Want to donate to charity? Here are 10 guidelines for giving effectively.
Want to donate to charity? Here are 10 guidelines for giving effectively.

Want to donate to charity? Here are 10 guidelines for giving effectively.

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Giving to charity is great, not just for the recipients but for the givers, too.

But it can be intimidating to know how to pick the best charity when there are thousands of worthy causes to choose from, and especially when the world is recovering from a massive pandemic and economic calamity that’s still causing huge pain and suffering at home and abroad.

This holiday season, I thought it might be helpful to update our annual guide to giving. Think of this as not only a rundown of charity recommendations but also a broader guide to thinking about how to give. Here are a few simple tips for end-of-year giving that can help.

1) Check in with charity recommenders

It’s of course possible to research charity options yourself, but you can save some time by outsourcing that labor to a careful, methodologically rigorous charity recommender like GiveWellCharity Navigator has recently started following in GiveWell’s footsteps by evaluating charities based on their ability to do the most good at the lowest cost; GiveWell has a longer track record, but Charity Navigator’s impact scores are worth consulting, too.

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GiveWell currently lists nine top charities. Its recommendation, if you find it hard to choose among the nine, is to donate to the GiveWell Maximum Impact Fund, which goes directly to those top charities based on GiveWell’s assessment of where the money is most helpful given groups’ funding needs.

GiveWell also supports novel interventions, though not through its top charities fund. For instance, in 2021 GiveWell has directed $30 million to the Alliance for International Medical Action and International Rescue Committee to work on malnutrition, and $25 million to IRD Global to provide cash transfers in Pakistan to incentivize immunizations.

GiveWell functions somewhat like a grantmaker, and announced it’s rolling $110 million in funds into 2022, in hopes of finding more high-impact opportunities than those offered at its top charities, instead of distributing those funds to charities now. It’s worth noting that decision has proved controversial, even among like-minded groups like GiveDirectly.

That debate aside, the charities GiveWell recommends are still worthy of consideration. The nine top charities it currently lists are:

  • Against Malaria Foundation, which buys and distributes insecticidal bed nets, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa but also in Papua New Guinea
  • GiveDirectly, which directly distributes donations to poor people in Kenya and Uganda, to spend as they see fit
  • Helen Keller Intl, which provides technical assistance to, advocates for, and funds vitamin A supplementation programs in sub-Saharan Africa, which reduce child mortality
  • Malaria Consortium, which helps distribute preventive antimalarial medication to children (a program known as “seasonal malaria chemoprevention”)
  • New Incentives, which offers cash to families in Nigeria conditional on childhood vaccinations
  • Evidence Action’s Deworm the World Initiative, which, along with the next three charities, works on deworming programs to prevent and treat parasitic infections.
  • The END Fund
  • Sightsavers
  • SCI Foundation

GiveWell chose those charities based on how much good additional donations would do, not necessarily how good the groups are overall; in other words, these are organizations that can put new funding to use, rather than sitting on it.

A health worker looks on as a mother spoon-feeds the baby on her lap.
Caregivers are counseled by community health workers in Burkina Faso on how to administer further antimalarial doses at home.

The group also takes disconfirming research seriously. In 2017, it recommended Evidence Action’s No Lean Season, which offered no-interest loans to farmers in Bangladesh during the “lean season” between planting rice and harvesting it; the loans are conditional on a family member temporarily moving to a city or other area for short-term work. But a subsequent randomized evaluation found that the program didn’t actually spur people to migrate or increase their incomes, and GiveWell and Evidence Action then agreed that it should no longer be a top charity. Evidence Action stopped soliciting funds for it and later shut it down — an unusually scrupulous move for a charity.

(Disclosure: I have been donating to GiveWell since 2010 and direct my donations to the Maximum Impact Fund. Because I write about philanthropy frequently, outsourcing my giving to GiveWell prevents me from donating directly to specific top charities that I may cover in the future, not unlike investing in index funds to avoid conflicts of interest when writing about particular companies. GiveWell is also an advertiser on Vox podcasts.)

2) Pick charities with research-based strategies

GiveWell’s recommendations rely heavily on both evaluations done by charitable organizations and existing research literature on the kind of intervention the charities are trying to conduct.

For example, its recommendations of SCI, Sightsavers, the END Fund, and Deworm the World are based on research suggesting that providing children with deworming treatments could improve educational, economic, and other outcomes. While the evidence behind such benefits is heavily debated, deworming is also cheap enough that it could be worth doing if it results in even a small chance of reaping large benefits.

Research from the Poverty Action Lab at MIT suggests that giving away insecticidal bed nets — as the Against Malaria Foundation does — is vastly more effective than charging even small amounts for them.

Meanwhile, hundreds of studies have found largely positive effects for the kind of cash transfers that GiveDirectly distributes (even if cash has its limits).

3) If you want to maximize your donation’s impact, give to poorer countries

It’s really hard to adequately express how much richer developed nations like the US are than developing ones like Kenya, Uganda, and other countries targeted by GiveWell’s most effective charities.

The US still has extreme poverty, in the living-on-$2-a-day sense, but it’s comparatively pretty rare and hard to target effectively. The poorest Americans also have access to health care and education systems that, while obviously inferior compared to those enjoyed by rich Americans, are still superior to those of developing countries.

Giving to charities domestically is admirable, of course, but if you want to get the most bang for your buck in terms of saving lives, reducing illness, or improving overall well-being, you’re going to want to give abroad.

Years ago, GiveWell actually looked into a number of US charities, like the Nurse-Family Partnership program for infants, the KIPP chain of charter schools, and the HOPE job-training program. It found that all were highly effective, but were far more cost-intensive than the best foreign charities. KIPP and the Nurse-Family Partnership cost more than $10,000 per child served, while deworming programs like SCI’s and Deworm the World’s generally cost between 25 cents and $1 per child treated.

This is true even as the US is going through a historically brutal pandemic. The rest of the world is, too, and the disease and lockdowns it sparked have had especially devastating effects on poor countries, to the extent that 2020 was likely the first year in decades when global poverty increased.

The pandemic has also taxed health systems in low-income countries, putting pressure on programs designed to fend off other diseases like malaria. Donations to anti-malaria, anti-worm, (non-Covid) vaccination, and vitamin A supplementation programs like the ones recommended by GiveWell can help cushion that blow.

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