How to Know Your Donations Are Doing the Most Good

This article is part of Times Opinion’s Holiday Giving Guide 2021. For other ideas on where to donate this year, please see the rest of our guide here.

Nearly a decade ago, when my wife and I first reached a station in life that allowed us to consider giving an annual sum to charity, I stumbled into an unexpected intellectual rabbit hole — the complicated ethics and moral philosophy surrounding the act of giving away one’s money.

We didn’t have a fortune to give — if I recall correctly it was less than a couple thousand dollars — so I wanted to make sure that our contribution would have the maximum impact. But what kind of “impact” was I looking to maximize? I had no idea. There are all sorts of ways to use money to improve the state of the world, and they vary widely in cost and outcome. Should I donate to feed the needy where I live, in the San Francisco Bay Area? Or was it better, in a utilitarian sense, to feed the poor of Kenya, where my money would likely go further, and where people’s need for food might likely be more dire?

But if it was direness that counted, was feeding people even the right way to go? Wouldn’t our $2,000 be put to better use by paying for cheap but lifesaving medical interventions, like providing $5 bed nets for children in areas of the world ravaged by malaria?

And this was not even to consider the more practical questions: Even if I found the most effective use of my money, could I have any assurance that a particular charitable organization was taking care to spend my donation wisely? By this point readers familiar with this line of vexation might be screaming at their screens: GiveWell! I understand the enthusiasm — when I discovered GiveWell back in 2012, I felt like its founders had been reading my mind.

GiveWell is a charity and research organization that was founded in 2007 by Elie Hassenfeld and Holden Karnofsky, two former employees of the hedge fund Bridgewater Associates who had, like me, been confounded by the moral dilemmas involved in giving money away. Unlike me, they decided to do something about it. For more than a decade, GiveWell has been investigating the central question in the philanthropic movement known as “effective altruism”: What is the best way to help other people?

Every year, GiveWell distills its in-depth research into a list of top charities — the organizations that accomplish the most good in the world (in terms of lives saved or improved) for the least cost. In recent years GiveWell has also become a major charity itself; its Maximum Impact Fund collects hundreds of millions of dollars in donations and distributes the funds to its top charities every quarter based on which organizations can use the funding most effectively. Because its giving is backed by rigorous research and monitoring — it now employs nearly two dozen researchers — GiveWell is one of the few ways of donating money that can offer an estimate of the amount of good you’ve caused in the world. For instance, GiveWell’s cost-effectiveness analysis finds that its top charity, the Malaria Consortium, which treats infected children with malaria medicine, spends about $4,500 to save one human life.

GiveWell has grown enormously in the last decade. Its empirical approach to philanthropy has been a hit among tech and finance employees, a group that has done quite well in recent American history. GiveWell says it will raise more than $500 million to give toward its top charities in 2021; it aims to raise more than a billion dollars annually by 2025, which would make it one of the largest charities in the country. A major funder is the Open Philanthropy Project, a foundation mainly funded by Cari Tuna, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and her spouse, Dustin Moskovitz, one of the founders of Facebook and Asana, a company that makes teamwork-management software. In addition to being a co-founder of GiveWell, Karnofsky is a co-chief executive of Open Philanthropy, which started as a GiveWell project.

This year, Open Philanthropy donated $300 million to GiveWell. Much of the rest of GiveWell’s donations came in far more modest quantities. My wife and I have been giving annually to GiveWell since I first discovered it. What I like about donating to the group is having the confidence that our money is being used directly toward efforts to save lives.

Every year around this time I begin singing GiveWell’s praises to everyone I know. There’s one problem that people tend to bring up when I explain the group’s objectives — proximity. GiveWell’s top charities operate in the poorest parts of the world, mainly in Africa. That’s a direct consequence of seeking to maximize cost effectiveness, because GiveWell argues that donations go further overseas. But what if you want to give money to people closer at hand?

I asked this of Hassenfeld, GiveWell’s chief executive, in a recent conversation. “Giving locally is not a bad thing — GiveWell is not here to be the moral overseer of how people give,” he said. But he also suggested that donors “try to picture the people who are not right in front of you, people who live in rural Kenya and might be in need.”

People living in the world’s most impoverished countries can have their lives turned around for relatively little money with things like malaria medicine and vaccines to prevent common infectious diseases. In the United States, by contrast, GiveWell has found that relieving poverty is much more expensive and complicated, and many approaches don’t measure evidence in the ways it prefers.

Hassenfeld told me that it’s helpful to think of giving in the way you might think of an investment portfolio — to spread your donations among more than one cause or region of the world. I find that advice wise but somewhat difficult to carry out, because it’s difficult to find the sort of detailed cost-effectiveness measures for local charities that GiveWell maintains for overseas groups. And so, other than donating to my local food bank a few times a year, I’ve come to direct the bulk of my giving to GiveWell. It’s the best way I know of to have some certainty that I might be doing some good in the world.

This column is part of Times Opinion’s Holiday Giving Guide 2021. The author has no direct connection to the organization mentioned. If you are interested in any organization mentioned in the guide, please go directly to its website. Neither the authors nor The Times will be able to address queries about the groups or facilitate donations.

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