Charitable giving is one of the greatest hallmarks of our culture. In the age of information, where news of various issues can travel fast, our willingness to help those in need is a positive reaction to what’s happening in the world around us. But donating money to charities is a less straightforward process than one might think, and with so many issues of varying severity, and different ways to solve each of them, it’s not clear how a person can make the biggest impact with their charitable giving.
This frustrating obstacle has lead to the emergence of effective altruism, a social movement dedicated to helping individuals make informed decisions when giving to charities. Donations are decided through scientific evaluation of an organization’s success, and effective altruism finds which charities have the most potential for impact and identifies the best solutions for charities to carry out.
The first step in this science-driven donating strategy is to choose your organization. This might sound simple at first, but for effective charitable giving it’s a much more in-depth process. Givers must perform research in order to select charities based on a few criteria: the scale of the issue at hand, how “neglected” it is, and how likely the issue is to be solved.
The scale of the issue is the first significant factor to keep in mind. As an example, issues of blindness and HIV affect nearly identical amounts of people, about 36 million each, according to the World Health Organization. However, a study conducted by the WHO concluded that people living with untreated HIV exhibit a disease burden 1.5 times higher than blind individuals. In this case, HIV is a larger scale issue than blindness, despite affect similar numbers of people, and an effective altruist would prefer to donate to charities combating HIV.
A “neglected” issue is one that’s scale is measurably large, but has less funds being donated to it. Since the essence of effective charitable giving is ensuring that one’s own donation is making an impact, it is best to avoid causes that already attract a large amount philanthropy.
Even if a charity organization satisfies the other criteria, it doesn’t mean much if the issue isn’t alleviated or solved. When attempting to meaningfully donate, the final question to be answered is the most obvious one: can this organization make a significant difference? If an organization passes these three criteria, it can be a good sign that the particular charity in question can reliably influence an issue.
Solvability for an issue is important, but once knowing that success is achievable, the goal should then shift to discovering the most cost-effective solution. By finding more efficient solutions, it will allow established charitable efforts to increase, creating swift and long-lasting change. Many issues are multifaceted in the ways they can be approached.
For example, in Toby Ord’s essay on cost-effectiveness, he compares the cost-effectiveness of different avenues for combating HIV/AIDs, such as surgical treatment, antiretroviral therapy, prevention of transmission during pregnancy, condom distribution and education for high risk groups. All are viable solutions for fighting these diseases, but the highest and most cost-effective impact by far came from educating high-risk groups. To ensure that one is effectively donating, be sure that the organization’s solutions are the most cost-effective.
While effective charitable giving and effective altruism are more likely sources for scientific analysis, there is also scientific data linked to the basic act of giving. When a person gives, the brain’s pleasure and reward centers light up as if the giver was the recipient, and the body floods with oxytocin, a hormone that lowers stress and makes a person feel more connected with others. Simply put, it feels good to give.
Giving and helping others is seemingly ingrained in the human psyche, and effective altruism is a sign that we are always looking for ways to better do so. Any charitable person hopes that their contribution is important; by researching and using the scientific techniques behind effective charitable giving, that goal is more attainable than ever.