Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

Taking Charity Assessment to the Next Level

Posted by Michael Dickens on October 23, 2010

I recently wrote a couple of posts assessing the good done by various charities. Unfortunately, these assessments left out a crucial element.

For a charity to do as much good as possible, it must be making a sustainable investment. It’s like that old saying: “Give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day; teach a man to fish, he’ll eat for the rest of his life.” Which charities are giving men fish, and which are teaching men to fish?

This isn’t always an easy question to answer. In my first essay on this subject I discussed microloans, which may seem like they should promote economic growth and sustainability, but often they don’t. This is just one example of a type of charity that does not always have the results you might expect.

It is absolutely important that an investment be sustainable. If you give a man a fish, he’ll be hungry again tomorrow. Sure, you could keep giving him fish every day for the rest of your life, but there are much better ways to go about things. You could teach him to fish, and as the saying goes, he’ll eat for the rest of his life. Or, you could find an organization that will teach him to fish.

Many charities claim to place emphasis on teaching people to continue on their own. The extreme cases are organizations that provide scholarships for people who can’t afford an education. These organizations (and the people behind them) claim that with education, these newly-educated people will be able to go on to help others.

This sort of sustainable and self-propagating charity is very helpful and very important, but the downside is that it’s much more difficult to measure. This is the point where some serious subjectivity leaks in. As far as I can tell, the best way to handle the lack of information is simply to make your best guess as to which investments will have the greatest long-term benefits.

To measure the benefit of an education, you could look at the expected probability that the newly-educated person will go on to help others. This computation gets more difficult once you realize that everyone helps others at least to some extent, often too small an extent to measure. But a well-educated person can contribute much more to the world than an uneducated one. A well-educated person could go on to directly help others, or even indirectly help others. It’s possible she would help simply by working a job, contributing to the wealth of the world.

Measuring the benefit of an education, as well as any long-term sustainable gift, is extremely difficult. I certainly don’t have all the answers. Given that the subject of this essay is unresolved, I leave you with a question: How can we measure the long-term sustainable benefits of a charity? If you think you have an answer, or even just an idea of where to start, please leave a comment and let the world know.


2 Responses to “Taking Charity Assessment to the Next Level”

  1. barbara said

    When I was in Peace Corps, I had my own charity. I helped a bunch of Mayan kids go to high school when few in the village went. I paid tuition for one or more kids every year, maybe $200 a semester or less for each, leaving the balance to be scraped up by the family. Primary school students had to pass a national test to be allowed to go, pay tuition and fees, buy uniforms and books and pay for the bus to drive them 20 miles into town. It’s nearly dark when they get home from school and they had no electricity at home for a study light until recently.

    For agricultural people with little cash, it was very difficult to go to school. To labor for someone else for a day paid only about $3.00 back then. Now some parents have jobs in town.

    My charity began when one year a dedicated teacher worked with his class in early morning and after school to prepare students to take the national test and about 12 of them passed and were qualified to go on. Nearly every year for the next 20 years I paid part of 1 or 2 students’ tuition. Now many more Std. 6 students pass the test yearly and are able to go on to school and several have gone to college too, one even to grad school.

    The Mayan people are now integrated into the whole country of Belize. Whether they are “better off” depends on your criteria for that but I feel it is rare for ignorance to be better for someone than knowledge and it’s sustainable.

    Anyway, giving to someone whose progress you can watch has continuing rewards for the giver.

    • Great story, and I think that’s a wonderful example of a sustainable and self-propagating investment. As you say, not only are a few kids educated, but it serves to integrate their culture with modern society — something that will last generations.

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