Think before you give: Charity is about a cool head as much as a warm heart

When I was a kid, my little sister and I sold calendars door to door to raise money for Haiti. They were nice, too: shiny paper and beautiful full-color photos of poor Haitian children. The money raised went to support the charity work of the Salesian Missionary. They cost 700 Belgian francs each (about €17.50), which was quite a tidy sum at the time. The vast majority of people who answered the door slammed it shut in our faces, either immediately when they saw we were selling something, or else after they heard the price. There were entire afternoons when we only sold a couple of calendars.

I found it hard to understand how grown-ups could be so heartless. We were raising money to help “the poorest country in the world” (we were encouraged to use that particular phrase). What kind of monster could remain unmoved at the sight of the big sad eyes of the poor Haitian children on the front of the calendar (not to mention those of my sister and me)?

But if my nine-year-old self were to come knocking at my door today, I too would probably send him away empty-handed, albeit with a heavy heart. At the very least, before I bought a calendar, I’d expect some clear answers to a few questions. Where is the money going, exactly? What programs are the Salesians priests planning to run in Haiti, and are there any studies to show that they will be cost-effective? How does this form of assistance perform compared to other types of development aid? How much does it cost to print the calendars, and how much profit does the Publishing Company make from each sale? Does that money end up with the Salesian Missions, and if so, do they use it to proselytize? Or do they sometimes like to treat themselves to a nice meal in a restaurant in one of the more upscale neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince?

Effective Altruism

These are just some of the typical questions that are addressed by the philosophy known as “Effective Altruism” (EA), which has gained prominence in recent years. The aims of EA are simple: It’s great to be altruistic and try to make the world a better place, but it’s also important to do it in as rational and effective a way as possible. The titles of the movement’s most important books give a good idea of what it’s about: Doing Good Better: Effective Altruism and a Radical New Way to Make a Differenceby the Scottish philosopher William MacAskill, and The Most Good You Can Doby the well-known Australian philosopher Peter Singer.

Effective Altruists believe that good intentions are not sufficient to create a better world. If we want to have a positive impact, we also need cool-headed rationality. We have to decide what causes are worth backing. How many people can we reach, and how much difference will we make? What is the most impactful and efficient way to achieve whatever our goal is? What are the chances of success? How much suffering will we alleviate, at what cost?

Cold-hearted rationality?

If you turn up at a charity fundraising meeting with a list of questions like that, you may not find yourself especially welcome. Rationality has a bad reputation when it comes to doing good deeds. Many people think that real compassion is something that comes from the heart, not as a result of dispassionate calculation. By that light, the true altruist is someone who opens their heart (and their wallet) without imposing conditions or asking awkward questions; in contrast, someone who tries to carefully weigh up the pros and cons is really just being callous. You can imagine someone like that asking the Girl Scouts selling cookies at their door for a full financial statement, including gross and net margins. Can’t we please keep this kind of neo-liberal, yield-management thinking out of this one aspect of our lives?

Well, no, actually, we shouldn’t. If we want to make a better world, we need more rationality and less empathy and emotion. More ROI, less OMG. That last bit may sound strange, but bear with me, gentle reader: all will be made clear shortly.

Some good causes do (far) more good than others

The Belgian radio station Studio Brussel has an annual radiothon called “Music for Life”. For the first six years, the station chose a specific theme for the event (such as orphans who parents died of AIDS, victims of landmines, or people without access to clean drinking water), and all the money raised went to that cause. But for the last few years, donors have been free to choose where their money goes. Last year they had a choice of 1,054 different charities. But how do you begin to make a choice? You can’t possibly compare all of those good causes with each other. So you’ll probably be somewhat subjective in your choices. Maybe you have a personal affinity with some charities—say, a family member suffering from a certain illness, or a visit you once made to a particular country. Shouldn’t everyone just choose a cause that means something to them personally—after all, how you choose to help others is not something that someone else can put a value on, right?

