What can you do that would have the best chance of making the world a better place? As Scott Siskind puts the question:
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. Each individual $50 donation could have given a year of normal life back to a Third Worlder afflicted with a disabling condition like blindness or limb deformity.
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. But these people didn’t have the proper mental habits to realize that was the choice before them, and so a beautiful painting remains in a British museum and somewhere in the Third World a thousand people are dead. […]
It is important to be rational about charity for the same reason it is important to be rational about Arctic exploration: it requires the same awareness of opportunity costs and the same hard-headed commitment to investigating efficient use of resources, and it may well be a matter of life and death.
Holden Karnofsky of GiveWell notes (in this video) that it isn’t easy to spot an ineffective charity. Many popular charities are “not even failing to do good, but doing harm”. At the same time, the positive difference you can make with a carefully targeted, empirically vetted charitable donation is extraordinary. Philosopher William MacAskill voices his excitement:
Imagine you’re walking down the street and see a building on fire. You run in, kick the door down—smoke billowing—you run in and save a young child. That would be a pretty amazing day in your life: That’s a day that would stay with you forever. Who wouldn’t want to have that experience? But the most effective charities can save a life for $4,000, so many of us are lucky enough that we can save a life every year through our donations. When you’re able to achieve so much at such low cost to yourself…why wouldn’t you do that? The only reason not to is that you’re stuck in the status quo, where giving away so much of your income seems a little bit odd.
GiveWell is the top organization investigating the impact charities have upon the most disadvantaged people in the world. If you want to be confident you’re really improving the world in a concrete way, really saving lives, it’s hard to do better than following GiveWell’s new annual giving recommendations (updated December 2014). The new recommendations are that each $100 you give to charity over the next 4 months break down as follows:
$60 – Against Malaria Foundation (AMF)
$12 – GiveDirectly
$12 – Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI)
$10 – GiveWell
$6 – Deworm the World Initiative (DtWI)
(The $10 to GiveWell is an operating expenses donation GiveWell is requesting separately. I’m including it in the breakdown on the assumption that if you trust GiveWell’s expertise enough to base your decisions on their research, you probably also want to support GiveWell’s ability to keep those recommendations up to date.)
The above breakdown is intended to minimize the risk that, say, AMF keeps getting swamped with donations long after it’s reached its yearly target, while donors neglect DtWI. GiveWell’s goal is that AMF receive $5 million from individual donors over the next 4 months; GiveDirectly between $1 million and $25 million; SCI $1 million; and DtWI between $500,000 and $1 million. If everyone donates in the above proportion, then every top-effectiveness charity will be equally likely to hit its minimum target.
If you want to follow this breakdown exactly, go to https://givewell.secure.nonprofitsoapbox.com/donate-to-givewell and select “Grants to recommended charities (90%) and unrestricted (10)%” under “How should we use your gift?”. If you’d rather just donate to one organization and not split it up in this way, GiveWell suggests giving to the Against Malaria Foundation; you can do so by setting “How should we use your gift?” to “Grants to recommended charities” and writing under Comments “all to AMF”.
Edit 12/31: More specifically, Elie Hassenfeld of GiveWell writes:
For donors who have a high degree of trust in and alignment with GiveWell, we recommend unrestricted gifts to GiveWell. For donors who want to support our work because they value it but are otherwise primarily interested in supporting charities based on neutral recommendations, strong evidence, etc., we recommend giving 10% of their donation to GiveWell.
What do these charities do?
AMF, GiveDirectly, SCI, and DtWI all focus on combating poverty and disease in poor regions of Africa and Asia. This isn’t an arbitrary choice; your dollar can go orders of magnitude farther in the developing world than in developed nations. Dylan Matthews of Vox writes:
GiveWell actually looked into a number of US charities, like the Nurse-Family Partnership program for infants, the KIPP chain of charter schools, and the HOPE job-training program. It found that all were highly effective, but far more cost intensive than the best foreign charities. KIPP and the Nurse-Family Partnership cost over $10,000 per child served, while deworming programs like SCI’s and Deworm the World’s generally cost about $0.50 per child treated.
AMF distributes insecticide-treated bed nets in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other countries. This prevents transmission of malaria by mosquito bite, reducing child mortality and anemia and improving developmental outcomes. (General information on insecticide-treated nets.)
GiveDirectly makes secure cash payments to poor households they’ve vetted in Kenya and Uganda. Recipients may then use this money however they wish. This generally results in improved food security and investments with high rates of return. Direct cash transfers are a good way to avoid the common mistake of trying to micromanage the lives of people in the developing world. Impoverished individuals usually have much more robust and fine-grained knowledge of their own needs than any philanthropic organization or donor does, and they have clearer incentives to make sure every penny gets used wisely. (General information on cash transfers.)
SCI works with governments in sub-Saharan Africa to distribute deworming pills to schoolchildren, improving nutrition and developmental outcomes. DtWI does similar deworming work in India, Kenya, and Vietnam, with more focus on improving existing programs than on creating and scaling up programs. (General information on deworming.)
