Tag Archives: Donations

Give Smart, Help More

This post is about helping people more effectively. I'm not going to try to pitch you on giving more. I'm going to try to convince you to give smarter.

There's a summary at the bottom if you don't feel like reading the whole thing.

Do you want to help people? At least a little bit?

Imagine that there is a switch in front of you, in the middle position. It can only be flipped once. Flip it up, and one person somewhere on the other side of the world is cured of a deadly disease. Flip it down, and ten people are cured. You don't know any of these people personally, they are randomly selected. You will never see their faces or hear their stories. And this isn't a trick questiogn - they're not all secretly Pol Pot or something.

What do you do? Do you flip it up, flip it down, or leave it as it is? Make sure you think of the answer before you look ahead.











I'm going to assume you flipped the switch down. If you didn't, this post is not for you.

If you did, then why did you do that? Not because down is easier or more pleasant. Because it helps more people, and costs you nothing more. So if you made that choice and did it for that reason, you want to help people. Even people you don't know and will never meet. This might not be a preference that is particularly salient or relevant in your life right now, but when you chose between a world where more people are helped and a world where fewer people are helped, you chose the one where more people are helped. To summarize:

We agree that it is good to help people, and better to help more people, even if they're strangers or foreigners.

You probably already donate to charity. Why?

Most Americans give at least some money to charity. In 2010, in a Pew Research Center study, 95% of Americans said that they gave to a charitable organization specifically to help with the earthquake in Haiti. So when you add people who give, but didn't give for that, you end up with nearly everyone. And if you look at tax returns, the IRS reports that in 2011, out of 46 million people who itemized deductions, 38 million listed charitable contributions. That's 82%. So either way, most people give. Which means you probably do. (I'm assuming that most of my readers are in countries sufficiently similar to America for the conclusion to transfer.)

Why do you give to charity? That's actually a complicated question. People give for lots of reasons. You might be motivated by the simple fact that people will be helped, yes. But there are lots of other valid reasons to give to charity. You could want to support a cause that someone you care about is involved in, like sponsoring someone's charitable walk. You could want to express your solidarity with and membership in an institution like a church or community center. You could just value the warm fuzzy feeling that comes along with the stories you hear about what the charity does.

So here are some reasons why we give:

  • Warm fuzzies.
  • Group affiliation
  • Supporting friends
  • The simple preference for people to be helped.

All of these things are okay reasons to give, and I'm going to repeat that later for emphasis. I'm going to say some things that sound like I'm hating on warm fuzzies, but I'm really not.  To be clear: Warm fuzzies are nice! They feel good! You should do things that feel good! They just shouldn't be confused with other things that are good for different reasons.

The Power of Smarter Giving

I'm going to make up some numbers here.

Imagine three people: Kelsey, Meade, and Shun. They have the same job, that they all enjoy, and make $50,000 per year. They each give $1,000 per year to charity, 2% of their income. But they want to help people more.

Let's say that they give to a charity that tries to save lives by providing health care to people who can't access it. Each of their $1,000 donations purchases interventions that collectively add one year to one person's life, on average. That's actually a pretty good deal already - I'd certainly buy a year of extra life for myself, for that kind of money. I'm going to call that "helping one person," though we understand that it's just an average.

But now they each want to help more people. Kelsey decides to just give more, by cutting back on other expenses. Less savings, more meals at home, shorter vacations. Kelsey's able to scrape together an extra $1,000, so Kelsey's now giving $2,000, adding a year to two people's lives on average. On the other hand, Kelsey has fewer of other enjoyable things.

Meade decides instead of cutting back on expenses, to put in extra hours to get promoted to a job that's more stressful but pays better. After six months of this, let's say Meade is successful, and gets a 10% pay bump. Then Meade gives all that extra money to charity. That's $6,000 now that Meade is giving, adding on average a year of life each to 6 people.

Now how about Shun? Shun is lazy, like me. Shun decides that they don't want to work hard to help people. But Shun is willing to do 3 hours of research online, to find the best way to save lives. Shun finds a charity where outside researchers agree that a $1,000 donation on average adds a year of life to each of 10 people. Maybe because they focus on the cheapest treatments, like vaccines. Maybe because they operate in poor countries where expenses are lower, and there's more low-hanging health care fruit. Either way, Shun spend 3 hours doing research and now Shun's $1,000 per year adds a year of life to each of 10 people.

To summarize: Kelsey is scraping by to give $2,000 to give 2 people an extra year of life. Meade put in six months' extra hours at work - and has a more stressful job - and their $6,000 gives 6 people an extra year of life. Shun spent just 3 hours doing research on the internet, stills has the job Shun loves and gets to live the way Shun likes, and their $1,000 now gives 10 people an extra year of life each.

Kelsey - 2

Meade - 6

Shun - 10

Who would you rather be?

