The justness of “just giving”

When we talk about giving to charities there’s a dirty secret we try really hard not to mention. Some charities are “bad”.

When people look at charities, all of which are doing decent things, they don’t want to point out that some do a lot more good than others.

It’s understandable. They’re all well-intentioned, good projects. People care about them. You don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. But the truth is that, in the world we live in, we can’t afford not to be picky about our giving.

If all charities were as good as each other, then giving to less effective charities wouldn’t be a big deal. But there are huge differences. A safe and effective cataract operation can completely cure someone of blindness in the developing world for about $20. The same person can be provided with a seeing eye dog for $50,000. There are charities doing each.

Let’s not make any mistakes about this. Both charities are definitely helping people. But one is helping a lot more people with the same resources.

There’s something awkward here. It feels like we’re putting a price on helping people. We’d like to just help charities help people in need without having to think about scarce resources. It feels embarrassing to say to one charity “I’m sorry, I think my money can help more people somewhere else.” It seems much nicer to give a bit to all the good causes.

That’s a very costly attitude to have.

We live in a world plagued by urgent human suffering. A lot of it is suffering that we really can do something about. Neglected Tropical Diseases, for example, affect more than a billion people and cause about half a million deaths a year. Charities like [SCI]( can deliver treatment at a cost of about $0.70 per person to prevent crippling disabilities and death.

Clearly, it’s very important to focus on giving to highly effective charities like SCI. That’s why organisations around the world are turning their attention towards effective giving. Large-scale programmes like the Gates Foundation are using effectiveness data to inform their giving choices.

But it’s also important for individuals to take giving seriously. [Giving What We Can] ( is an organisation that encourages individuals to commit to donating 10% of their income to the most effective charities. They reckon that, on a really conservative estimate, their two hundred members have pledged about $75m over their lifetimes. That will save about 150,000 lives. The Life You Can Save, which only asks for a minimum pledge of 1%, thinks its thirteen thousand members have already given $68m. All those little donations add up.

Personally, I find the idea of being able to help so many people, so easily, exciting. But some people I know get nervous about the idea. Who am I to say which charities are the best? How can you even compare them? Can you say that curing a case of TB is better or worse than defending someone’s civil rights?

They’ve got a point. Comparing charities is hard and we’re bound to make some mistakes. But not trying to compare them is even worse. You aren’t giving to every charity (and you shouldn’t) so you’re already comparing them. But the natural way to choose them, picking the ones that sound good, just doesn’t take the urgency of human suffering seriously enough.

The good news is that there are organisations out there to help. [GiveWell]( has a team of researchers who analyse charities to find the best ones out there.

That sort of project is a pretty new idea, but it’s one that’s gaining influence. Ten years from now, I’d be surprised if that dirty secret isn’t out in the open and we’re all thinking about effectiveness when we think about giving. It won’t be a moment too soon.

Sebastian Farquhar

Sebastian Farquhar studies at Balliol College, Oxford. He’s been a member of Giving What We Can for a couple years, when he first got interested in how much good you can do by donating part of your income.



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