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Where To Donate So That Your Cash Does The Most Good

Measuring effective altruism finds that supporting malaria-fighting organizations creates a lot of positive change for not a lot of money.

Where To Donate So That Your Cash Does The Most Good
[Illustrations: Nongkran_ch/iStock; App Photo: courtesy of Paramount Pictures ("The Wolf of Wall Street", 2013)]

For the very long list of problems in the world–from inequality and climate change to disease and lack of education–there’s an equally long list of nonprofits. More than a million charities are registered in the U.S. alone; there are millions more around the world.

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GiveWell, an organization that evaluates charities, recommends just seven.

The organization is part of the larger social movement called effective altruism, premised on the idea that some causes are better than others. And when you’re making an end-of-year donation–or a recurring donation from each paycheck–they argue that it makes sense to give where your donation can help most.

“It’s just trying to ask the question, how can we do the most good with our limited time and resources?” says Hauke Hillebrandt, director of research for Giving What We Can, another organization in the movement that co-signs GiveWell’s list of top charities.

“What we found is that there are huge differences in terms of cost effectiveness–so how you can save the most lives with the least amount of money, or how you can make people’s lives better with the least amount of money,” he says.

Because of global inequality, a dollar given to someone in the developing world, Hillebrandt says, can have 60 times the impact of giving a dollar to the average American.

Effective altruists begin their evaluation by looking at the relative scale of a particular problem and understanding how many people are affected, and how badly they are affected. Malaria, for example, infects hundreds of millions of people a year, and kills hundreds of thousands.

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They also look for tractable problems, where there are no strong cultural or political barriers to implementing a solution. In this case, again, malaria passes the test: Unlike some more political issues, no one is fighting against the idea of malaria prevention.

Last, they look for neglected causes; if fewer people have donated, any new donation can have more of an impact.

Someone who earns an average U.S. income and donates 10% of their salary each year to the Against Malaria Foundation, GiveWell’s to recommended charity, could save dozens of lives over their own lifetime.

The foundation, which funds the distribution of bed nets to prevent mosquito bites, is recommended over others because GiveWell found that it has an established track record, it’s cost-effective, and it publishes transparent reports.

GiveWell also recommends the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, which funds treatment of parasitic worms in African schoolchildren–a cheap intervention that appears to have outsize benefits for health and education. Deworm the World Initiative, another recommended nonprofit, does similar work, as does the END Fund.

“The very first step in our process, before we even start to really focus on looking for individual charities and reviewing their work, is to work on evidence reviews for programs that we think are promising,” says Catherine Hollander from GiveWell. “What’s the strength of the evidence behind a particular intervention that might help someone.”

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To round out its list, GiveWell also recommends Sightsavers, the Malaria Consortium, and GiveDirectly, a nonprofit that fights poverty by giving poor people cash transfers.

Though both effective altruism organizations focus on global poverty–believing that has the most impact–Hillebrandt says that within other issue areas, there’s often a similar hierarchy of effectiveness.

“Some climate change charities are much better than others and can avert a ton of CO2 equivalent for much less money,” he says. “There we’ve found that preventing deforestation of the rainforest is probably one of the most cost-effective direct interventions that you can donate to.” He suggests an organization called Cool Earth, which can help prevent a ton of CO2 emissions for less than two dollars.

On the Effective Altruism website, a “cause prioritization” tool helps donors think through their values as they decide where to give.

Hillebrandt says that while most people spend time poring through reviews before buying an iPhone, few take the time to research nonprofits in a similar way.

“We encourage people to think very hard about where to give,” he says. “So that you make a really informed choice.”

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This article has been edited from the original, to remove references to an outdated list of the top four effective charities that still appears on Giving What We Can’s website. The organization now recommends using GiveWell’s current list of seven. Additionally, Cool Earth requires two dollars to prevent a ton of CO2 emissions, not just one.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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