neglected: A cause area that is neglected means it is not getting the attention or funding it needs. By focusing on neglected cause areas, there are more opportunities for having an impact by addressing “low-hanging fruit.”
  • Tractable: A cause area that has tractable solutions means there is a reasonable likelihood of making progress. All else being equal, it’s better to work on problems that have potential solutions, or at least have some opportunities for improvement.


Pick charities that can make progress

Once you’ve chosen a cause to focus on, the next step is to pick a charity that is well-positioned to make progress on it. Indicators that a charity is effective include reliance on evidence, cost-effectiveness, transparency, room for funding, and a strong track record. And contrary to popular belief, how much a charity spends on overhead is often far less important than these characteristics.

These indicators are not always obvious, however. Evaluating charities takes time and expertise that many donors cannot realistically achieve by themselves. In light of these difficulties, there are three good approaches to finding great giving opportunities:

  • Donate based on a trusted charity evaluator’s recommendations. An easy way to identify highly effective charities is to follow the advice of charity evaluators who prioritise effectiveness in their charity reviews, such as GiveWell or Animal Charity Evaluators. These organisations spend tens of thousands of hours carefully considering the evidence each year so your donations can do as much good as possible.
  • Donate through a fund. For most people, we recommend donating through a reputable fund that's focused on effectiveness. Funds are both convenient for donors and highly effective, as they help donors pool their money to fund outstanding giving opportunities that are evaluated by expert grantmakers and trusted charity evaluators.
  • Learn from an effective giving community. Giving What We Can is a community of over 8,000 people who are passionate about effective giving. You can learn more about effective giving by seeing where our members give, attending an event, and (if you have taken a pledge) joining our members' Facebook group.


Spread the word

Finding and funding highly effective charities working on the world’s most pressing problems can allow us to make a tremendous difference. But you can further multiply your impact by promoting effective giving to others. Good ideas can’t spread unless we share them. By spreading the word, you can play a direct role in helping develop a social norm where giving effectively is the default.

One effective way to spread the word is by taking a public giving pledge. By pledging a portion of your income to the world’s most effective charities, you’re taking direct action against the world’s most pressing problems. Publicly demonstrating your commitment to improving others’ lives is not just an excellent way to inspire others; some of our members believe it is one of the most meaningful things they’ve ever done. It might be for you, too.

Together we can make the world better for all its inhabitants, for generations to come.

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