where should I donate money?

As the year draws to a close, I am trying to decide where to donate money, and feeling grateful that my company is generous enough to match my donations.

There are lots of guides for how to give wisely out there: (e.g., GiveWell’s basic, advanced, and now vs. later analysis; GivingWhatWeCan’s tipsCharityNavigator — caveat: why effectiveness, not efficiency, should be the focus of donations).  Many experts and evaluative organizations have also made  endorsements for where to give (e.g., GiveWell’s top three charities, Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy’s list of social programs that workPhilanthropedia’s top charities in many categories).  Effectivism has also covered methods for evaluating charities multiple times. Despite these tips, I’ve spent probably around 30 hours in the past few months trying to decide where and how to donate money this year.

I decided to show my work in case it’s useful for anyone else who’s trying to prioritize.  I’m not saying anyone else should have the same principles or choose the same charities.  But perhaps my thinking will help you with your own.

First, my criteria for choosing causes:

  • Having a big impact is best.
    • COROLLARY: Having an impact on more people is usually better.  I generally don’t fund things like my alma mater or my local food bank, which will only benefit a small group of people.
    • COROLLARY: Don’t overfund organizations. This is a potential worry about giving to small organizations endorsed by folks like GiveWell; they might end up with more money than they are set up to use effectively, and you will get diminishing returns for your donation.
    • COROLLARY: Donate some to interventions in developing nations.  There is generally a bigger effect for less money in developing nations.  I try not to preferentially save/improve about the lives of people who happened to be born near me, though I certainly still have some bias in that direction, and some selfishness when evaluating causes that impact me directly.
    • COROLLARY: Improvements that can be generalized to other places or organizations are better than limited interventions.  For instance, I prefer education non-profits that measure the impact of their interventions and publish research and/or policy papers to ones that just try to improve the schools in one area.
  • Having a quantifiable effect is best.  I prefer organizations with a high degree of transparency — it’s easiest to measure their impact, and to hold them accountable.
  • Having a potentially big impact is also good. I’m willing to sacrifice exact quantifiability and/or make some riskier investments if potential reward is greater.  Examples:
    • Basic research into things like cancer or climate change, which impact everyone.  I also prefer not to play it safe with small, incremental changes when contributing to research in these areas — though that is unfortunately the type of research that gets most of the funding, at least when it comes to cancer.
    • Applied experiments in education techniques.  For instance, Khan Academy is controversial and does not have the best quality lectures, but they have the potential to impact many people (almost anyone on the internet can access it),and they’re causing important discussion and experimentation with education techniques.
    • Drastic policy changes. I’m in favor of trying alternatives to the U.S. war on drugs.  It’s hard to predict the exact impact of various approaches to legalizing and regulating many currently illegal drugs.  But such a shift would almost certainly drastically impact many sectors of many societies — reducing murder, theft, corruption, and intimidation in the U.S. and in other countries (e.g., Mexico, where most journalists fear to report about the drug cartels), and helping with our overcrowded prisons.
  • Try to treat root causes, not symptoms.  Examples:
    • Giving money to a good organization for helping the homeless is usually more effective at improving the status quo than giving money to people on the street.  Working to prevent homelessness altogether is likely to be even better (e.g., work on aspects of mental illness treatment, social safety net, education that impact homelessness).
    • Improving treatment of prisoners is important.  Drastically reducing the number of people in prison and working on fixing extreme/inconsistent sentencing laws is probably even more effective (bonus: treatment in prisons will probably get better and be easier to monitor if there is less overcrowding).
  • Choose sustainable interventions — not just a quick fix.   For instance, an organization like Doctors Without Borders is best if it trains local healthcare professionals as well as treating the people in immediate need.
  • Quality of life improvements are more important than just saving a life.  I’m interested in improving long-term health, education, and poverty levels enough to give people a fair shot at enjoying their life and having choices about what to do with their life, rather than just surviving.  I’m also interested in interventions that give individuals radically more control over their own lives, such as family planning.  Being able to choose when to have children drastically improves adults’ lives, children’s lives, and progress and equality across a society.
  • Fund the safety nets that should exist for everyone.  The big emergency & disaster relief organizations have been (reasonably) criticized as not being sufficiently transparent or cost effective.  But I believe it would be a huge loss if nobody funded these organizations.  And the big ones like Red Cross have built up good reputations, good infrastructure, and good relationships with governments worldwide, making them likely to be more effective in more volatile parts of the globe than many relief efforts.
  • Fund organization who preserve important human rights and civil liberties.
  • Fund important tools for basic knowledge — especially if widely used.  E.g., I will donate some to Wikipedia, and possibly to some news organizations.
  • Concentrate on just a few causes to make your money go the farthest.  Ha!  This is a good one in theory, but I’m having a lot of trouble choosing between drastically different causes which seem incommensurable.

 

Given those criteria, here are my tentative choices.  These are still a work in progress, but I figured if I wanted to have a chance to help anyone at all, I should publish this post now rather than wait.  Plus, this gives you the chance to argue with me (or give helpful feedback)!