And yet, putting a value on how you choose to help others is exactly what Effective Altruism is trying to do. Not all good causes are equally good, and the differences can be huge; EA researchers have calculated that some charitable organizations are 100 times more effective than others. An EA-inspired non-profit called GiveWell maintains a list of the best charitable organizations, based on objective criteria rather than emotional appeal. They calculate cost-effectiveness, carry out carefully controlled studies of impact, and use objective metrics of well-being such as QALYs (Quality-Adjusted Life Years) to measure how much good these charities are doing.

GiveWell also looks at something that economists call “marginal utility”, which means measuring the effect of each extra dollar that comes in. For organizations that already get a lot of media coverage and have plenty of donors, the marginal utility tends to be low. For that reason, an Effective Altruist will rarely donate to disaster relief funds, because those already have plenty of money coming in. (Shortly after the 2011 tsunami, the Japanese Red Cross actually asked people to stop giving, as they received more money than they were able to spend.)

At the top of GiveWell’s list of good causes right now (see is the Against Malaria Foundation, which you’ve probably never heard of. It distributes mosquito nets that have been treated with insecticide in countries where malaria is prevalent. The nets cost less than $5 each, which means that you can prevent a lot of human suffering with a very small donation. At the present moment, there’s probably no better way to spend a few dollars, if you care about your fellow humans, than to give it to the Against Malaria Foundation.

It turns out that popular causes such as training assistance dogs, or renovating your local museum, or even cancer research, don’t come even remotely close to mosquito nets in terms of the QALY bang you get for your charitable buck. Being an Effective Altruist means being prepared to compare different good causes with each other, and to advocate for spending the available money in places where it can reach the greatest number of people, relieve the greatest amount of suffering, and bring the greatest amount of well-being. After all, every dollar spent on X is a dollar that can’t be spent on Y.

Driven by emotions

There is a paradox here. People are reluctant to apply rational thinking at exactly the point where it would have the greatest impact, and hence is most vital. Indeed, a lot of people would argue that rational calculations somehow detract from noble intentions, that the most important thing is to feel empathy for your fellow human beings in their misfortune. This can be gleaned already from the vaguely upbeat term “good cause”, as in “Would you like to buy one of our calendars, Mister? It’s for a good cause”—“Of course, son, anything for a good cause…” People seem to agree that it’s important to support “a good cause” from time to time; exactly what that cause is, and indeed how much good will result, seems to be less important.

The result of this is that the actions of the would-be philanthropist who believes in good causes are mainly driven by emotions. Charities and NGOs have come to understand this very well. When they present a moving personal story of human misery, accompanied by disturbing pictures of poor children, the money comes rolling in. In contrast, charts and statistics about exactly how many children are suffering, and how much, don’t have quite the same effect. Research has even shown that if you accompany a personal story with facts and figures, people actually give less money. In the dry language of economists Dean Karlan and Daniel Wood, “emotional impulses for giving shut down in the presence of analytical information”.

Isn’t this a great pity? To use another bit of jargon from economics: Good intentions are a scarce good, which makes them precious. A lot of people don’t care very much about their fellow human beings, and aren’t about to give much to charity anyhow. Effective Altruism isn’t aimed at these people; rather, it appeals to people who want to do good, but who are too heavily swayed by emotion and empathy, or just haven’t thought very much about the effects of their good deeds. After all, it’s a shame to squander good intentions on interventions that are inefficient, or completely worthless, or in some cases even harmful.

Evaluating interventions

Sadly, as William MacAskill shows in his book Doing Good Better, ineffective charities are more common than one might think. Ideas that sound great and seem entirely plausible can turn out to be useless. The people giving the money get the same nice warm feeling either way, but they will never find out if their money was wasted. In many cases, such failures happen when nobody bothers to investigate beforehand whether the intervention is likely to work, because “isn’t it obvious that it will?”. But any scientist can tell you that things that appear to be obvious often turn out to be false, and that we should be prepared to question what we (think we) know.

The Harvard economist Michael Kremer used the gold standard of scientific research, a randomized trial, to examine the effectiveness of a variety of programs that were intended to raise education standards in developing countries. What would be the best way to improve children’s education? You can probably come up with a few ideas: more books, better classroom equipment, more teachers per 100 children. All pretty obvious. And if those things don’t help much, they certainly can’t do any harm, right?

