We want to help others. But how can we be sure we’re having the best possible impact?
Giving effectively is a fantastic (and often underrated) way to improve others’ lives. By approaching charitable giving with the same level of thoroughness we apply to personal spending or investment decisions, we can increase our positive impact, oftentimes substantially. In essence, giving effectively involves thinking carefully about where our charitable giving can do the most good, and then taking action on that basis.
Some people lump charities into one “doing good” bucket. But research shows that they can vary significantly in their impact per dollar, or cost-effectiveness. Because our resources are limited and the scale (and number) of the world’s problems are large, it’s important to find the giving opportunities where our donations go furthest.
We might think it’s obvious which charities will do the most good. Won’t our gut or passions tell us where we should give? Unfortunately, a charity’s marketing materials and purpose statement can be quite persuasive even when its impact isn’t. Even charities that have great ideas on paper and are led by well-meaning, dedicated people can sometimes end up doing harm if the impact of the programs they run isn’t well evaluated (the famous PlayPumps example is one case study of this.)
We recommend donors leverage research to first select a high-impact problem (or “cause”) and then choose a charity or fund that is particularly well positioned to make progress on that problem. Giving What We Can recommends charities and funds highly reputable and remarkably effective.
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 a great way to contribute to this goal.
But sometimes the intense desire to help others prevents us from doing the analysis that would help us reach that goal! This isn’t true in areas of life that have lower emotional stakes: for example, it’s normal to shop around until we find products that suit our needs and fall within our budget, and 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. So why don’t we approach charity with the same level of thoroughness? After all, higher emotional stakes should mean more attention to making sure we do the best we can, not less. 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 typical ones. The two also found that some charities do little good, or even cause harm!
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.
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 nonetheless a goal worth striving for.
Why is it important to give effectively?
There are many pressing problems facing the world — from extreme poverty, to the mistreatment of nonhuman animals, to existential risks that threaten humanity’s very survival. Moreover, there are millions of charities to choose from, and it isn’t always clear which we should support.
By giving effectively, you can significantly increase your positive impact on the world.
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 $30,000–$50,000 USD to provide one sightseeing dog.
This means that donating to a charity providing this surgery would do around 30 times more good (likely even more) towards the goal of supporting a person with visual impairment; the cataract surgery could even reverse the impairment!
Even though this example is hypothetical, the numbers 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. In a more recent essay, Will MacAskill makes a similar case. Because our resources are finite, donating ineffectively means we’ll end up doing less to help others — whether that’s because we accidentally gave to a charity that did harm, or because we gave to some good charities that simply couldn’t do quite as much with our same donation. Of course, all suffering in this world is worth trying to solve. But if we can reduce more suffering, isn't that better? Just like a doctor in an emergency room, we have to triage if we are going to have a shot at creating a better world.
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:
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.
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 and/or analysis, 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, here are three good approaches to finding great giving opportunities:
Let's change the norms
Finding and funding highly effective charities working on the world’s most pressing problems can allow us to make a tremendous difference. But effective giving is still in its infancy; in other words, most people have never even heard of it!
We’re trying to change that.
At Giving What We Can, part of our mission is helping to develop a social norm where giving effectively is the default. We believe those living in higher income countries are in a relatively privileged position compared to the rest of the world, and depending on individual circumstances, can often afford to share resources with those who have less. When these resources are given to the most impactful charities, collectively, we can go a long way towards solving some of the world’s most pressing problems.
We can also greatly reduce the suffering of others, and even prevent premature deaths. This type of impact is sometimes hard to appreciate when we’re not seeing it, so let’s do a brief thought experiment to illustrate the impact you could have by donating just $5,500 over your lifetime:
Let’s imagine that you walk by a building that’s on fire. You smell the smoke, hear the screams, and see people running in a panic. You then see someone trapped inside, screaming for help. They can’t escape because a piece of the building has fallen on top of them and is blocking their exit. Miraculously, you manage to lift it, freeing the person. When the firefighters arrive, they tell you this person would most certainly have died if you hadn’t been there to rescue them.
How would you feel if this happened to you? Probably pretty good. Rescuing someone from a burning building is no small feat. It’s definitely something to feel incredibly proud of, and it’s a really good thing you were there. You enabled someone to live.
It turns out that $5,500 donated to a charity like the Against Malaria Foundation is enough to save a life. Even though our brains might not view it the same way (because we don’t viscerally smell smoke and see screaming) it’s the equivalent of rescuing someone from a burning building. If more people thought about this, we think many people’s lives could be saved.
If you agree that we have a better shot at improving the lives of others through effective giving, we hope you’ll join us in working to change the norms. In addition to using these concepts in your own charitable giving decisions, here are some things you can do:
We hope you’ll join us in creating a culture where it’s normal for people to give what they can to the organisations that can most effectively use it to improve the lives of others, now and in the years to come.
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