Blog post

Christmas gifts, goats and cash-transfer charities

3 min read
12 Dec 2012

This was originally posted on the 80,000 hours blog.

It’s getting closer to Christmas, and we’re running out of time to get presents for friends and family. It can be hard to work out what presents people will actually enjoy. An increasingly popular option is to make a donation on behalf of someone else as a present.

When it comes to presents, it seems like a thoughtful gift is better than a gift certificate, and a gift certificate is better than a thoughtless gift. It’s a lot like that for charity gifts too. Your best options are likely to be donations towards the most effective charities that can get the benefits of collective action. Next in line are going to be well-run cash transfer charities. And in last place will be the unasked for gift of a goat.

Why “give a goat”?

What was originally a fairly uninspired set of options for charity gifts has since turned into a wide range of charitable choices for the holidays. Oxfam alone lets you select gifts from multiple projects.

But the old stand-by is sending farm animals to developing countries. This seems unlikely to be motivated by effectiveness. I googled “Give a _____ for christmas” for a bunch of farm animals and wrote down the estimated number of search results.

  • Goat: 22,200
  • Cow: 1,630
  • Chicken: 130
  • Pig: 49
  • Sheep: 4
  • (an) Ox: 0

Now, it’s possible that goats are just much much more valuable to rural people living in developing countries than any other sort of animal. Alternatively, it’s possible that the alliteration of “g” in “Give a goat” makes for catchier headlines. I don’t know for sure, but I have my suspicions.

There are also some decent reasons to think, as reported by Givewell, that donations of livestock might be a particularly ineffective way to help the developing world. They seem to be quite a lot like cash transfers, but with a bunch of extra question marks.

With a cash transfer (which is currently GiveWell’s second recommended charity after AMF) you empower people to make a decision about what they want most and buy it. That is, cash transfers are like the gift certificate of the charity world.

There are some real problems with cash transfers. For example they can lead to resentment and arguments when some people receive the transfer and others don’t or have distorting effects on local economies.

But with animals you lose most of the benefit of cash-transfers - you’re just deciding for people what you think they’ll want. You also avoid many of the benefits of the best non-cash transfer charities. Buying someone a goat for Christmas is like getting someone chocolate. You didn’t ask them what they wanted, you don’t really know them too well personally, so you just got the first thing on the shelf that looked like a present. The difference is that chocolate won’t poop on your floor.

But that doesn’t mean we have to just cave in and do the charity equivalent of a gift certificate. What’s the analogue to a really nice thoughtful gift that suits someone perfectly?

It turns out, you can get a thoughtful gift and donate to the most effective charities at the same time! Giving What We Can has it all. Their website lets you make a donation to one of their top recommended charities.