Update - February 2016: This article has had a lot of attention and has confirmed the importance of finding highly effective charities in Australia to donate to. As a result, I've co-founded Effective Altruism Australia, which uses independent charity evaluators to find and partner with some of the most effective and tax-deductible charities in Australia. The rest of this post is much less interesting now that I've done this.
Why should you care about donating to the best charity?
It's simple: imagine it is your friends, family, or even you who is in need of help. You don't want to choose a charity that can tell you a good story about how much it's helping. You don't want to choose a charity that helps you a little bit. You don't even want to choose a charity that helps a lot. You want to help as much as possible.
Of all the ways of helping others in the world, how can I help as much as possible?
Effective altruism is a movement that tries to answer this question.
If this is your first contact with the concept of effective altruism, don't let it be. I highly recommend one of the following:
Introduction to Effective Altruism (effectivealtruism.org)
But you know why you're here.
You already know that you want to help more rather than less. How do you actually do that? Below are 2 suggested approaches, using heuristics (rules of thumb), and looking at the research that has already been done on this topic.
Charity selection rules of thumb
Be swayed to where you can do the most good. My grandfather died of prostate cancer when I was young. The year I graduated from high school, I donated my Christmas money to a cancer charity because I was sad about his passing. A donation wouldn't bring him back, but maybe it would save someone else's life. I realise now that I'd rather help 2 people like my grandfather, rather than just one, and the exact way I help doesn't matter. What matters is that they get the help they need, not how I feel about it.
If your selection is only based on overheads or administrative fees, you're gonna have a bad time. Imagine a charity where 100% of your funds went to 'Daffodils for Dogs'?
Think about the effectiveness of interventions (and the evidence for that), and then find charities that do these good interventions. For example, there are countless examples of things that sound like a really good idea, but do no good or sometimes even do harm (like the PlayPump). See also: list 1; list 2 . Once you've found some promising areas, you can find good charities working in these effective interventions.
Thinking about tractability. You need to actually have some chance of succeeding for it to be worthwhile.
What will your extra donations be used for? If the Peter Fund does a certain amount of good with $1 million, what would an extra million dollars achieve.
Room for more funding. Can the organisation continue to grow efficiently?
Neglected. With fewer people working in an area, it's more likely that it was your donation that helped.
Transparency. Do you know what is going on with the charity, behind the thin veneer of what they selectively publish to look good?
Evaluation. You want to know that a charity rigorously does impact assessments and tacks when one isn't working.
Global health and poverty
There is a lot to choosing a good charity. Luckily, there are a bunch of people working on it and we can use their research. GiveWell now have 20+ full time employees, write up extremely detailed analysis of charities, and have so far moved nearly US$100 million to effective charities. At the moment, they advise giving to the following charities:
Against Malaria Foundation
Distributes long lasting insecticide treated bed nets (LLINs) to stop people getting infected with malaria. On its own, malaria is pretty horrible – it causes someone to have 2 weeks of something a bit worse than the flu. They get a headache, sore muscles, diarrhoea, a fever and generally feel really sick. At a cost of about US$5 per net, including all operational costs.
The best bit? For about $3500 you can save someone’s life. Best $3500 you ever spent, right? We also know that bed nets work: bed net distribution is one of the best studied areas of development studies. Read the full report by GiveWell.
GiveDirectly gives unconditional cash transfers to the poorest households they can find, mainly in rural Kenya. They do this through mobile phone payments (I was surprised too!). 87% of donated money goes straight to participants. They did a randomised controlled trial (RCT), on their work and found substantial increases in short-term consumption, especially food, and little evidence of negative impacts (e.g., increases in alcohol or tobacco consumption). The people who receive the one-off transfer, commonly make investments that have a really high return on investment, such as a tin roof which doesn't need to be rebuilt every year - unlike the thatched roofs they replace. Read the full report by GiveWell.
Schistosomiasis Control Initiative
The Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI) works with governments in sub-Saharan Africa to create and scale up mass deworming programs that rid people of intestinal worms. SCI distributes praziquantel (a drug used to treat schistosomiasis) and albendazole (for hookworm, roundworm, lymphatic filariasis etc) to at risk populations at a cost of $0.68 per person treated. GiveWell’s full write up
Data collected by SCI itself as well as two Cochrane Reviews show that this cures most infections, but the evidence is less strong on how this improves people's lives (trials disagree on the magnitude of the effects). Despite this, some of the effects that have been found for this $0.68/person program look pretty encouraging:
25% increase in school attendance and an improvement on tests of literacy and numeracy
25% increase in income
2.4g/L increase in haemoglobin (Hb) (which carries oxygen - low Hb levels are called anaemia and cause fatigue, weakness, breathlessness)
Non-human animal suffering
A recent consensus among neuroscientists supports the position that many non-human animals have the capacity to suffer. Upon learning this fact, a lot of people become vegetarian or vegan; but what route will lead to the greatest reduction in animal suffering? Becoming a vegetarian limits your meat consumption to near zero, but this doesn't scale. Online advertising does scale, and appears to influence someone to become a vegetarian for around $12.
Existential risk reduction
So, you know human lives, right? Pretty good. What if they no longer existed? Pretty not good.
Reducing the risks facing humanity is a global public good, in the same way that the specific risk of runaway climate change is. This means countries struggle to cooperate to solve them.
Asteroids are one risk that comes to mind fairly easily. But most others in the field are mainly concerned about anthropogenic (human-induced) risks. This is mainly because the base rate for most environmental disasters is really low (one in ten to hundreds of thousands) and it gets a lot of research funding already, so is less neglected (see more). In the asteroid example, NASA et al. track 95% of near-earth asteroids. So, if not asteroids, then what?
Some commonly cited risks are nuclear war, synthetic biology and pandemics, geoengineering, advanced artificial intelligence, and [unknown]. Few could have predicted the colossal and diverse effects the internet had, let alone before it was even conceptualised. What development lies around the corner that will shape our world, for good or bad?
Some organisations working on this doing research and policy you can donate to include:
Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University
Centre for the Study of Existential Risks at Cambridge University
Did I miss something? Let me know in the comments or send me a message.