You’re taking a stroll on your lunch break. You sit down on a park bench, taking in the sunlight and the fresh air, when you see a girl drowning in a pond.
She’s screaming for help.
Do you jump in after her?
Even if you’re wearing a new suit?
Even if you didn’t push her in?
Most people say, “Yes, I’ll jump in. Of course.”
That’s the socially acceptable thing to do.
Think about the implications of that answer, though: Normal, average, every-day people claim they would jump in to help the girl. These same people could contribute to any number of charities to save children’s lives all over the world. Children who are metaphorically “drowning.”
If distance is morally irrelevant, “any break we take from working to reduce suffering throughout the world is like having a leisurely nap beside a lake where thousands of children are screaming for our help.”
The credit for that thought experiment goes to Peter Singer. It’s not mine.
*Willing to bet that I lost 70% of the people who clicked on this post by this point because I made them feel uncomfortable. Thanks for staying.*
But it proves an important point: Just because we can’t see the girl drowning doesn’t mean she’s okay. The tree still falls in the woods.
Us? We’re all fine. Take a break from reading this article and look around you. It’s likely you have a roof over your head. Or maybe the weather’s so perfect you decided to go outside. Your home, apartment, or workplace is probably the perfect temperature for your comfort. You’re less than thirty feet away from a room that’s stocked with weeks worth of food. At worst, you could have a full pizza sitting in front of you within an hour.
Perhaps most importantly: You have access to infinite knowledge. It’s at your fingertips. Do you want to be a marine biologist? There are hundreds — if not thousands — of experts on the internet willing to help you. Thousands of guides. Internet libraries granting you access to any book you want. Scholarships to help you pay for the education you need. It’s phenomenal.
So, if you’re doing okay, why not give 10% of your income to the charity of your choice? Using the power of the internet, you can even choose where your money goes.
If not 10%, why not a few dollars?
Think about how the world would change tomorrow if every American gave ten dollars to charity. That’s more than $3 billion. In one day the world could change.
Sometimes when people think of charitable giving, memories of Boy’s Town pop up, a small orphanage of around 700 boys that hoarded over $210 million in donations.
Or memories of how, after the earthquake in Haiti, the Red Cross only built six homes after raising half a billion dollars.
Or William Aramony, who served as President and CEO of United Way for 22 years and was considered an extremely influential nonprofit leader, getting seven years in prison for “fraudulently diverting $1.2 million of the charity’s money to him and his friends.”
The list goes on and on (that link covers quite a few).
Greedy people will use these examples to “prove” that charitable giving is actually impossible. Every non-profit leader is really just a greedy bastard who’s going to take your money and buy a Maserati.
I’m not going to disagree. There are a lot of shady people in the world.
I could write off some of these people’s actions by claiming that they’re not getting paid enough (I consider it a fact that the market unfairly rewards some professions, like sub-par stock brokers who take exorbitant fees and create little — if any — value, while not rewarding some professions, like teachers and social workers, enough).
Why should the CEOs of non-profits be shamed for taking a large salary while the same thing is common-place across every other industry? Don’t you want to attract the same talent? Anyone who possesses the level of intelligence required to run a large company will quickly realize it’s worse to be spit on while working to end world hunger than it is to be lauded for running big oil, so they’ll just choose oil.
But that’s not the point. The point is that these leaders said they were going to do one thing with your money and they did another.
Most people who even think about charitable giving run into this problem: Why give my money away if I can’t be 100% sure of where it’s going? Then they have to do a lot of research (that they don’t want to do) to find the best possible way to spend their money.
And how am I going to know that the charity I chose, even if it is reputable, is going to provide the maximum good to the world? I want the biggest bang for my buck, just like I do with all things.
The solution? GiveWell.
GiveWell is a non-profit started by Holden Karnofsky and Elie Hassenfeld, two former hedge-fund workers with plenty of savings who wanted to find the solution to the exact same problem I just laid out. GiveWell provides in-depth non-profit research by analyzing the financial statements of other charities according to effectiveness, cost effectiveness, room for funding, and transparency.
In other words, they do the work so that you don’t have to. Unfortunately, there are plenty of bloated organizations that don’t actually need more money. They have plenty of resources. They’ve reached, and surpassed, the tipping point. That’s why “room for funding” is such an important metric.
Doesn’t that lend more power to organizations that have goals that are easily quantifiable? Yes. You can’t win them all.
The least you can do, though, is try.
I’ll be releasing more and more thoughts on well-informed giving as I go along (especially the simple fact that you shouldn’t overthink it and end up doing nothing at all — aka paralysis by analysis), but for anyone who’s looking for a simple solution, GiveWell is it.