If you've read The Life You Can Save, you know that the stakes for charitable giving couldn’t be higher: millions of lives literally hang in the balance. Deciding to do the right thing and use the resources at your disposal to benefit the world’s most needy is a vital starting point — but the next steps can be more challenging than you’d think. With a whole constellation of competing NGOs and aid agencies out there soliciting your involvement, it can be hard to identify the best charities to donate to.
Fortunately, you can use evidence-based tactics to determine which charities are best equipped to save lives with your help. If you want to learn about these tactics and make the biggest impact you can, ClearerThinking.org’s brand-new Leaving Your Mark on the World: The Essential Starter's Guide can help.
This free, interactive introduction is a great way to learn more about the world of philanthropy while making sure your charitable contributions do as much good as possible for the world. It consists of two highly interactive components: a mini-course that will introduce you to 5 vital principles for ensuring that your charitable gifts really help, with quiz questions that keep you on your toes as you go, and a tool for building your own specific plan for getting involved, based on questions about your values and interests. You can choose to use one or both of them as you see fit. And if you aren’t interested in donating money to the cause of your choice, you can learn plenty about how to volunteer your time effectively, keep track of altruism news, or research promising charitable opportunities yourself.
ClearerThinking.org just launched this one-of-a-kind tool, and we’re excited for people to jump in and get involved. If you’d like to learn more, read on as we summarize 5 principles for helping the world effectively. Or, click here to try out this invaluable primer in full. It examines these powerful ideas in much greater depth.
Principle #1: Some charitable efforts help much more than others, but it’s hard to tell which is which.
Not all approaches to helping others work as advertised. Indeed, some of them actually worsen the problems they aim to fix. And the fact that a charity is well-known doesn't necessarily mean that its resources are serving their intended purpose. One recent high-profile example is that of the International Red Cross's efforts to help Haiti recover after the devastating January 2010 earthquake. ProPublica and NPR reported in June 2015 that though the Red Cross raised nearly half a billion dollars in donations for Haiti, it almost totally failed to fulfill its pledge to build new housing for displaced Haitians. Though the aid organization claimed at the time to have housed some 130,000 displaced citizens, the ProPublica/NPR investigation found that it had in actuality built just six new permanent homes in the entire country (!) as of mid-2015.
By contrast, consider the example of the Against Malaria Foundation. Though this charity isn’t nearly as well known as the International Red Cross, it has a track record of excellence in its efforts to control malaria in sub-Saharan Africa. The AMF spends 100% of its personal donations on purchasing anti-mosquito bed nets; since its founding in 2004, it has distributed over 19 million nets at a cost of $2.50 per net. Each net can protect two people from malaria for up to four years, sparing them the risk of immiseration or even death due to infection. This charity’s efficiency and effectiveness have earned it plaudits from throughout the philanthropic world, including from The Life You Can Save.
Principle #2: You need lots of strong evidence or strong logical justification to know if a charity is effective.
Naturally, virtually all charitable organizations pitch themselves as competent and effective — and most of them believe that they're doing valuable work. But as you've now seen, good intentions and intuition aren't very reliable indicators when it comes to figuring out the best ways to help others. Fortunately, there are alternatives available. The best option is looking at specific, observable information that demonstrates how effective the charity is — for instance, a study which tracks the incidence of malaria among groups of people who were randomly selected to receive anti-malaria bed nets. (A variety of charity evaluation tools, such as GiveWell, can do the heavy lifting for you.) But in the case of more novel or experimental interventions, carefully considered logic can help you identify valuable options too.
Principle #3: The causes that help us the most are not always the ones that make us feel the best.
As nice as it can feel to help others out, it's vital that you value the effectiveness of your actions over the positive emotional side effects they might produce for you. Feeling good about charitable work is one of its many rewards, but as an altruist, feeling good probably isn’t your highest priority.
Principle #4: Effectiveness is about how much good occurs for a given amount of money, time, and/or resources.
Comparing the amount of good done per dollar spent or hour contributed to various organizations can help you make sure that your contributions do as much good as possible. There’s a lot of noise that surrounds the question of how effective a given charity is, including a lot of emotional distractions that appeal to the less rational parts of our brains. Given the incredibly high stakes, it’s vital to focus on getting the best return on your charitable investment — and thanks to charity evaluators like The Life You Can Save, you can get a strong sense of how the best charities measure up on these objective measures.
Principle #5: Don’t pointlessly compete with others to improve the world.
Since charitably-minded people can't all coordinate with each other, they don't always allocate their efforts efficiently. Some ways to contribute are more obvious or glamorous than others, which means that people tend to flock to certain causes while neglecting others. This dynamic can lead to literal rivalry between altruists for the privilege of helping those in need — in the form of multiple organizations battling to dominate a certain cause, unskilled volunteers crowding out talented professionals, and so forth. Naturally, this kind of competition isn't the most effective use of anyone's time or energy. There are plenty of ways to expend your charitable energy and resources that don't already have people lining up to wait for their turn to help.
Most philanthropists feel compelled to help others for praiseworthy emotional reasons. However, emotion itself isn’t enough. Capitalizing on the desire to change the world for the better requires channeling it through the filters of rationality: critical thinking, evidence-based reasoning, and cost-benefit analysis. Making use of these tools to refine your philanthropic efforts can make a huge difference. We think that Leaving Your Mark on the World: The Essential Starter's Guide provides an excellent jumping-off point for those who see the value in pressing both their hearts and their minds into the service of the world’s neediest people. After all, the stakes couldn’t be higher.