Your donations can do an astonishing amount of good. However, the impact can vary wildly depending on where you donate.
The best charities can be at least 10 times better than a typical charity within the same area and hundreds of times better than poorly performing charities, while the worst charities can do harm.
Imagine you had $100 to spend to help improve school attendance of school children in low-income countries. How many additional years of school could that buy?
Providing merit scholarships for girls would result in about a month or two of school attendance (0.15 years). That would seem like a pretty good deal, right? However, if you spent that $100 on school-based deworming treatments it would result in about 14 years of school — that’s almost 100 times more schooling.
Furthermore, that same deworming programme could give an extra year of healthy life for roughly $28–$70 (according to charity evaluator GiveWell). In comparison, new cancer drugs are generally recommended in Australia if their cost per year of healthy life saved is around $45,000–$75,000 — a factor of almost 1,000.
At least merit scholarships and new cancer drugs have positive effects — they still improve schooling and save lives. That isn’t always the case. Suppose you were to spend that same $100 on trying to prevent juvenile offending using the “Scared Straight” programme. In that case, it’s estimated that would have a negative effect, costing society $29,300 for that $100 invested.
We’ve collated a list of examples at the bottom of this page, but first...
Most people find this surprising, but it probably shouldn’t be. We’re used to seeing uneven distributions in all kinds of fields:
Furthermore, charities don’t have the same competitive dynamics as the private sector because it's not the beneficiary that pays for the intervention. If one company is charging $10,000 for a laptop and another company is charging $1,000 for a better laptop, the first company wouldn’t survive long. However, a donor will often donate the same amount regardless of the impact.
Yes, it has a real tangible cost. We just notice it less when it’s affecting others (especially if they’re far away in distance or time, or otherwise different enough from us).
When reading numbers that affect others, the only difference between 1 and 100 is two little zeros — it doesn’t feel significant. Our brains don’t really intuitively have an emotional sense of scale (psychologists call this phenomena scope insensitivity).
To get a sense of scale, it can help to try and picture the impact very personally.
Take a moment to slowly read and imagine each of these examples:
Notice that initial dropping of the stomach, followed by an amazing sense of relief? That is what 10x–100x feels like.
The good news is that:
A typical American who donated 10% of their income to an effective charity could choose to save an estimated 40 lives over their career (e.g. ~45 years, ~$50k income, $5,500 per life saved donating to Against Malaria Foundation, according to GiveWell’s estimate).
It’s amazing how we can significantly improve the lives of others if we use our resources effectively.
If you’re convinced that it’s important to improve the lives of others, consider taking a pledge to donate a meaningful portion of your income to help improve the lives of others. It can help you live up to your values, meet like-minded people, and inspire others to follow suit.
If you’re driven to have an impact, you may also be able to significantly help others by pursuing a high-impact career, volunteering, or advocating for effective ways of improving the world.
We’ve collated the following table of examples which illustrate this underlying point by drawing comparisons with publicly available data.
However, there are some things worth noting:
|More effective||Less effective||Difference|
|Cataract surgery ~$1,000 per severe visual impairment reversed||Seeing eye dogs ~$40,000 per dog||~40x for somewhat similar outcome|
|Antimalarial bed nets ~$10,000 per 2 deaths averted||Make-A-Wish ~$9,000 per wish granted||Similar cost for vastly different outcome|
|Chlorine dispensers ~$2 per diarrhoeal incident avoided||Handwashing promotion + free soap ~$14 per diarrhoeal incident avoided||~7x for same outcome|
|The Humane League corporate campaigns + activities ~$1,000 per 100,000 farm animal lives improved||Animal shelters rescue ~$1,000 per 2.45 dogs/cats rescued||~40,000x for similar outcome with different animals|
The best charities are ones that are evaluated to be highly impactful — they work on an important problem and do the most good with the resources they have. The worst charities are ones that actively harm those whom they intend to help, or society at large.
If you've made it this far, we hope you're inspired to give more, and to give more effectively.
Join the Giving What We Can community by taking a pledge 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.
Not ready to pledge? You can also donate to an effective charity, sign up to our newsletter, read our blog, attend an event, join an effective altruism group, or get in touch if you'd like to discuss anything.
If you have any updated figures or examples to add to this page, please contact us to let us know.