Personal Growth

Here's How to Choose the Best Charitable Cause for Your Donation

The moment Thanksgiving is over in the U.S., the spending season begins: first there's Black Friday, then Cyber Monday. In 2012, Giving Tuesday arose as a way to celebrate altruism amid all the seasonal consumerism. But while most people probably check multiple buying guides and online reviews before choosing the products they order on Black Friday, few of us ever research the causes that get our donations. That's a mistake because the charity you choose can make a massive difference in the impact your donation dollars have.

Eeny, Meeny, Miney, Mo

One of the most important choices you can make in your donation decision is which cause to support. Most people tend to go with a cause that's dear to their heart: maybe a relative has a certain disease, or you have personal experience with an important issue. The problem with choosing a charity this way is that if a cause immediately comes to your mind, it probably comes to the minds of a lot of people. That means that you're likely to choose a cause with a lot of support when you could have made your dollars go further with an issue that's less well known.

But there's another issue with choosing a charity this way. The fact is, a lot of charity programs don't work. Their heart is in the right place, but the numbers aren't: A 2015 literature survey found that of 90 educational interventions tested, 90 percent had "weak or no positive effects." Of employment-boosting programs, that figure was 75 percent.

So what's a good-hearted giver to do? A little extra research can ensure you get the biggest bang for your charity buck.

Put Your Money Where Your Mouse Is

The nonprofit 80,000 Hours publishes a career guide for college graduates who want to make an impact on the world but don't know where to start. In it, they lay out the criteria they use to assess which issues are most urgent. According to them, the most pressing problems will have a good combination of the following characteristics:

  • Scale: How big is the problem? How many lives does it affect? If we solved it today, how much would that benefit the world?
  • Solvability: How easy is it to solve the problem? Do solutions already exist, and if so, how strong is the evidence behind them?
  • Neglectedness: How many resources are already devoted to this problem? How many people know about it? Are there good reasons why it hasn't been solved yet?

Once you've chosen a cause, it's important to find out which solutions are best to put your dollar behind. Toby Ord, founder of Giving What We Can, uses the HIV/AIDS epidemic as an example.

Say you were considering supporting five interventions to fight AIDS: surgical treatment for an AIDS-related illness, antiretroviral therapy to fight the virus in people who are infected, prevention of transmission during pregnancy, condom distribution to prevent transmission on the whole, and education for the groups at highest risk of infection. Which one do you choose?

Without any research, you might think they're all just as cost effective. But in fact, the best of these is a whopping 1,400 times more cost-effective than the least: surgery barely registers on the chart, while education towers over the other methods. The more cost-effective the intervention, the more power your dollar has.

And don't discount putting money straight into the hands of the people who need it. Scientific evidence shows that when you give poor people money with no strings attached, they don't waste it. The charity GiveDirectly performed a randomized controlled trial in Kenya where they gave people different amounts of money and watched how they spent it. Overwhelmingly, the people spent the money on food and durable goods, often investing in livestock and building materials that helped secure their futures.

Once you've chosen a pressing issue with a cost-effective, evidence-based intervention, it's time to choose your charity. Sites like GuideStar, Charity Navigator, and CharityWatch are useful for rating charities themselves. They assess things like accountability, transparency, and financial health to make sure your donations are being used effectively and honestly. You can search the sites for the issues that you've chosen, and they'll show you the charities that can best put your donations to work to tackle the problem. After that, all that's left is to bask in the warm glow of charitable giving.

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For more on choosing a worthwhile cause, check out "Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference" by William MacAskill. The audiobook is free with a 30-day trial of Audible. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer November 23, 2017

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