I don't want to deprecate any of these strategies. Sometimes your situation is different. Kelsey's a great person for trying to help people. There are a lot of reasons that Meade's strategy could be better than it sounds. But Shun went for the low-hanging fruit - and was able to help the most people, but suffered the least for it.

If my numbers are realistic, then researching different charities' effectiveness is an incredibly cheap way to help more people.

Why is this the case? Because in the numbers I made up, there was an order of magnitude effectiveness difference between two charities. One charity helped ten times as many people per dollar as another did.

This is sometimes true in the real world. Some charitable activities work better than others.

GiveWell, an organization that evaluates how effectively charities produce positive outcomes, thinks that there is a difference in effectiveness between two of their top-rated charities by a factor of between 2 and 3.

To repeat: one of GiveWell's top-rated charities is 2-3 times as effective as another. GiveWell only has three top-rated charities.

Then think about how different these numbers must be, on average, from the non-top-rated charities - or unrateable ones that don't try to measure outcomes at all. So a factor of 10 isn't unrealistic - but even if it's a factor of 2, that's a better return on time invested than Meade got - they might have worked more than three extra hours every week!

How do I do the research?

Was Shun's three hours of research a realistic estimate? It wouldn't be if nobody were already out there helping you - but fortunately there are now several organizations designed to help you figure out where your money does the most good.

The most famous one is probably still Charity Navigator. Charity Navigator basically reports on charities' finances, which is helpful in figuring out whether your money is going toward the programs you think it is, or whether it is going toward executives' paychecks and fancy gala fundraisers. Charity Navigator is a good first step, if all you want to do is weed out charities that are literally scams.

But we should be more ambitious. Remember, we don't just want to be not cheated. We're happiest if people actually get helped. And to know that, we don't just need to know how much program your money buys - we need to know if that program works.

GiveWell, AidGrade, Giving What We Can, and The Life You Can Save are all organizations that try to evaluate charities not just by how much work they do, but whether they can show that their work improves outcomes in some measurable way. All three seem to have mutual respect for one another, and I know there have been some friendly debates between GWWC and GiveWell on methodology.

If you want to search for more stuff on this, a good internet search term is "Effective Altruism".

If you really, really don't feel like spending a few hours doing research, you'll do fine giving to one of GiveWell's top 3.

Existential Risk: A Special Case

I want to put in a special plug here for a category of charity that gets neglected, where I think you can get a lot of bang for your buck in terms of results, and that's charities that try to mitigate existential risk.

An existential risk is something that might be unlikely - or hard to estimate - but if it happens, it would wipe out humanity. Even a small reduction in the chance of an extinction event could help a lot of people - because you'd be saving not only people at the time, but future generations. Giving What We Can has recently acknowledged this as a promising area for high-impact giving, and GiveWell's shown some interest as well.

Examples of existential risk are:

  • Nuclear Weapons
  • Biotechnology
  • Nanotechnology
  • Asteroids
  • Artificial Intelligence

Organizations that focus on existential risk include:

  • The Future of Humanity Institute (FHI) takes an academic approach, mostly focused on raising awareness and assessing risks.
  • The Lifeboat Foundation - I actually used to give to them, but I'm not sure quite what they really do, so I put that on hold - I may pick it up later if I learn something encouraging.
  • The Machine Intelligence Research Institute (MIRI) is working on the specific problem of avoiding an unfriendly intelligence explosion - by building friendly artificial intelligence. They believe this will also help solve many other existential risks.

In particular, MIRI is holding a fundraiser where new large donors (someone who has not yet given a total of $5,000 to MIRI) who make a donation of $5,000 or more, are matched 3:1 on the whole donation. Please consider it if you think MIRI's work is important. [UPDATE: This was a success and is now over.]

But Didn't You Say Meade Had a Good Strategy Too?

Yes. If you are super serious about helping people a lot, you might want to consider making career choices partly on that basis. I don't have a lot to say about this personally, but 80,000 hours specializes in helping people with this kind of thing.

One thing I can add is that it's easy to get intimidated by the difficulty of the optimal career choice for helping and thereby avoid making a knowably better choice. Don't do that. Better is better. Don't worry about making the perfect choice - you can always change your mind later when you think things through more.

Leveraged Giving and Meta-Charity

When we talk about leverage in giving, people usually take it literally and think about matched donations. Matched donations are fine, they double effectiveness and that's great, but a factor of 5-10 from research will be more important than a factor of 2 from matched giving.

But there's another kind of leverage - giving in ways that increases the effectiveness or quality of others' giving. For example, you could give to GWWC, AidGrade, or GiveWell, and this would mean that everyone else who gives based on their recommendations makes a sligjtly more effective choice - or that they're able to convince more people to give at all. You could probably do a quick back-of-the-envelope Fermi estimate to figure out what the impact is - whether there's a multiplier effect or not. Giving What We Can actually gives some numbers themselves - and I know that if GiveWell thinks they can't use the money, they'll just pass it along to their top-rated charities.

