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Choosing Charities

I’m often asked during the holidays by friends or family what charities they should direct their annual donations to, given my own involvement within the world of global health. While I won’t put myself forward as an expert, I have spent quite some time thinking about the topic, both in terms of my NGO and in terms of where I direct my own donations.

I broadly divide charitable donations into two approaches – those aimed at a specific cause, and those aimed at doing the “most good” in the world. I think both have a role to play, and I divide my own donations between the two.

The latter, utilitarian approach to donation is championed by a movement called Effective Altruism that has sprung up over the last decade or so. Proponents include Peter Singer and Thomas Pogge, and a primary organization is Giving What We Can, which encourages people to pledge a proportion of their income towards highly effective charities (disclosure: I have taken this pledge, though I’m not very active in the group). The rationale here is that $100 spent on malaria prevention in sub-Saharan  Africa can prevent a number of cases of malaria, potentially even a death, while the same $100 spent on providing shelter to the homeless in Boston will likely only provide coverage for 1-2 individuals for one night. Does this mean we shouldn’t support the underserved closer to home?  Of course not…but it does raise questions about where the best place to spend our charitable donations is. GiveWell is an organization associated with this movement that rates charities both by impact (how much mortality/morbidity saved per dollar spent?) as well as capacity (can they spend more dollars to the same amount of impact?), as well as the usual criteria of fiscal responsibility and transparency.

This approach does great at capturing the impact of programs rolling out disease-specific interventions – often termed “vertical” programs – but has a lot more difficulty capturing organizations that do advocacy (potentially releasing more funds from governments or forestalling global crises like climate change) or “horizontal” programs that strengthen overall health systems (such as Zanmi Lasante in Haiti).  Too, there’s something to be said for supporting your local community, whether it is groups working in your neighborhood or charities that your friends volunteer for. So while I appreciate the importance of thinking about the impact different charities provide, I don’t take a hard line and think of this as the only criteria to consider.

Ultimately, giving money to help others is a beautiful practice, and I’m broadly happy if friends or family do it at all – when you look at what anyone reading this post has relatively to many of our fellow humans, it is a small gesture indeed to give something away.

I do think that diversifying your charity portfolio makes sense, and personally give about 60% to GiveWell charities that provide high-impact interventions (my charity bonds, with a known, good return on donation), about 30% to groups doing advocacy work (my charity stocks, with a potential for marked return but also for marked failure), and 10% to groups associated with friends or emotional connections (where donation is less about impact, and more about supporting those I love).  As the holiday season moves forward, I encourage everyone to consider their own approach – and, as always, do some basic research on any charity you’re giving larger amounts to to ensure they have appropriate transparency of their finances and appropriate distribution of funds into programs (CharityNavigator and CharityWatch are two I use).



This entry was posted in BMC.
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