  • Poverty, health, and quality of life in developing nations: Innovations for Poverty in Action.  This organization, led by researchers at Yale, MIT, Harvard, and other major institutions, rigorously researches which interventions work to improve quality of life in poor areas.  They address issues of health, education, sanitation, economics, and more.  You can donate to individual organizations that they endorse, or you can donate to their general “Proven Impact” fund — or you can choose to fund their research, as well as the “Proven Impact” fund.  I will probably do the latter.  If I were donating to a single organization (like one of the ones endorsed by GiveWell), I might worry about overfunding — but here, I trust that they will allocate my money in an effective way, and will continue to do important research on effectiveness.
  • Disaster relief and emergency aid: Oxfam and Red Cross, for reasons discussed above, and because of Philanthropedia’s analyses  (see expert reviews).
  • Cancer research: I’d like to donate to the Ludwig Institute, which funds high-risk, innovative cancer research, but they don’t appear to take donations.  I’ll probably go with the American Cancer Society,given that they fund cancer research for a wide variety of cancers.  Why am I focusing on cancer, in particular?  It’s one of the leading causes of death, treatment for it sucks a lot more than treatment for most diseases, and in many cases, treatment doesn’t help much.   One could use the same facts to argue that donations are less like to be effective here than for most causes.  This is definitely a high risk investment, but I’m hoping we’ll have some big breakthroughs, which will be a very high payoff. I’ve gotten to witness the impact of this disease and its damaging treatments on way too many friends and family.
    • Runner up: Friends of Cancer Research, which works to translate cancer research into policy and education, for more effective treatment.
  • Education & early childhood interventions: Probably none.  I’m not sure I’ve found anything effective (and cost effective) enough for my tastes here.  But if I do give, it will probably be to The New Teacher Project.  This organization works to train teachers and place them in areas of the U.S. where they’ll have a high impact.  They also do a lot of research and effective policy advocacy based on their findings, so they have impact far beyond their own program (see expert reviews). [update: I may donate to PlanetRead.]
    • Runner up: Knowledge Is Power Program, endorsed by GiveWell for being most effective out of the U.S. education programs they were able to quantifiably evaluate (mostly because the program is too limited for my tastes, and not clearly scalable).
    • Runner up: Nurse-Family Partnership — a U.S. program where nurses visit low-income, single mothers, with proven impact in many areas.  This program was endorsed by GiveWell and the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, but GiveWell thinks they don’t have much room for funding in the short term.
    • Runner up: Khan Academy, for reasons discussed above.
  • Climate change/clean energy research:  Probably none.  Bill Gates thinks that the R&D costs are too big for philanthropy to be effective, and the government should be doing more funding.  Other sources (which I’ve embarrassingly lost track of for the moment — will update if I find them and remember) have also been discouraging about the potential impact of individual philanthropy.
  • Civil and human rights:  ACLU and EFF.  I’d like to donate to a global organization focusing on similar rights, but I don’t know of any good ones.  I agree with many of the ideas of Amnesty International, but not necessarily their priorities, and it’s hard to find clear evidence of their impact on more than a handful of individuals.  I just found a book with a chapter assessing Amnesty’s effectiveness, though, and I’m still looking into it.
    • Runners up: Lambda Legal and GLAD.  LGBT rights are a major civil rights issue of our times, as well as being personally important to me and many people I know.  But this is not the only important civil liberties issue, and I’d rather concentrate my money on ACLU — they also work on LGBT cases — without earmarking funds for that area alone.
  • Criminal justice/drug reform: Drug Policy Alliance, probably, based on high marks from Philanthropedia (see expert reviews).  Works to find sensible alternatives to the war on drugs.
  • Family planning: Planned Parenthood, probably.  I thus far can’t find any similar organization that works globally. [update: there are lots!]
  • Basic knowledge/tools: Wikipedia.  Also perhaps some news organizations?  Haven’t figured out yet which ones I think have the highest quality and biggest impact.

What do you think?  Is there important information I’ve overlooked?  How do you choose where to donate?

Update: Readers brought up several good points!

7 Comments

  1. Rowan Said,

    December 15, 2012 @ 8:39 pm

    You might be already aware of this organization, but if not, I think it fits many of your criteria and would be a good candidate in the education category: http://www.planetread.org/donate.php

    Their main program is same-language subtitling for popular TV programs in India, which boosts literacy.

  2. lauren Said,

    December 16, 2012 @ 3:48 pm

    Rowan — thanks! I hadn’t run across this before, but the results of the impact studies are very impressive, and the project scale and cost-effectiveness are also remarkable.

  3. Rowan Said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 6:45 am

    Yeah, reading about their work makes me want to start an org in the US that encourages families with young children to turn on subtitling.

  4. Liz Said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 1:36 pm

    I also like to donate to places that obviously have personal importance (e.g. a fund in memory of a friend who has passed away). One that comes to mind (that has a nice secondary benefit that you don’t mention) is this: http://www.alextungfellowship.org/index.html where the secondary benefit is that in addition to the impact of the work funded by the organization, there’s also the secondary result of getting young and smart people thinking about outreach and working to effect change own their own – training people to appreciate and think like activists can be a great way to promote change in much more general ways.

  5. lauren Said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 2:00 pm

    Liz — thanks for sharing! Causes with personal importance can make people feel particularly interested in donating to the cause and invested in helping it succeed. And that secondary benefit can be seen as part of an umbrella that also encompasses some ideas I mentioned –sustainability, scalability, & generalizability. I could sum it up by saying that I favor causes that will lead to cascading improvements, rather than being limited to a particular action.

  6. Doug Orleans Said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 6:09 pm

    I’ve given to the American Cancer Society in the past; glad to see it make your list. Did you look into Alzheimer’s research/charities at all?

    Re your “Basic Knowledge/Tools” category, I’ve given to Wikipedia, but I view that more as paying for something I use nearly every day. Have you considered giving to The Internet Archive? I don’t use it much directly, but I’m very glad it exists.

  7. lauren Said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 6:14 pm

    Yes, there’s definitely a large aspect of “pay for what you use” in my Wikipedia donation. But I also donate to some podcasts, webcomics, etc. that I frequently turn to for entertainment — whereas I view Wikipedia as an important resource for more folks than just me, so I’ll donate more. Internet Archive is also a good idea.

    I haven’t looked into Alzheimer’s research, but it’s also something I would consider donating to. Do you have any candidate orgs to suggest?