There's also a special case of leverage, and that's the Center For Applied Rationality, or CFAR. CFAR is trying to help people think better and more clearly, and act more effectively to accomplish their goals. A large part of their motivation for this, is to create a large community of people interested in effective altruism, with the skills to recognize the high-impact causes, and the personal effectiveness to actually do something to help. If your lifetime donations just create one highly motivated person, then you've "broken even" - in other words you've helped at least as many people as you would have, giving directly. But right now it's a much more leveraged opportunity, because CFAR plans to eventually become self-sustaining, but for their next few years they'll still probably depend on donations to supplement any fees they can charge for their training.

This year I'm part of the group matching donations for CFAR's end-of-year fundraiser. If you want to spend some of my money to try to build a community of true guardians of humanity, please do! [UPDATE: This fundraiser also concluded, successfully.]

So I should give all my charity budget to the one most effective charity?

Probably not.

Now, that's not because of "diversification". The National Center for Charitable Statistics (NCCS) estimates that there are about half a million charities in the US alone. That's plenty of diversity - I don't think anything's at risk of being neglected just because you give your whole charity budget to the best one.

The reason why you don't want to give everything to the charity you think helps the most, is those four reasons people give:

  • Warm fuzzies.
  • Group affiliation
  • Supporting friends
  • The simple preference for people to be helped.

And there are probably lots of others, but for now I'll just group them all together as "warm fuzzies" for the sake of brevity.

If you force yourself to pretend that you only care about helping, you'll feel bad about missing out on your warm fuzzies, and eventually you'll find an excuse to abandon the strategy.

I want to be clear that all of these are okay reasons to give! Some people, when they hear this argument, assume that it means, "Some of my donations are motivated by my selfish desire for warm fuzzies. This is wrong! I should just give to charity to help people. I shouldn't spend any charity money on feeling good about myself."

You are a human being and you deserve to be happy. Also you probably won't stick with a strategy that reliably makes you feel bad. So unfortunately, the exact optimal helping-strategy is unlikely to work for you (though if it does, that's fine too).

Fortunately, we can get most of the way to a maximum-help strategy without giving up on your other motivations, because of:

One Weird Trick to Get Warm Fuzzies on the Cheap

The human brain has a defect called scope insensitivity (but don't click through until you read this section, there's a spoiler). It basically means that the part of us that has feelings doesn't understand about very large or very small quantities. So while you intellectually might have a preference for helping more people over fewer, you'll get the same feel-good hit from helping one person and hearing their touching story, as you would from helping a group of ten.

In a classic experiment, researchers told people, assigned randomly into three groups, about an ecological problem that was going to kill some birds, but could be fixed. They asked participants how much they would personally be willing to pay to fix the problem. The only thing they changed from group to group, was how many birds would be affected.

One group was told 2,000 birds were affected, and they were willing to pay on average $80 each. The other two groups were told 20,000 and 200,000 birds were affected, respectively. How much do you think they were willing to pay? Try to actually guess before you look at the answer.











Here's how much the average person in each group was willing to pay:

2,000 birds: $80

20,000 birds: $78

200,000 birds: $88

So, basically the same, with some random variation.

Why do we care about this? Because it suggests that you should be able to get your warm fuzzies with a very small donation. Your emotions don't care how much you helped - they care whether you helped at all.

So you should consider setting aside a small portion of your charity budget for the year, and spreading it equally between everything it seems like a good idea to give to. It probably wouldn't cost you much to literally not say no to anything - just give every cause you like a dollar! You might even get more good vibes this way, then before, when you were trying to accomplish helping and warm fuzzies with the exact same donations.

Then give the rest to charity you think is most effective.


You probably already want to help people you don't know, and give to charity. Researching charities' effectiveness in producing outcomes is a cheap way of making your donation help more people.

These organizations can help with your research:

Because of scope insensitivity, you should try to get your warm fuzzies and your effective helping done separately: designate a small portion of your charity budget for warm fuzzies, and give a tiny bit to every cause you'll fee l good about.

You may also be interested in some higher leverage options. CFAR is trying to create more people who care about effective altruism are effective enough to make a difference, and they have a matched donations fundraiser going on right now, which I'm one of the matchers for. [UPDATE: This fundraiser was successful, and is now over.]

Existential Risk is another field where beneficial effects are underestimated and you should consider giving, especially to FHI or MIRI.

MIRI in particular has a matched donations fundraiser going on now, where new large donors (>$5,000) will be matched at a 3:1 rate. [UPDATE: This fundraiser was successful, and is now over.]

Cross-posted at the Effective Altruism Society of DC blog.