On Giving

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When I was in the Philippines back in June, I had a chance to talk to my grandma about giving money to charities. At that time, the majority of my donations have been going to environmental advocacy groups and to local non-profits. But what she was telling me was that I should try and think about giving more effectively, to think about how a little money can go a long way in poorer countries like the Philippines. That way, she said, my donations would have a more significant impact on people’s lives.

It was hard to swallow because the non-profits I’ve been donating to are local, and I love that they: support the people around me, work on things that personally I care about, and improve life around my city. I feel good when the money I give goes directly to my immediate environment. It feels more tangible. More real.

But she was right. My grandma forced me to think about why I was donating in the first place, and to think about the opportunity costs of donating my money to one charity instead of another. With money being a finite resource, wouldn’t it be better if it went to people who need it the most? Should I really choose charities based on things that I have an emotional attachment to and make me feel good instead of giving to charities that can actually do more good?

Take malaria, for example. I don’t know anyone who’s had malaria, I don’t know what it feels like to have malaria, and the community around me doesn’t get malaria. (Although certain parts of the Philippines do.) I have no emotions towards malaria whatsoever, and yet it continues to be one of the leading causes of death in the developing world.

Malaria is one of the most severe public health problems worldwide. It is a leading cause of death and disease in many developing countries, where young children and pregnant women are the groups most affected.

CDC’s Report on Malaria’s Impact Worldwide

So knowing that it’s a deadly disease and knowing that the solutions are proven to work and are low-cost (see long-lasting insecticide-treated nets and seasonal malaria chemoprevention), why wouldn’t I direct my money to that cause?

Of course, I’m not saying that “having the most impact” should be the only criteria that people should use for choosing a charity, and I’m not saying that local charities aren’t worth giving your money to. People’s donations can be shaped by the community around them and their experiences in life. But for someone like me who wants to stretch out every dollar to reach as many people as I could, I think this benchmark makes the most sense. (I don’t actually believe that my money will literally land on the hands of the people in need or be used out there in the field because organizations need to compensate people, do research, do outreach, etc. There are overhead costs, and that can be a good thing.)

But still, I’ve been hesitant. I can’t help but struggle with thoughts of not giving to causes that I have a personal connection to. But I’ve come to terms with it by reminding myself that I don’t have much to give away (therefore I want it to be focused on something that will likely work and get the most “bang for my buck”), and that I shouldn’t value people’s lives differently just because they live in the same country or have had the same experiences as I have.

So, I’ve been thinking about it, and I’ve decided to focus 100% of my donations to GiveWell’s discretion because they have the resources to make decisions on which charities are the most effective and which charities have room for more funding. What they do is they take this money and distribute 100% of it to the short list of charities that need it the most. They do a lot of research on cost-effectiveness and impact, so that gives me confidence that the money is going to the right places.

I’ve also decided to bump my donations from 1% to 3% of my pre-tax income.

I’m glad that I got to take a second look at my assumptions and challenge my thinking on giving. I think this is a step in the right direction, but I’m always open to changing my mind as I learn new things. If you can relate to this experience of not knowing where to give, I hope you find this at least a little bit helpful. Here’s a good starting point: Giving 101.

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