You’re Probably Bad at Choosing Charities. Here’s How to Do Better.

Note: This revisits, with just a few revisions, a theme I’ve discussed here and here. Many people choose charities around the holidays, so it seemed appropriate.

Synopsis: Evidence suggests that charity is mostly self-regarding. It’s not about helping; it’s about looking helpful. Optimally helpful charity would look very different from what people generally do. Such charity is probably unrelated to your personal affinities. It’s probably not glamorous or intuitively appealing. It may even be unpleasant.

Yet there is a compelling utilitarian case for embracing optimum helpfulness and abandoning much self-regarding charity. I’m not a strict utilitarian, but sometimes utilitarian arguments are very powerful. This is one of those times.

Pure disinterest nonetheless faces limits; both self-regard and other-regard are necessary to a degree. Do not feel guilty about self-regard. Feel guilty only when other-regard turns out to be fake.

The Problem: Charity Is Mostly Self-Regarding

In the best blog post ever written, Robin Hanson asserted that charity isn’t about helping. He explained as follows:

When I say “X is not about Y,” I mean that while Y is the function commonly said to drive most X behavior, in fact some other function Z drives X behavior more.

As we do it now, I believe that charity serves mainly to signal that the giver is charitable. The claim sounds both strange and horrible, but I think it’s well-supported when we consider the major types of charities we give to.

Religious giving is the largest single type of charitable giving in the United States, and the majority of religious gifts go to the giver’s own congregation. How much is donated to missionary work? A very small amount, and it’s declining relative to congregational giving. But what then about Luke 15:1-7?

I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.

Only two alternatives seem to reconcile this with the data: Either the faithful are motivated by a bias toward their own communities (and thus to themselves) — or the faithful have all independently concluded that they personally attend the most sinful and/or financially needy congregation in the world. The former may be startling, but the latter is preposterous. The money ought to follow the need. Overwhelmingly, it stays at home.

How many give to their alma mater? And why? How many compare educational institutions and give to the most deserving? I’d take desert by any reasonable metric, including accomplishment, financial need, room to grow, a great research program, or service to a needy population.

But these aren’t the standards that most people appear to use. Overwhelmingly, they pick the place that they personally attended. They would appear to be paying off what they perceive as a sort of debt — and again, this is a type of self-regard. Optimal giving almost certainly lies elsewhere.

Americans donate a lot for cancer. That’s reasonable, in that about 40% of us will get cancer in our lifetimes. But many cancer charities are horribly managed, and our giving is all out of proportion to where it really needs to go, even just considering the different types of cancer:

Americans are very sympathetic with cancer sufferers and generously open their pocketbooks to solicitors raising money for many types of cancer research, prevention education and patient care. It is sad that cancer charities, one of the most serious and popular giving categories, perform so poorly — half of the cancer charities that [American Institute of Philanthropy] rates in this Charity Rating Guide receive a D or F grade and only 37% receive an A or B.

Many hundreds of breast cancer organizations have sprung up over the last few decades. With all of the soliciting and cause-oriented marketing being done to cure or assist victims of breast cancer, one might assume that it is the form of cancer that women are most likely to be diagnosed with, yet this is not the case. According to government statistics, more women have non-melanoma skin cancer than breast cancer and more women die of lung and bronchus cancer (68,084 in 2003, the latest figures available) than those that die of breast cancer (41,619 in 2003). Two-thirds as many women died of colorectal cancer as those that died of breast cancer in 2003. Yet based on a search of Guidestar’s database of charity tax forms, 1,326 charities mention being involved with breast cancer and only 56 charities mention work in colon cancer and 11 in rectal cancer. Why are there only 5% as many groups addressing colorectal cancer as breast cancer victims? A likely reason is that colorectal cancer, also called bowel cancer, is not as attractive from a fundraising or marketing perspective as a disease that affects what is considered one of the most beautiful parts of a woman’s body.

Men like boobies, and women are attached to them. And that’s why breast cancer gets all the, erm, love. Never mind that lung cancer kills more women, to say nothing of what it does to men. Few enjoy lungs in the same way that most men enjoy ta-tas. (Yes, I agree: The language of these campaigns really is sexist and demeaning. That it clearly affects how we give is yet another example of how irrational we are about charity.)

Zoom out a bit. Say we really want to help people be healthier in general. If so, cancer is a lousy target. Fighting cancer is expensive, and we’re terrible at it. You’d get more bang for the buck by fighting things that can be stopped the easiest — preventing malaria, abating parasitic diseases, and giving vaccinations for childhood illnesses would all be money much better spent.

So why do we still pick cancer? I suspect it’s because people near us and like us get it, while people in the developing world are very different and very far away. Never mind that they can be helped for cheaper: We look after our own, even if it’s more expensive and less effective.

Affinity Charities
I’ve covered the big three categories of charitable giving — religion, education, and health. But there are lots of little charities, too. Many play directly to our personal affinities.

How else can we explain, for example, the existence of animal charities that only serve one breed of one species of animal? Look at the Siamese Cat Rescue and the numerous German Shepherd Rescues and the many others of their ilk. Are there any efficiency gains to be had here? Sure, some breeds have particular health problems, but is this really the best way to serve them?