Surprisingly, Kremer’s study showed that none of those “obvious” remedies improved the children’s school results. After a great deal of research, he found—to his surprise—that the one intervention that made far more difference than anything else was deworming. It turns out that the effects of parasitic worm infection are the number one cause of school absences in many developing countries. A simple deworming program typically reduces absence by 25%. But without careful scientific research into the effectiveness of various programs, we would probably never have discovered this. Instead, we would have had our heartstrings tugged by yet more pictures of classrooms full of children without books or pencils, and we’d have put our hands in our pockets to send case after case of learning materials, and they would have been placed on the empty desks of children who were too sick to come to school.

Giving what you can

The Effective Altruism movement has an optimistic outlook. Never have the conditions been better for doing good. Thanks to science and technology, you and I can save or improve lives in a far-flung corner of the world with a few clicks of a mouse. That’s an amazing thought, but it can only work if you concentrate that help where it can do the most good.

One of the aims of Effective Altruism is not just to slice the cake better, but to make it bigger as well. In fact, these two aims go hand in hand. If you get the impression that any money given to charity is likely to disappear in a bottomless pit—as many cynics do nowadays, not entirely without reason—you’re not going to want to give very much. But imagine that you are presented with solid research showing that every dollar you donate will have a net positive impact—perhaps a hundred or a thousand times greater than if you spent it yourself. Wouldn’t you be willing to reach deeper into your pocket then?

And let’s be clear: we do have deep pockets. Compared to the rest of the world, we are like the wealthy 1% in our own countries that the Occupy movement rails against. We’ve never had it so good; collectively, we’ve never had so much money, or so many opportunities to do so much good with it.

That brings me to Giving What We Can, an initiative by the moral philosopher Toby Ord under the umbrella of the Effective Altruism movement. At their website ( you can sign “The Pledge”, a life-long promise to give 10% of your annual income to good causes, preferably organizations that Giving Well has identified as being particularly effective. To date, nearly 2,000 people have signed The Pledge. 10% might sound like a lot, but if you’re reluctant to take that step, you can start with a smaller amount and sign up for a trial period, before making a commitment to the permanent Pledge.

Moral shyness

As for myself, after reading MacAskill’s book, I figured that I can manage with 10% less money (especially in view of the generous fee I get for writing this essay), so I have recently decided to sign The Pledge and started donating my annual 10% to the Against Malaria Foundation. I hesitated to make such a public announcement, because after all, it is widely assumed that you should not shout your good deeds from the rooftops. This notion is especially deeply rooted in my Flemish Catholic culture. True acts of altruism are to be carried out discreetly, without any thought of recognition (except, of course, from God).

In contrast, Effective Altruism is all about tangible results, not moral rectitude. People are social creatures, and tend to measure themselves against their fellow citizens. It’s pretty normal for educated Westerners with a progressive bent and a good income, like me (and probably you), to send an automatic check for 20 bucks a month to the Red Cross or Amnesty International. But 10% of your income… that seems pretty extravagant. Why do so much more than everyone else you know? Even the US government doesn’t spend much more than a quarter of a percent of GNP on foreign aid.

But we know from social psychology that, as more and more people sign The Pledge, the moral norm will be gradually lifted. That’s just basic social psychology, which is also science, and thus in the spirit of Effective Altruism. That’s the reason why I put aside my moral scruples and announced my decision to sign The Pledge. I hope that, by doing so, I can encourage some readers to do the same.

Finally, there is a completely selfish reason to become an Effective Altruist: research has shown that it will probably make you happier in the long term. Effective Altruists don’t feel as if they’re making a big sacrifice. Just knowing that they are having a positive impact on the world, and the sense of meaning this inspires, compensates for any regrets they might have about the financial cost. It turns out that money can buy you happiness, especially if you give it away.

These days we often hear fashionable cultural pessimists suggesting that, despite all of our material riches, people in the West have never been so unhappy. So here is a more optimistic message: not only has the world never been in better shape, but by spreading some of that goodness around, you’ll also become happier in return. Come on, one-percenters of the world; what are you waiting for?