Myths and Misconceptions About Charity

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There are many good reasons to donate to effective charities. However, there are also many reasons people don't donate to charity, often based on certain persistent myths and misconceptions about the impact of charitable giving.

This page contains a collection of common myths. Many of them contain elements of truth, but they are ultimately false or misleading. To learn why, click on each myth for more information.

Understanding the myths behind common objections to charitable giving will help prevent the spread of misinformation and inspire more people to use their resources effectively to improve the world. You can continue learning from our list of relevant resources. Join the Giving What We Can community for events and meetups with like-minded people.

If you have a question or comment that has not been addressed here, please feel free to get in touch!

Myths About Charity and Donations

The "Causal Impotence" Myth

Myth: One donor can't make a difference.
Truth: One donor can make a significant difference, if they donate effectively.

Read more: Can an individual donor really make a difference?

The "Taxes-as-Charity" Myth

Myth: I already support my community by paying taxes, so I don't need to give to charity.
Truth: Taxes support public services in your home country, but donating to charity can help you improve — or even save — many lives around the world.

Read more: If I pay my taxes, why should I also give to charity?

The "Myth of the Political/Philanthropic Dilemma"

Myth: Charity is a temporary solution to certain problems, but only political action can create meaningful, systemic change.
Truth: Charity and political action are not mutually exclusive. Both play an important role in changing the world.

Read more: Don't we need political action rather than charity?

The "Overhead" Myth

Myth: Looking at a charity's overhead costs is key to evaluating its effectiveness.
Truth: A charity's overhead costs do not necessarily tell us anything about its effectiveness.

Read more: What are some problems with "overhead costs" as a metric?

Myths About Effective Altruism

The "Poverty Focus" Myth

Myth: Effective altruists are primarily focused on reducing global poverty.
Truth: Many effective altruists are focused on global poverty, but many are focused on other cause areas, like helping animals, safeguarding the long-term future, and changing social norms regarding charitable giving.

Read more: Is effective altruism just about fighting poverty? (80,000 Hours)

The "Commitment to Measurability" Myth

Myth: Effective altruists only value short-term, measurable outcomes.
Truth: Because effective altruists take an evidence-based approach to charity, they may be biased towards interventions that produce measurable outcomes. However, many effective altruists work to counterbalance this bias by pushing for systemic change as well.

Read more: Do effective altruists only value short-term, measurable outcomes?

The "Utilitarianism" Myth

Myth: Effective altruism is another term for a moral theory called "utilitarianism."
Truth: There are similarities between effective altruism and utilitarianism, but not all effective altruists are utilitarians, and vice versa.

Read more: Is effective altruism just utilitarianism? (80,000 Hours)

Myths About Global Health, Development, and Foreign Aid

The "Ineffectual Aid" Myth

Myth: Foreign aid and international giving have had little or no effect on the world's biggest problems.
Truth: Foreign aid and international giving have helped maked significant progress in global health and development.

Read more: Can foreign aid and international charity make a difference?

The "Overspending on Aid" Myth

Myth: We already spend too much on foreign aid.
Truth: High-income countries only spend a tiny amount on foreign aid, relative to their wealth.

Read more: Don't we spend too much on foreign aid already?

The "Dependency" Myth

Myth: International charity and aid just make low-income countries dependent on handouts.
Truth: Effective aid programs can help strengthen local institutions, create opportunities for long-term growth, and reduce dependence on foreign aid in recipient countries.

Read more: Does aid make low-income countries dependent on handouts?

The "Corruption" Myth

Myth: Foreign aid is diverted and wasted due to corruption in recipient goverments.
Truth: While corruption can occur in aid transactions, we can be smarter about our giving by (i) demanding transparency from governments and (ii) donating to verified, effective charites.

Read more: Does corruption in recipient governments interfere with foreign aid?

The "Charity Begins at Home" Myth

Myth: Charity begins at home. We should solve our own problems before helping others.
Truth: Charity begins at home in the sense that we should practice compassion and generosity with those around us. However, it doesn't end at home; we should extend that generosity to individuals and communities around the world.

Read more: Charity begins at home. Should we solve our own problems before helping others?

The "Waiting for Growth" Myth

Myth: Economic growth will lift people out of povery, so we should focus on growth rather than charity.
Truth: Economic growth would take decades to lift the majority of the world's poor out of poverty, even under optimistic projections. Meanwhile, effective charitable giving can save or improve billions of lives.

Read more: Shouldn't we focus on economic growth, which can lift people out of poverty?

Myths About Helping Animals

The "Humans First" Myth

Myth: We should address human suffering before we work to alleviate animal suffering.
Truth: We can simultaneously work towards making the world a better place for humans and nonhuman animals.

Read more: Shouldn't we address human suffering before working to reduce animal suffering?

The "One Way Only" Myth

Myth: Effective altruists only support the single most effective way of helping animals.
Truth: There is no single most effective way to help animals; the most effective animal advocacy movement is a diverse animal advocacy movement.

Read more: Is effective animal advocacy based on an assumption that there is only one right way to advocate for animals? (Animal Charity Evaluators)

The "Farmed Animals Only" Myth

Myth: Animal advocates in the effective altruism movement only care about farmed animals.
Truth: Effective animal advocates work to help animals as effectively as they can — this includes farmed land animals, aquatic animals, wild animals, and domesticated animals.

Read more: Do effective animal advocates only care about farmed animals?

Myths About Safeguarding the Long-Term Future

The "Prediction" Myth

Myth: Trying to protect the long-term future is pointless because it’s impossible to predict the long-term effects of our actions.
Truth: Trying to protect the long-term future doesn’t necessarily require us to know what will happen in the future.

Read more: Does protecting the long-term future require us to predict the future? (Jack Malde, EA Forum)