How do these charities compare to each other?
GiveWell publishes its evidence and reasoning process publicly so others can examine it in as much detail as they’d like and identify points of disagreement. That gives you a chance to deviate from GiveWell’s recommendations in an informed way, if you disagree with GiveWell about the tradeoffs involved. To summarize GiveWell’s take:
- Cost-effectiveness: GiveDirectly is probably the least cost-effective, in spite of transferring 87 to 90 cents per dollar donated directly into the hands of poor individuals. This is because it still appears to be cheaper to cure the worst widespread diseases than to directly alleviate the poverty of otherwise healthy people. AMF and SCI are maybe 5-10 times as effective as GiveDirectly, and DtWI may be twice as effective as SCI.
- Strength of supporting evidence: We can be relatively confident GiveDirectly is having the impact it intends to. The case for AMF is weaker, and the case for SCI is weaker still. DtWI has the weakest case, because its political focus places it more causal steps away from its goal. On the other hand, DtWI’s transparency and self-monitoring is much better than SCI’s, so there’s more likelihood we’ll notice in the future if DtWI has gone wrong than if SCI has.
- History of rolling out more program: GiveDirectly and SCI have a strong track record. AMF and DtWI have an adequate track record.
- Room for more funding: GiveDirectly is scaling up amazingly well, and could continue to make use of tens of millions more dollars this year. AMF has had difficulty finding enough places to distribute bed nets to use its funds effectively; however, it now appears to have fixed that problem and has a lot more room for funding it can use to leverage more distribution deals. DtWI and SCI have relatively little room for funding.
In their personal charitable donations, GiveWell staff generally followed the above recommendations, though several staffers gave substantially more to GiveDirectly (to reward its transparency and self-monitoring, and to be sure of having a positive impact), and less to the deworming charities. Other people who have explained how they’re factoring in GiveWell’s new recommendations include philosopher Richard Chappell, blogger Unit of Caring, consultant Chris Smith, and economist Robert Wiblin.
What are other contenders for the best causes out there?
If you’re interested in credible but less thoroughly vetted efforts to combat global poverty, you may want to look at GiveWell’s second tier of promising charities:
- Development Media International, an organization that broadcasts health information to people in the developing world on television and radio.
- GAIN’s Universal Salt Iodization program and the International Council for the Control of Iodine Deficiency Disorders Global Network, initiatives supporting governments’ and private companies’ efforts to improve children’s cognitive development through iodine supplementation.
- Living Goods, an organization that “[sells] health and household goods door-to-door in Uganda and Kenya and [provides] basic health counseling. They sell products such as treatments for malaria and diarrhea, fortified foods, water filters, bed nets, clean cook stoves and solar lights.”
Following GiveWell’s recommendations is probably the best way to measurably improve the lives of human beings who are suffering and dying today. However, the same evidence-based approach should allow us to identify relatively effective and ineffective causes in the developed world too. GiveWell is in the early stages of looking for the most urgent and tractable projects in U.S. policy, and one of their top contenders is prison reform. If you live in the U.S. and are more interested in local issues, you may want to follow the work of:
- Open Philanthropy Project, a spin-off of GiveWell that looks into general causes that may be unusually important, as opposed to specific charities that are unusually well-targeted and efficient. One of their focus areas is policy-oriented philanthropy.
- The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Public Safety Performance Project, which has helped get criminal justice reform packages passed in over two dozen states since 2007 and has recently begun a collaboration with GiveWell.
On the other hand, there are some local, activism-oriented charities that may have a much larger impact than any I’ve listed so far — charities focused on non-human animal welfare. If you aren’t just worried about human suffering, you may want to give to:
- The Humane League, a top-notch animal welfare nonprofit that discourages factory farming through outreach and advertising. They attempt to test the efficacy of their methods at Humane League Labs.
Another excellent way to try to outdo GiveWell’s recommended charities is to help fund scientific research into the life-saving innovations of the future. Historically, scientific and technological progress has had a vastly larger effect on human welfare than any philanthropy has, and this is another major area the Open Philanthropy Project hopes to investigate in the future. For now, the main scientific institute I can recommend donating to is:
- The Future of Humanity Institute, an Oxford-based research center that investigates social and technological changes that may impact our future as a species, as well as the effects of systematic uncertainty and bias on our attempts to predict such developments.
If there are interesting developments over the next year, I’ll update this advice December 2015. For now, the main organizations I recommend giving to are GiveWell and its top charities (donation page), the Humane League (donation page), or the Future of Humanity Institute (donation page), in increasing order of ‘uncertainty about the organization’s real effects’ and ‘probability of having a large positive impact’.
Edit 12/28: GiveWell has updated their donation page to include a “Grants to recommended charities (90%) and unrestricted (10)%” option. I’ve modified my above advice to make use of that new option. I’ve also started a birthday fundraiser to give to the charities I covered above.