Giving to Charity Using the Head (and the Heart)

When I finally paid off the last of my student loans two years ago, I wanted to use it as an occasion to begin giving more to charity. I increased donations here and there: helping out friends who were fundraising for ALS or diabetes, making a gift to my alma mater, and volunteering for an organization that combats homelessness through the power of running. But these things felt more like networking, or a way to express my identity, rather than actual do-gooding. And because I had studied about global poverty in graduate school, I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that my help might be needed more elsewhere. 

Then I learned about effective altruism, a movement that seeks to use evidence and reason to do the most good. The idea applied to charity was simple: by taking a scientific approach to selecting causes and organizations, I could save or improve a lot more lives. I began to think carefully and apply a rigorous set of standards to ensure my charitable giving does the most good. 

Now I consider the following:

Impact – What is the money used for? How many people would benefit and by how much? If I donate to a charity that works to prevent malaria, I could save a life, but if I donate to my local opera company, I may only help to make a slightly better production. 

Program Effectiveness – Am I giving to support the best solution? To improve school attendance, I could donate to provide free uniforms to schoolchildren, but deworming programs have proven fifteen times more effective at achieving the same goal.

Cost-Effectiveness - How much does it cost to implement the program? If two charities work to deworm children but one can do it at just half the cost, I should support that charity – and deworm twice as many children.

Additional Need – Does the charity or program need more support? If it can’t scale rapidly or if a program is already fully funded because it’s so effective (e.g. polio vaccines in developing countries,) I should give to another charity.

Evidence Robustness – Is the evidence for which cause, program, and organization to support strong? I can feel more confident about supporting programs that have trials showing effectiveness, and nonprofits that openly share data on their successes and failures.

I also focus on causes related to global health and poverty. Because these issues are (relatively) large and have been neglected historically, supporting solutions for them means it’s possible to do a tremendous amount of good. 

Take diarrhea for example. It kills 760,000 children every year – the equivalent of five jumbo jets crashing to the ground every day. Malaria kills as many as half a million people each year - mostly kids in Africa, but these two diseases are relatively easy to prevent. And while over a billion people live on less than two dollars a day, the good news is that it only costs about $3,400 to save a life in the developing world, because my dollar goes much further overseas.

Finally, I make sure to donate to extremely effective organizations. The difference between charities is big: Some do 1,000 times as much good with their donations as others. 

I follow the recommendations of Givewell, an organization that evaluates the cost-effectiveness of other charities, when it comes to the top-performing charities to donate to: 

Consider effective giving as a way to find more purpose of your own through philanthropy. What do you think of this approach to charity? How might you incorporate its elements into ways you currently give?

Do you know any other professionals looking to change the world from their desk?  If so, please feel free to share this, and have them sign up here.


Huge thanks to our guest blogger
ADRIENNE ATKINSON
Adrienne works in the digital media space on a bunch of market research and insights projects. She’s a member of the SAIS Mafia, loves running and doing yoga, and isn’t one to waste a good selfie. 
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