If you’re a relatively well-off person, you have probably at least at one point donated some money to a charity. Maybe you did this as a response to an emotional video or ad, maybe somebody asked for a donation on the street and you didn’t want to seem like a bad person for ignoring them. Or maybe you’re a regular supporter of a cause (kudos to you!). If you’re like most people, though, you probably haven’t stopped to investigate whether the charity you were donating to was putting your money to good use or to what other (better) causes you could have directed your money.

The book “The Most Good You Can Do” by Peter Singer attempts to offer a solution to these concerns (and others) through the lens of effective altruism. People that practice effective altruism use reasoning and evidence to decide to whom to donate their money.

A very (very) simplified such reasoning might go like this: I have $100 to donate and I can choose between donating them to a museum, that will use the money to open some new wing or modernize its existing facilities or to an anti-poverty charity that will direct the money to a family in need. You can do some maths to see how many people will benefit from the $100 in each case or you can say that no matter how happy some people will be with the new museum attractions, they don’t outweigh the benefit that sum provides to a person who’s struggling in poverty. (By the way, as of 2015 the World Bank sets the poverty line at $1.90, so for a person living on this thin line $100 represents their money for almost two months.)

If you think in these terms, you might want to think twice when donating money to a charity, since even a small sum for you can be of great benefit to someone else. Even if you say “Ok, so what? I’m not responsible for those people and I work hard for my money, so I don’t want to give them to someone else,” you might still find some principles from this book useful. It’s usually a good idea to challenge the premises that make us think in a certain way in the first place. In the end, you may or may not change them, but at least you thought about them and made a conscious decision.

Disclaimer: I’m not trying to convince anyone of anything. Both of the sides of this “dialogue” are questions/answers I posed myself while trying to make sense of which side to take (yeah, I talk to myself a lot).

Ok, let’s say that I agree that I should donate money in the most effective way. Isn’t that highly subjective?”

Peter Singer argues that an objective answer should most of the times exist if we think in terms of reduced suffering per life years per dollar donated, such as in the case of the museum vs. the poor. Sometimes this objective answer may be hard to estimate, such as in the case of advocacy work. How can we say how many years of suffering were reduced when people were advocating for some measures to support farmers in Ghana? Hard to say. But whenever this pondering has more ground in favour of one side, we should take it into account.

I understand, being poor is awful. But I have poor people in my country, too. Shouldn’t I help those before I think about the people in developing countries?”

Singer says that we should not value a person’s life based on the country it comes from, and I agree on this. Moreover, if you are from a developed country, chances are that your country already has some measures of taking care of its poor. This makes a poor person in the US much better off than a poor person in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Also, your money will have more value in a developing country than in the US. We saw that a person living on the poverty line can live for almost two months from $100. What can you buy with $100 in the US? I must say that Singer convinced me about this.

However… It’s harder to live up to the theory. See, I come from Romania, which despite not being a developing country, is not so rich either. And since it’s not among the poorest countries in the world, it might not attract so many donations, so maybe I should put my money there, even though they could be of more use elsewhere. Not an easy decision.

Also, how about other good causes? I’ve been following the Humans of New York recent coverage of the Special Olympics and I was amazed at how much such an event can mentally help people with disabilities. Who’s to say that such money wasn’t put to good use? Which brings me to the next point… Emotion usually has some role in how we donate.

Wow, so great, Einstein. Isn’t that always the case?”

Apparently not. Not for most effective altruists, in any case. Since I mentioned that they use reason when deciding where to donate, this means that they are less likely to be influenced by the teary campaigns of some charities. And no, the fact that an ad is moving you doesn’t mean that the charity is necessarily effective. He calls this the “warm glow” effect – people donating as a response to an emotional stimulus.

To get an idea of the extent to which some people bring this reasoning, take the example of Zell Kravinsky, a guy that donated almost all of his $45-million fortune to charity. But he didn’t stop there. He actually chose to donate a kidney to a stranger because the risk of dying as a result of his procedure is only 1 in 4000 and not making the donation would have meant that he regarded his life as 4000 times more important than that of a stranger, which he found unjust. And then he mentioned that “the reason many people don’t understand his desire to donate a kidney is that ‘they don’t understand math.’”

Ok, that’s a bit too far-fetched. These people are saints and I cannot sacrifice so many things for the sake of strangers.”

You don’t need to. In fact, that was a more “extreme” case. The majority of the effective altruists don’t donate their organs (Peter Singer, for instance, hasn’t done this) and give somewhere between 5 or 50% of their money to charity, which still leaves them enough money to live a comfortable life.

In fact, an interesting point is that people that choose this lifestyle say that they don’t feel they’re sacrificing anything, because to them the feeling of knowing that they’re doing something good outweighs the material benefits they could have gained, should they have not donated their money. To give a quote from the book:

Too often we equate making a sacrifice with doing something that causes us to have less money. Money, however, is not an intrinsic good. Rather than saying that something is a sacrifice if it will cause you to have less money, it would be more reasonable to say that something is a sacrifice if it causes you to have a lower level of well-being or, in a word, be less happy.

This motivational-ish quote seems easier said than done. Any practical advice that is more achievable?”

One thing I learned from the book is that small donations to many charities can be counterproductive since the costs of processing a donation can outweigh the donation itself. Instead of giving small sums of money every now and then, maybe stop and think about whether they’re really helpful or if you’re just satisfying your need to give as a response to an emotional campaign.

From my experience, it’s useful to leave yourself a day after you’ve seen such a campaign to make the donation. If you’re still impressed by the cause one day after you’ve found out about it, it can be a nice idea to donate to it (I use the same principle when shopping – terrible association, I know).

To navigate your way around the multitude of charities to which you could donate, Singer recommends GiveWell, an association that reviews and recommends charities based on their proven effectiveness, usually assessed through studies about the methods used.

Final thoughts

In this quasi-review, I focused more on the practical sides of donating and the useful things I learned from it. The book goes into deeper territory with discussions on utilitarianism, donating for animal liberation causes or donating to prevent human extinction and I highly recommend reading it for some serious food for thought.

The last issue in particular – donating to prevent human extinction – was quite weird. If you’re to listen to the numbers, the conclusion would be to donate every cent to prevent a possible annihilation of life on Earth. You could donate, for instance, to build a rocket that would destroy an asteroid that would hit the Earth and cause everyone to die, even if such an event might happen once every 100,000 years or more. This is because the “cost” of all life dying is greater than anything else. Yet, Singer does not advocate for this and my hunch is that very few people would find much sense in that.

This seems to me one example where reasoning doesn’t go that well and some intuition/emotion can really help. Although, with the risk of being a bit cynical, the most obvious way to reduce all suffering is extinction – you can’t feel any pain if you are dead.

Bonus

A fascinating tool that I’ve only recently found out about is the World Poverty Clock which shows you how many people are currently living in extreme poverty, how many are getting out of it per second and statistics by country. Another interesting tool developed by the World Data Lab is population.io, which tells you your “place in the world” based on your birthday, country of origin and sex.