Philosophical Multicore

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

Doing the Most Good

Posted by Michael Dickens on May 14, 2011

The field of charity assessment is growing in popularity. Sites like Charity Navigator evaluate the efficiency of charities by examining what percentage of their funds go directly to where they’re needed. These sorts of resources can tell you which charities are the most efficient in a monetary sense, but can’t tell you which do the most good.

Other sources such as the Copenhagen Consensus determine the most important global challenges. The Copenhagen Consensus tells which global problems are the most impactful and which are the cheapest to solve; what it does not say is how an individual like you or I can go about solving these problems. From the website, “Imagine you had $75bn to donate to worthwhile causes. What would you do, and where should we start?” I certainly do not have $75 billion, and no direct access to many parts of the world where these problems are most prominent. Usually, the best thing an individual can do is donate to a charity that does have direct access.

The Copenhagen Consensus says nothing about which charities are the most effective at solving the world’s most significant challenges. An individual therefore has to do some independent research. One can combine the findings of a source like the Copenhagen Consensus with a site like Charity Navigator in order to find the best charities for the best causes.

This process, however, is still imperfect. Charity Navigator only evaluates how efficiently charities use their funds, not how well they use them. Two charities could both be working for the same cause—say, providing immunization for children—but one could be working in a more disease-prone area, or one could be using cheaper methods of vaccination.

That’s where GiveWell comes in. GiveWell is a website that evaluates charities more deeply by finding ones that fit four primary criteria: demonstrated impact, cost-effectiveness, scalability (“able to use more funds productively”), and transparency. These criteria quickly eliminate charities that are difficult to judge (i.e. not demonstrably impactful) or not transparent. The two more important criteria (in my opinion) are cost-effectiveness and scalability, which are discussed in depth on the GiveWell website.

The single most important criterion appears to be cost-effectiveness: “changing lives as much as possible for as little money as possible.” (They do point out that this criterion has its limitations, and it is not the only thing they consider.) They have sturdy estimates of what this means, and use it to determine which charities are actually doing the greatest good. Their charity assessments, while imperfect, appear to be about as good as a charity assessment can get.

GiveWell provides a list of its top recommended charities and gives a detailed description of why each is recommended. For the “Gold Medal” charity, VillageReach, GiveWell explains what it does, why it works, and how cost-effective it is (they estimate that it costs about $200 per life saved through VillageReach).

Unlike Charity Navigator, GiveWell says more about a charity than its efficiency. Unlike the Copenhagen Consensus, GiveWell recommends specific charities rather than general causes. Their conclusions are well-researched, although perhaps not as well-researched as the Copenhagen Consensus; therefore, I recommend looking at the Copenhagen Consensus to determine which causes are the most important and then using GiveWell to find the best organization that contributes to that cause.

More and better resources are being developed to help donors decide how to use their money. GiveWell is not perfect, but it is the best resource out there right now and everyone who is thinking about using their money to do some good should take a look at it.


One Response to “Doing the Most Good”

  1. barbara said

    This is just what I’ve been needing to choose among all the requests I get every week. Good work, Michael.

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