Now, one might say that affinity charities spur giving that would otherwise never happen at all. This is probably at least somewhat true. But as we shall see, if affinity diverts even a little bit from efficiency, then it likely comes at a terrible net cost.

Why We’re Bad at This Stuff

We wouldn’t call it “charity” if it didn’t at least minimally help some others without a material reward to ourselves. That’s definitional.[1] But among the acts so defined, we often make choices that would be indefensible if “helping” were our primary goal. Right along with that – and possibly with higher priority – we want to feel helpful, and we want everyone to know about it. This screws up our thinking pretty badly.

Here’s an example: You have probably been asked to donate food to a food bank. You might even have done it. Feeding another human is a deeply intimate act, and we perhaps crave that intimacy. Yet as Matt Yglesias notes, donating food is grossly inefficient:

America, after all, is not a country stricken with famine. There’s no objective shortage of food, in other words, that makes it vitally important for you to draw down the stockpile in your kitchen cabinet. Indeed, many of us don’t even have that much food socked away, which leads to us going out to buy extra food in order to give it away. But having 100 different people go out and pay retail prices for a few cans of green beans is extraordinarily inefficient relative to pooling those funds to buy the beans in bulk.

But it’s even worse than that. All across America, charitable organizations and the food industry have set up mechanisms through which emergency food providers can get their hands on surplus food for a nominal handling charge. Katherina Rosqueta, executive director of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania, explains that food providers can get what they need for “pennies on the dollar.” She estimates that they pay about 10 cents a pound for food that would cost you $2 per pound retail.

Do you want to give food? Add up its retail price. Take that money out of your wallet. Flush 90% of it down the toilet. Send the food bank the balance. You’re still helping twice as much if you gave the food.[2]

Ignorance may be partly to blame. Not everyone knows that food banks do best with cash. On hearing it, many will give differently. But some will rationalize, and get indignant… and open their pantries yet again.[3] In so doing, food givers signal to themselves and others that they are the sorts who give food. But they’re not doing as much good as they might. (Why do food banks accept food? Because inefficient help is better than no help whatsoever. What are they going to do, turn you away?)

Or consider Alex Grass, the founder of Rite Aid. Grass made a fortune in business. Not coincidentally, he did the world a lot of good. He then gave millions to education and health initiatives. Many applaud him.

Robin Hanson does not: Hanson’s research and that of many others indicates that we already spend way too much on health and probably also too much on education. We might cut medical spending in half, Hanson estimates, and get the same or even better outcomes. Yet medical charities signal fellow-feeling. They are intimate and reassuring, like food. That’s possibly why so many can’t resist them. They just feel so good.[4]

The Chess in the Schools program introduces hundreds of kids every year to a game that I dearly love. It propagates a wonderful bit of our cultural heritage while teaching critical thinking, discipline, and logic.

Donating money to this program would also be unconscionable. Please don’t give. Some kids will never sit down at a chessboard. But it’s not because they don’t have a chessboard. It’s because at age four they will die of malaria. Contrasts like these focus the mind.

Or consider the Make-A-Wish Foundation. By the numbers, it’s horrifying: In 2009, its budget was $203,865,550, and it gave 13,471 children trips to Disney World, shopping sprees, cruises, and chances to meet celebrities. That’s an average of $15,133.66 per kid.

Meanwhile, in Mozambique, the infant mortality rate stands at around 10%. If these kids could be saved, they would be very likely to live full adult lives. Young childhood is still a deadly time there, as it was everywhere for most of human history. After that, life gets easier. Children in Mozambique succumb to infectious diseases that could readily be prevented or treated — things like measles, tetanus, tuberculosis, diphtheria, and the like.

That’s where VillageReach comes in:

Between 2002 and 2008 VillageReach ran a pilot program in the Mozambique province of Cabo Delgado designed to improve the province’s health logistics. This program was dramatically successful. One tangible indicator of impact is that VillageReach increased the percentage of Cabo Delgado infants who received the third and final dose of the diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine from 68.9% to 95.4%, yielding a final percentage higher than that of the average in any sub-Saharan African country. When one looks at the available evidence in juxtaposition with the cost of the program and runs through cost-effectiveness calculations one finds that under conservative assumptions VillageReach saved an infant’s life for every $545 donated to VillageReach.

So. One wish for one relatively privileged (albeit distinctly unlucky) first-world kid. Or fifteen hundred years of life — for children who will otherwise die. (Are they any less unlucky?)

If I’m right, we should probably be ashamed that the Make-A-Wish Foundation is even a thing. Can you imagine arguing for it in Mozambique? And not sounding exactly like Effie Trinket?

How to Do Better

As we have just seen, there is a compelling utilitarian case for embracing optimum helpfulness and abandoning most self-regarding charity. Nearly all of it is an appalling waste when compared to what might be done with the same funds.

This is not to say that you should stop giving. Far from it. If all this is new to you, I suggest not changing anything immediately. First, do no harm: give as usual. An inefficient gift still beats nothing at all. Just consider adding something more efficient as well, or maybe swapping out the one or two choices that seem least defensible.

