If you want to give money to a non-profit organization, that’s easy. There are dozens of charities just within your local area, and thousands more can be found via the internet. All of them will be more than willing to take your donation, and I’m sure many of them even solicit you for donations on a regular basis. You can even go to a website like Philanthroper, which showcases a different charity each day, asking for a $1 daily donation.
But let’s say you wanted to take your charitable giving as far as you can — ensuring not just that you probably helped a few people, but rather that you helped as many people as you could, as much as you can. While a $1 donation a day won’t solve any epic world problems like disease, hunger, poverty immediately and forever, that doesn’t mean you can’t make sure that you’re doing as much as you can, given that it will add up with everyone else’s donations toward an epic solution and given that it still will help some people along the way.
In fact, this quest to figure out how to help as many people as you could, as much as you can is pretty much the mission of the Denison Venture Philanthropy Club. Each year, we send a request for proposals from non-profit organizations in our local Licking County community, asking what they would do with a $10,000 grant and 200 hours of service from our members, and then we go through a selection process to give this grant to the organization we decide as a group we would be most effective at helping to help others.
However, regular folks with cash on hand that they want to send to a charity don’t necessarily have a group they can meet up with and commit an entire semester of extracurricular work to searching out effective giving opportunities. Fortunately, if you’re interested in giving effectively, organizations such as GiveWell, GivingWhatWeCan, and LessWrong have some suggestions to help you along your way. Here’s a summary of seven suggestions for how to donate to help as many people as you could, as much as you can:
#1: Remember That Not All Charities Are Created Equal
While it would be nice to think that a dollar spent on a certain charity is just as good as a dollar spent elsewhere, it seems to not be so. Indeed, you don’t donate to charity in general like the idea of “giving to charity” may make it seem, but rather you donate to a specific organization, and just like companies, some organizations are better run than others.
#2: Start By Looking At Your Causes
Many individuals and organizations, Denison VPC included, start by choosing a single cause or category of causes, like “poverty” or “homelessness” first, before thinking about where to donate, and then limit their choice of donating only to organizations within that category. Often, this category is chosen “from the heart”, with little analysis. While doing this shouldn’t make you feel bad at all, and it might be considered a good strategy in order to narrow down the amount of research you have to do later on, it’s important to recognize that in terms of effective giving you are skipping a step, and the folks at GiveWell argue that this step is important.
Holden Karnofsky, the co-founder of GiveWell who quit working in a hedge fund to work on researching charity full-time, writes:
[O]ur working hypothesis is that the biggest room for improvement lies in step #1 – picking causes. This is where existing philanthropists seem to be least thoughtful and to ask the fewest critical questions; yet this is where we’d guess the bulk of variation in ‘how much good a philanthropist accomplishes’ comes from.
Don’t forget about the choice you make when you go to limit your donation, because that limitation may make you miss out on an even better giving opportunity to help even more people with the same amount of money than you otherwise would.
#3: Consider the Developing World
One general cause people may miss out on is donating to helping people in the developing world. The folks at GiveWell put it like this:
We understand the sentiment that ‘charity starts at home,’ and we used to agree with it, until we learned just how different U.S. charity is from charity aimed at the poorest people in the world. Helping people in the U.S. usually involves tackling extremely complex, poorly understood problems. [...] In the poorest parts of the world, people suffer from very different problems. A child may die of malaria for lack of a $10 bednet, or of diarrhea for lack of a 5-cent packet of nutrients.
Less Wrong author Scott Siskind puts it very bluntly with this comparison:
Most donors say they want to ‘help people’. If that’s true, they should try to distribute their resources to help people as much as possible. Most people don’t. In the ‘Buy A Brushstroke’ campaign, eleven thousand British donors gave a total of £550,000 to keep the famous painting ‘Blue Rigi’ in a UK museum. If they had given that £550,000 to buy better sanitation systems in African villages instead, the latest statistics suggest it would have saved the lives of about one thousand two hundred people from disease. [...] Most of those 11,000 donors genuinely wanted to help people by preserving access to the original canvas of a beautiful painting. And most of those 11,000 donors, if you asked, would say that a thousand people’s lives are more important than a beautiful painting, original or no.
It’s important to note that this isn’t trying to be cause snobbish — “my cause is better than your cause”. This also isn’t to say that efforts to preserve art or efforts to donate to relief in the United States don’t matter at all. Rather, we must realize that whenever we donate money, we are making a choice about what we want to save. And when lives are at stake, your choice of donation can really matter.
#4: Look For Demonstrations of Specific Effectiveness
Pretty much no matter which cause you’re looking to fund, whether it is in the developing world or not, there are going to be a few organizations competing for your donation. The people working at GivingWhatWeCan took a look at the data provided by the Unite Nations Disease Control Project which sought to evaluate all the proposed health interventions being suggested by organizations. Based on this data, they write:
Your choice of charity is very important. By choosing carefully you can get much more impact from your donation and thereby help many more people. Indeed, it is not even a matter of some charities being 10 or 100 times as effective: even restricted to the field of health programs in developing countries, research shows that some are up to 1,000 times as effective as others.
In order to decide between multiple organizations, GivingWhatWeCan would admonish you to look for demonstrations of specific effectiveness — evidence that the organization your considering is actually doing good things that work. Now of course, this doesn’t mean that organizations that don’t have this evidence aren’t doing good things that work, but it leaves us with lots of uncertainty. Just because an organization sounds well-meaning and seems like it’s working, doesn’t mean it is.
