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Making decisions about how to distribute our money amongst charities is a matter that can be both very difficult and very important. We cannot just brush it to the side: no matter what we do, we will have made a decision on which charity to give to. Deciding to withhold judgement until further research has been done is just putting off the help we could provide.
Indeed, while it would be nice to have the time and resources to investigate every charity individually, giving them the time and attention that they deserve, we unfortunately do not have the ability to do so. It is therefore important for us to prioritize our research as well as our giving. Fortunately, Giving What We Can have developed ways for us to focus down the field of potential giving opportunities.
The greatest variation in charity effectiveness arises as a result of the activities that a charity undertakes, as opposed to any particular characteristics of a charity itself. For example, in global health alone, various interventions can differ in effectiveness by factors of 10 to 100 or even more.1
On the other hand, charities that waste 99% of their donations are fairly rare and easy to spot. Thus differences in effectiveness between charities will tend to be dominated by differences arising from the effectiveness of their interventions.
For this reason, Giving What We Can's research methodology tends to be very top-down. We arrived at our current recommendations used the following method;
- We started by focusing on interventions based in the developing world, recognising that these would be more cost-effective because of their lower costs.
- Within developing world interventions, we begun research into heath & poverty interventions, as there was plenty of quantifiable evidence that such interventions are highly effective.
- Our research revealed that the most cost-effective interventions in this sector are deworming and insecticide-treated bednet distribution.
- From here, we looked into the charities that specialised in this kind of intervention. We found that the best charities were the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, Deworm the World, and the Against Malaria Foundation.
Of course, this approach meant that we ran the risk of overlooking some good charities. There may be outstanding charities with weak activities, or outstanding interventions in otherwise unpromising areas. We think that this will happen sufficiently infrequently that this is not a significant problem, and it is extremely hard to eliminate this problem without inefficiently searching through an exhaustive list of charities.
It is also hard to assess entire areas of human endeavour accurately. Sometimes the comparison is clearer: labour and production costs are much lower in the developing world, so other things being equal, we would expect it to be easier to solve problems in the developing world. However, it is much harder to tell, for example, whether political advocacy might yield giving opportunities as dramatic as those in health. Having established some outstanding giving opportunities so far, our next priorities will be both deepening our knowledge of the promising areas we have already found and broadening our search to consider areas such as political advocacy, climate research, health research and others in greater detail.
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