Welcome to the Insightful Giving Blog!
-- Post by Marina --
This is the question that started my research into the world of effective altruism 5 years ago.
I was fresh out of Uni and had been working in and with non-profits for some time which, instead of motivating me to give, made me question if most charities make any difference at all.
I felt like all my ambitions to make the world a better place were childish dreams.
Until one day I got around to reading that one development economics-related book I had on my list for a while: Doing Good Better by William MacAskill . It talked about an idea called effective altruism, where charities get rigorously evaluated not only on delivering on their promises, but also if that’s the right thing to work on and if it’s cost-effective.
Talking about money in the nonprofit world always felt wrong, like the work charities do is beyond any cost-effectiveness calculation and believing in the difference they make should be enough. When I finally read about people putting data-driven research to work on charitable causes and daring to say that some charities are not making any difference at all I felt like somebody is putting to paper what I’ve been wondering about all this time.
Now to the practical part: if giving does work, how do we know?
Turns out there are many researchers out there who have devoted their careers to finding out what works and which organisations do it best. Esther Duflo and her colleagues have even won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2019 for “their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty”. They brought randomised control trials, the gold standard for evaluating interventions, into the field of development economics and now we have many studies that can prove the impact of non-profit work.
Combining research like this with evaluating specific charities that implement these interventions is GiveWell, a charity evaluator that doesn’t just look at what nonprofits do, but also how what they do saves and improves lives all over the world.
Let’s look at a concrete example - Malaria
First we need to know if there is a problem and how big it is. With over 400,000 people killed by the disease annually and these being mostly children under 5 we can safely say that Malaria is a huge issue (WHO World Malaria Report for more details).
Can we actually do anything about this? Thankfully the answer is yes. Malaria is a preventable disease and both preventive medicine and bed nets have proven in many high-quality studies to have a strong impact on Malaria prevalence (CDC). Recently there have also been news on a vaccine being developed which has the potential to support the fight against the disease.
Great, but are there any trustworthy charities out there to do those things? This for me is the part where I might have said no in the past. Today there are non-profits where thanks to a combination of the organisation's transparency and an independent evaluation of their work I can confidently say yes.
One of the charities I donate to is the Against Malaria Foundation. They are one of the top charities of the evaluator GiveWell who focuses on the cost-effectiveness of organisations. They don’t recommend many charities because the research they require to pass their checks is extensive and not many organisations are willing or sometimes even able to go through such rigorous testing. For a donor like me, whose most important goal is to find charities I can trust to do a good job, no matter what cause it supports, this is the perfect place to find what I’m looking for.
GiveWell estimates that the Against Malaria Foundation can save a life for $3,000 - $5,000, which is incredible! Paired with this is AMFs transparency of your donations, I see when each of my donations is used for bed net shippings on my donor page and how many nets I have sponsored.
One thing I have to keep telling myself is to not let perfect be the enemy of good. I wish the research above would be available for every non-profit on this planet so we could make a fully informed decision, but that’s not realistic. Yes, there might be charities out there that are even more effective with the money they get and that’s why evaluators like GiveWell won’t be out of work anytime soon. For now, it’s good enough for me to know that with a high probability my donations saved a life last year and that makes my dreams of making the world a better place feel quite achievable.