How Can You Do the Most Good with Your Donations?
An introduction to Effective Altruism.
We give to charity because we want to help others. Charity Navigator users want to ensure that their donations actually help. But with millions of charities to choose from, it’s still hard to know where to give.
In recent years, teams of researchers have worked hard to figure out which charities do the most good. These experts study charities the way that investors study corporations. They ask: “From which charities can I expect the biggest return on my investment?” That big return can mean saving more lives, alleviating more suffering, or reducing the odds of a major disaster such as another pandemic or a nuclear war. If you like the idea of trying to do as much good as possible with your donations, Charity Navigator can help.
Why focus on charity effectiveness?
Some charities are more effective than others, but most people don’t know just how big these differences are. You might think that differences in charities’ effectiveness are like differences in people’s heights, where a very tall person might be 30% taller than the average adult. But it’s more like the differences in height among plants: Think of a one-foot shrub versus a California redwood! Experts estimate that the most effective charities are over 100 times more effective than typical charities. And some charities do little good or even cause harm.
So, if you want to do as much good as possible with your donations, it’s very important to focus on finding the most effective charities.
Here’s an example.
Charity A provides corrective surgery for cataracts that cause blindness. Charity B provides sightseeing dogs to individuals with limited vision. In some parts of the world, it costs around $100 to prevent or reverse a severe case of visual impairment with surgery. In a place like the United States, it typically costs about $70,000 to support a guide dog from birth to retirement.
Although both charities help people with impaired vision, Charity A is far more effective. A $1000 donation to Charity B can pay a small fraction of the cost of training a guide dog for one person, but the same amount given to Charity A can prevent ten people from going blind in the first place. This is the same type of analysis the Charity Navigator Impact & Results beacon provide to help you understand which charities are the best in their class.
Thinking about these tradeoffs may be uncomfortable because we would like to help everyone who suffers. And we can always help more individuals by giving more. But no matter how generous we are, the tradeoffs are always there. Proponents of effective giving say that we should face these tradeoffs head-on and try to do as much good as possible with our limited resources, using the best available evidence. This is a relatively new charitable giving approach, and many prefer more traditional approaches. But if the idea of maximizing your impact appeals to you, Charity Navigator can help you think through your strategy for doing as much good as you can.
How to maximize your giving to do as much good as possible
As discussed here, the basis of effective giving and effective altruism is to find and support the most cost-effective interventions. But how do you know what those are?
To maximize your impact as a donor, find charitable causes that are big, neglected, and tractable:
Big: You can have more impact by focusing on big problems, ones that affect many individuals (hundreds of thousands or even millions) and where the impact on individuals can also be big (e.g., saving someone’s life or preventing years of suffering).
Neglected: Don’t follow the crowd. You can have a bigger impact by addressing problems that other donors miss. By focusing on neglected causes, your individual donation is less replaceable and therefore adds more value.
Tractable: You can have more impact on problems for which there are already good solutions or plausible pathways to finding good solutions. There is always uncertainty, but your donations do more good when there’s a high likelihood of making a significant impact or a significant likelihood of making a very big impact.
High-impact causes and charities
Using this framework (Big, Neglected, and Tractable), researchers have identified some great opportunities for donors who want to maximize their impact.
Contrary to popular belief, how much a charity spends on overhead is not typically a good predictor of how effective a charity is. Businesses need to “spend money to make money,” for example, by conducting research and by hiring and retaining the most talented staff. The same is true for charities.
The recommendations of causes below are based on evaluations from organizations1 with dedicated research teams focused on effectiveness. These experts look for charities with strong track records that are cost-effective, transparent, and capable of putting more funding to work.
This research has identified three big cause areas as offering opportunities for exceptional impact.
Global health and development
There are hundreds of millions of people in low-income countries whose lives could be improved (and, in some cases, saved) by evidence-based, cost-effective interventions. These include malaria prevention with insecticide-treated bed nets and vitamin A supplements that can prevent fatal infections. These efforts often benefit young children.
Many of these can be found in Charity Navigator’s High Impact Causes Curated List, which looks at organizations addressing malaria and organizations to address blindness.
Top charities* in this area include
Although the organizations listed above are thought to be the most impactful, if you prefer to provide direct support to people in need, you might consider donating through this charity:
Every year around 31 billion land animals are raised and slaughtered in horrid conditions on factory farms. There are effective ways to reduce this suffering with great untapped potential. High-impact solutions include corporate outreach campaigns to improve animal welfare standards.
High-impact organizations include
Protecting the long-term future
We devote few resources to protecting humanity’s future against big threats. Climate Change, a nuclear war or an even more deadly pandemic could wipe out all humans or set back human progress for generations. There is no well-tested formula for preventing these disasters. But the stakes are so high, many experts believe that we should devote more resources to reducing these catastrophic risks, especially risks that are relatively neglected.
Highly effective charities include:
This list of high-impact cause areas and charities are by no means exhaustive. Other equally good opportunities may exist, and these recommendations reflect the anticipated interests of Charity Navigator users. This list is a work in progress and subject to revision as new evidence becomes available.
To learn more about effective altruism and effective giving, we recommend the following resources:
1 Givewell, Give What We Can, Animal Charity Evaluators, Open Philantropy, Founders Pledge & Charity Navigator
Written by Dr. Lucious Caviola and Dr. Joshua Greene, Harvard University
Published December 2022