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 cofounder Will MacAskill discusses the importance of supporting high-impact cause areas:
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.
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:
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.
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 (e.g., 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.
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 — this may mean you get to satisfy any personal obligations or pulls you feel towards a particular cause, while still giving the majority of your donations to the causes that you think constitute the best opportunity for impact overall.
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 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.
Giving to expert-managed funds is a highly efficient way to donate — funds allow donors to pool their donations so that they can be allocated where and when they are needed most, based on the expertise of specialised grantmakers. This also reduces the need to conduct research into causes and charities yourself. Instead, you can choose which grantmakers or fund align most with your values, and then let experts evaluate which cause and charity may be the highest-impact opportunity based on those values. Read more about why we recommend funds.
You can read more about causes that score highly according to this framework, and learn about our giving recommendations on charities and funds working on these causes.