14 October, 2012
Maximizing Our Power
The theme this time around is The Power of We, and most people are discussing just how much power we collectively have toward accomplishing social good. However, I want to focus on something that most altruists seem to ignore: the massive potential power that we miss out on when donating to the wrong causes.
Not all nonprofits are equally good at effecting positive change. The differential in outcomes created between two random charities is likely several orders of magnitude. This is why it is so important to analyze which charitable cause is more capable of turning your donated dollar into additional social good. Thankfully, there are a few organizations that do this analyzation work for you.
GiveWell does an extraordinary job of ranking highly effective charities by how confident we can be that donating to them will result in good outcomes. Unfortunately, it only does well with ranking certain types of charities; specifically, it only ranks those charities that are already known to be highly effective (they do a good job of distinguishing #1 from #2, but not #10 from #11, if you're interested in knowing that kind of thing), and when a charitable need is not served well by any particular charity, it fails to give recommendations for that field, even if the (bad) charities in that field might result in higher potential gains. (The field of existential risk, for example, has no recommended charities.) Further, it focuses on being able to match small incremental gains with additional funding and so misses out on identifying larger gains accomplished that can't be verified step-wise. In other words, GiveWell places a high priority on knowing that their recommendation is accurate, and refuses to recommend charities which potentially are effective but which have so far not been proven as such.
For all these qualifiers, GiveWell ends up doing extremely well at what it means to do. Although it is missing out on some potential giving opportunities which might be more effective, you can always feel confident that if GiveWell recommends a charity, then that means there is reason for very high confidence that donating to them will accomplish serious social good.
An alternative to GiveWell's recommendation is Giving What We Can. Unlike GiveWell, which attempts to provide highly effective donation choices in a variety of fields (on the assumption that donors are more likely to give to projects which perform well in a field they're interested in), Giving What We Can has much more of a bottom line approach. GWWC breaks things down to the bare utilons and determines a sheer top recommendations list, so that donors can truly maximize good overall rather than in a specific field.
Lastly, there are two major fields where GiveWell does not give out recommendations, yet these fields might be some of the most effective ways of achieving good through donations. The first is existential risk, which GiveWell is currently working on; the second is animal welfare, which GiveWell explicitly stays away from. While no organization is currently fit to be rated highly in terms of existential risk, charities which focus on taking the moral status of animals seriously can be examined through Effective Animal Activism. While they do not rank animal charities against human-focused ones, they do a good job of determining which animal welfare oriented charities accomplish the most good per dollar donated.
Analyzing the effectiveness of nonprofits is not easy; there is far more subtlety involved than you might at first think. This is why I highly recommend going to one of the above sites before making any large giving decisions. If we want to maximize the power of we, we first must maximize the amount of good we accomplish with each dollar we donate.