Since Rationality Camp this past summer, I have been interested in “optimal philanthropy”: figuring out the best ways to do good in the world, which generally means saving lives.
Lots of people want to “do good things”, but they don’t think carefully or strategically about the best ways to achieve this. They fire and forget: they pick a charity which sounds like it is trying to achieve something positive in the world – perhaps they put money into the bellringer’s bucket at the grocery store, or they buy livestock gifts in response to a brochure. It’s absolutely awesome that these people decided to help out. But they could easily increase the impact of their do-gooding by a factor of at least ten, maybe a hundred, by thinking about it a little bit.
Hold on a second, you might be saying. A factor of a hundred? Where’s that coming from?
- Charities succeed and grow if they can convince people to give them money. They die if they can't. In contrast, there's no external pressure which would cause charities to optimize for effectiveness.
- Most charities have not chosen a high-impact cause. Providing toys to hospitalized children is good, but preventing the diseases which got them sick in the first place is much better.
- Even if a charity has chosen a high-impact cause, its directorship may not be acting strategically to maximize effectiveness. Most people are not strategic by default. For example, the directors might not realize when they needed to do a study on their interventions to determine effectiveness.
- Even if a charity in a high-impact cause has good leadership, public perception or competition could restrict the actions the charity can take. For example, donors often choose charities based on how much money goes directly to program expenses. But often an organization's marginal dollar is better spent on training, evaluation, or fundraising.
So yeah, it seems like most charities are probably going to do a really bad job at actually doing good! But all is not lost. There are a small number of excellent charities which have managed to navigate the above minefield and present provably high-impact interventions. GiveWell exists to perform in-depth reviews on charities, uncover these gems, and make recommendations. Just this week, GiveWell announced a new set of charity recommendations.
So if you’re thinking about doing charitable giving this year, consider following GiveWell’s recommendations. GiveWell also provides guidelines on evaluating charities yourself, if you prefer to act locally.
If you want further reading, check out:
- Givewell: Celebrated charities that we don't recommend (Kiva and Heifer International are on the list)
- Less Wrong: Efficient Charity: Do Unto Others... (goes into more depth about the question "which is the best charity?")