But be careful about what kind of data you take into account. Some charity evaluators focus on a ratio of “administrative expenses” to “money being given directly to people in need”, with the idea that charities should spend as little on administrative expenses as possible. But low administrative expenses does not translate into a more effective organization, but actually a less effective one.
Efficiency is great, but who the heck came up with the idea that efficiency means low “administrative expenses”? When I think of what’s included in administrative expenses, the following jump to mind:
* Salaries for executives
* Technology infrastructure
* Self-tracking and -evaluation
For-profit companies spend boatloads on all of these things, and it isn’t because they’re being extravagant–it’s because these things are cost-effective. When you’re doing something complex and difficult (like, say, trying to improve the lives of Africans who suffer from a host of interrelated problems), you need to get great people and keep them happily employed, you need to have good tools to leverage their skills, and you need to be stepping back and looking at what you’re doing and how you can improve it.
But if that’s an example of data we shouldn’t use, what kind of data should we use? Unfortunately, self-evaluation of non-profit work is not very widespread. However, GiveWell themselves collects as much hard data as they can find on charitable organizations, and provides all their research on their site for you to take advantage of. They also provide a do-it-yourself kit of charity evaluation questions for you to try to get data out of your preferred charities. Philanthropedia collects the opinions of thousands of expert non-profit professionals.
#5: Consider Giving More
Once you’ve chosen an effective organization, you still don’t actually help anyone unless you… you know… actually give the donation. This is still the key part, and GivingWhatWeCan is determined to convince you to give even more money than you might be planning on — calling for a pledge for people to donate 10% of their income to the most effective charities:
We chose 10% because it strikes a good balance. On the one hand it is a significant proportion of one’s income: it recognizes the importance of the problem and that we must be prepared to make some real sacrifice to prevent it. Yet it is also within reach of almost everyone in the developed world. Indeed, the idea of giving 10% to the poor has been with us since ancient times (when the givers were much poorer than we are today) and still exists in many religious circles in the form of tithing. It may seem impossible to give 10% of your income, but it rarely is. After all, there are a great many people who are living on substantially less than 90% of what we currently earn.
I recognize that how much one chooses to donate is often an intensely personal decision, but charity does fit into a bigger picture: not only does choosing whether you donate a dollar to Charity A or Charity B make a big difference in how much you can help others, but choosing whether you buy an extra burrito versus donating a dollar to charity can also make a big difference in how much you can help others.
While I’d praise a donation of any size to any source, I find it important to remember that every dollar I have has the potential to drastically improve the lives of those who not only can’t afford burritos, but can barely afford the basic things needed to survive. Honestly, the more you donate, often the more effective you can be at helping others.
#6: Consider Telling Others
The current culture of donations insists that all money given to charity must be done anonymously, and you must never tell other people about what you have done. Typically, this has something to do with the purity of the donation — telling others about your donating habits sounds like boasting and simple status-raising, which diminishes the authenticity of your altruism.
The problem is that other people often won’t donate unless they are aware of the urgency of the causes they could be supporting and how much the people around them are giving, and both these don’t happen unless they are somehow informed. And it’s possible to advocate on behalf of making a donation without sounding like a holier-than-thou jerk.
Less Wrong author Louie Helm writes:
Remember, deep down, most people really do want to find a way to help others or save the world. They just might not be looking for it all the time. So tell people what you’re up to and if they want to know more, tell them that too. You shouldn’t expect everyone to join you, but you should at least give people a chance to surprise you. And there are other less obvious things you can do, like join networking groups for your cause or link to the website of your favorite cause a lot from your blog and other sites where they might not be mentioned quite so much. That way, they can consistently turn up higher in Google searches. Or post this article on Facebook. Some of your friends will be happy you shared it with them. Just saying.
#7: Have Fun With It!
Lastly, it’s important to have fun with this process, and keep focused on what you are doing to save the world. Not only does it matter to you because I imagine you want to have fun and be happy about your helping, but it matters to the people you help because happy people are often more willing to donate. Indeed, this breeds a cycle — as my fellow author Kate Kloster mentioned in her post “money can in fact buy happiness…if you’re not spending it on yourself”, so you donate and make yourself happy, and in turn, you become more likely to donate more later on.
Less Wrong writer Luke Muelhauser mentions this concept:
In one study [Anik et al. 2010], researchers asked each subject to describe the last time they spent either $20 or $100 on themselves or on someone else. Next, researchers had each participant report their level of happiness, and then predict which future spending behavior ($5 or $20, on themselves or others) would make them happiest.
Subjects assigned to recall prosocial spending reported being happier than those assigned to recall personal spending. Moreover, this reported happiness predicted the future spending choice, but neither the purchase amount nor the purchasing target (oneself or others) did. So happiness and giving do seem to reinforce each other.
There can be a lot of fun in finding effective organizations within important causes, and donating more money to them than you otherwise would, and then reinforcing this concept by passing the word on. And not only do you benefit, but of course the rest of the world does to. How about that for a win-win? Sure, giving effectively is very hard. But there’s help out there. Consider looking to GiveWell and GivingWhatWeCan for a boost.
Author’s Note: This essay was originally posted on the new The Denison Venture Philanthropy Club Blog, a blog dedicated to discussing articles and ideas related to philanthropy and social change. The blog updates Monday, Wednesday, and Fridays, and I write on Fridays. I’ll be hosting the Friday article up here on Mondays if I think it’s good enough and deserving of a larger audience.
I now blog at EverydayUtilitarian.com. I hope you'll join me at my new blog! This page has been left as an archive.