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Saturday 19th April 2014, 15:35 BST | Cambridge,UK

Cause for Thought

What is a worthy cause? Dylan Morris discusses ways of determining charity effectiveness in his post-Jailbreak analysis

AMF Against Malaria Foundation - GiveWell's no. 1 effective charity

Every year, Jailbreak generates opinion articles that point out a discomfiting fact: many teams manage to beg for and spend more money on their ‘for charity’ vacations than they generate for RAG in sponsored donations. Jailbreakers respond that they’re still generating charity funds that wouldn’t otherwise exist. They add that Jailbreak is not only about direct fundraising, but also about having fun and advertising for RAG’s worthy causes.

This is a debate worth having, but I want to raise a slightly different point: which worthy causes should we support with our donations?

When donors choose which charities to support, they’re motivated by a variety of considerations. Often, a personal relationship plays a role: people whose loved ones have died of cancer often give to cancer research charities. Sometimes, a moral or political concern is key: many feminists give to charities that educate young women in the developing world. Sometimes, direct involvement motivates a donor: volunteers for local non-profits frequently add a cash contribution to their donations of time.

Cynics and economists might point out that there are also less noble-sounding considerations. Giving enhances one’s status, and gifts to some causes may be more ‘high status’ than gifts to others. This can be good - the public will praise a celebrity who donates money for mosquito nets that protect children in Zambia from malaria. If he instead gives funds to build new tennis courts for the public school that educated him, he won’t generate the same goodwill.

If you ask why society should laud mosquito nets more than tennis courts, most people will tell you that the aim of charity should be to do good for those in need, not to provide perks for those who already have plenty. Indeed, when we donate to charity, most of us at least like to tell ourselves that our goal is to do good for others. Moreover, we recognise that certain kinds of good ‘need doing’ more than other kinds: building new tennis courts certainly does good for the young men of Eton, but it’s not the best use of philanthropic funds. “That money could do more good elsewhere”, we say.

Yet these seemingly common-sense principles generate as many questions as they answer. How do you know if your money is doing substantive good? How widely are you willing to look for opportunities to ‘do more good elsewhere’?

If you’re serious about charity as a means of doing good, and if you want to avoid falling into the tennis court trap (though most Varsity readers don’t quite have the money for that), it’s helpful to look at charities as products: try to get the best deal you can on ‘good’.

How likely is your donation to do good? How much risk is there that it will do harm? How substantive is the good it will do? (Lives saved rate more highly than tennis matches contested, at least for most of us) Above all, how much extra good will the charity be able to do for every pound you give? Large philanthropic foundations can hire researchers to look into these questions. Private donors who want to answer them turn to a special kind of NGO: a charity evaluator.

Yet most charity evaluators, such as the popular website Charity Navigator, don’t think like this. They are for the most part content to ascertain whether a charity is corrupt—embezzling donations, say. As long as the charity is making an honest effort to realise its stated aims, Charity Navigator makes no attempt to assess how effective that charity actually is in doing so. It likewise does not ask how truly important those aims are. Nor does it seek to ascertain whether the charity will be able to do more good than it already does if it is given more funds.

From Charity Navigator’s point of view, two honest mosquito net distributors are equal, even if there’s convincing evidence that one spends less to distribute more nets and targets people at greater risk for the disease. A horse racing museum can aspire to the same four-star rating as a charity working to combat a deadly epidemic. And a charity with a self-sustaining endowment and no plans to expand can get the same rating as one with a carefully drawn up scheme for using additional donations to reach more people. 

Fortunately, the last ten years have seen an explosion of thoughtful work aimed at determining how we can most effectively help others. Academic institutions such as the Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) at MIT and Innovations for Poverty Action at Yale do empirical research designed to test the effectiveness of schemes for saving and improving lives. Groups of donors such as Giving What We Can and 80,000 Hours spread the word about effectiveness thinking in modern philanthropy. Innovative charity evaluators such as GiveWell and the recently founded AidGrade take up the questions their more traditional counterparts ignore, and attempt to see how far charities’ honest efforts actually get them.

These groups do not offer a complete or inerrant perspective on philanthropy. Some charities may do good that is hard for a J-PAL or a GiveWell to assess accurately. Moreover, effective philanthropy demands mixing philosophy with social and natural science. We have a responsibility to decide which causes to prioritise, and in what proportions. Spending all the world’s charitable funds on malaria eradication would be as foolish as spending none. We’d experience diminishing returns; money that could do good elsewhere would be wasted.

And the very premises of effective giving are themselves worthy of discussion. Should we be concerned with doing as much good as we can, or merely with doing good? Is every human being equally deserving of our help, or do we have particular duties to those close to us? Reasonable, well-intentioned people debate these questions vigorously. 

Yet whatever your particular stance, if you share with most donors the aim of doing good for others and are sceptical of tennis court-style charity, it is worth considering these points before you give. Ask not only whether your cause is worthy but also whether you might do more good - or more substantive good - elsewhere. Use tools like GiveWell and AidGrade to figure out which organisations are best able to purchase that substantive good with your donation. We spend a lot of time discussing charity during Jailbreak. Let’s spend some of it discussing effectiveness.

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