Now, about how to replace them. GiveWell is my favorite charity evaluator. Here is GiveWell’s evaluation process; they are nothing if not transparent, both about their successes and their failures. Here are their top charities:

#1 Against Malaria Foundation (AMF)
#2 GiveDirectly
#3 Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI)

All have room to grow. None are glamorous. None have anything to do with me. So much the better: We should mistrust things that reflect too well on ourselves. They are likely to mislead.

The first of GiveWell’s picks fights one of humanity’s oldest scourges, malaria. It uses effective, low-cost anti-mosquito bed nets. It’s not glamorous, but it works.

The second, GiveDirectly, gives small, lump-sum cash payments directly to poor households. It’s really that simple. It trusts that poor people know best what they need, and it makes sure the money isn’t diverted to middlemen or governments. (I confess a personal affinity for this one. I find it appealingly antipaternalistic – as well as Hayekian. And Rawlsean to boot; were we in the original position, we would want a much stronger version of GiveDirectly, I think. You may therefore discount my advice: I could hardly blame you for finding that GiveDirectly seems a bit too Jason-ish.)

The third charity fights schistosomiasis. It’s a horrid disease that I can barely spell. I am at no risk whatsoever of contracting it. It affects no one I know. And it is common in a country for which I cannot summon a single good word.[5]

But every December, my husband and I decide where to send our charitable contributions for the year. When he asked me my thoughts, I gave him these. I recommend them to you as well. These will help. A lot. Most other things won’t help nearly as much. Please consider adding them to your charitable mix.

Self and Others

There is a strong tendency in the United States to identify the dichotomy of good/evil with the dichotomy of selfish/altruistic. Randians identify selfishness with the good; most others identify altruism with the good. I emphatically do neither.

I believe – with Adam Smith – that self-regard and other-regard are both necessary to some degree. I suspect, again with Smith, that humans find self-regard the easiest. (This isn’t normative; I am not urging you to be selfish. I am asserting that you are habitually selfish. So am I.)

Much selfishness is rational: Managing a self is hard work, and if we were not powerfully motivated to do it, someone else would do it for us. And they’d probably be terrible at it. Repeat often enough, and everything becomes terrible.

Even selfish charity can be rational, up to a point: I’d be utterly useless trying to cure the sick in Uganda. I’d do better to teach kids how to play chess. I’d have fun with the chess, and it would offer (a very small) help to them. Long live self-regard, as long as we’re honest about it.

But: How can we make a decent society out of billions of self-regarders? This is one of the biggest questions of the modern world.

As you all know, I think part of the answer lies in hitching our self-regard to the market process: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest,” wrote Adam Smith. When we work to earn our keep in a properly run market, we typically go to work for others, but with regard to ourselves. We harmonize the two types of regard. Or at least we hope to.

That’s not easy or intuitive. It mixes self- and other-regard in ways that are hard to sort out. So do most other things that we do. Human life is a magnificent jumble of self- and other-regard, and it probably should be, if we are to maintain both a decent society and a tolerable place for ourselves within it.

I don’t believe that I can dictate the right ratio of self- and other-regard. I don’t even think that I can always delineate the boundaries between them. But I believe that we can try to think a bit more clearly about the two of them. Even in a mostly selfish world, there is still benevolence, and there is still a surplus beyond what we need or even what we vaguely sort of want. Many needs still go unmet, and we could all do a whole lot better at virtually no cost to ourselves.


[1] One way of helping others — while also helping yourself — is to invest in an honest, successful business. That’s not charity, but it’s still a good thing, and if you can do it, then it may be a better use of your money.

[2] You could also take 90% and invest as per [1]. It would be better than the toilet.

[3] If you’ve grokked what I am saying here, you will also be a long way toward understanding why market institutions tend strongly toward efficiency. Giving cash gives the food bank a choice, and choices are valuable: They can buy nonperishable food, which is often cheap. Or they can buy perishables, which are only sometimes cheap, but generally healthier and tastier. They can tailor their needs to their clients’ allergies or cultural sensitivities. They can bargain hunt. They can save for future disasters. They can do lots of great things with cash that can’t be done with aid in kind.

Some will likely object that they weren’t going to eat the food in question anyway, so giving it to a food bank recoups the cost they incurred, at least a little. The problem is that the unwanted leftovers of an entire city’s pantries probably won’t add up to a nutritious or balanced stock of food. They’ll add up to a giant disposal problem. If you really want to recoup your loss, just suck it up and eat the unwanted food. Then make a list, and never buy the offending products again.

[4] Is it good to keep some people around who cultivate a cheerful contempt for appearances? Perhaps we keep them in a sealed enclosure, so they won’t scare the horses? They — oh hell, we — would counter an obvious bias in the rest of you. That, in turn, might cause you to think that we were… helpful! And you would love us, if only in a meta sense, and that would be meta-wonderful.

[5] Uganda. If ever I’d wish a pox on someone’s house… but here is proof that I don’t. Please help Uganda.