Want to donate to charity? Here are 10 guidelines for giving effectively.
How to do the most good possible with the money you give.
By Dylan Matthewsdylan@vox.com Updated Nov 29, 2021, 8:59am EST
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 GiveWell. Charity 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.
Giving Tuesday, explained
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
- 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.
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.
4) Consider giving to animals
Alternatively, you could consider giving to non-humans. Animal charities, especially those engaged in corporate pressure campaigns to better the treatment of farm animals, chickens in particular, can be effective in improving animal welfare. The charity evaluations in this area are much younger and less methodologically rigorous than GiveWell’s, but Animal Charity Evaluators has named three animal groups that may be effective causes for donations:
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- Faunalytics is a research organization that provides reports on animal-related issues like corporate commitments to animal welfare improvements, public opinion regarding farmed animals, issues around animal testing in science, and animals kept as pets, etc.
- The Humane League specializes in corporate campaigns to improve farm standards. It has achieved big victories in eliminating the culling of baby chicks and getting food service companies like Kroger and Sodexo to only use cage-free eggs, and is now pushing for better standards for chickens raised for their meat.
- Wild Animal Initiative studies the lived experience of animals living in the wild and researches ways to ease their suffering
5) If you do give locally, you can still consider impact
For years, I would advocate to friends that they donate abroad, or to animal-specific charities, since their donation was more likely to have a concrete near-term impact there than in a human-based US charity, given how much money it costs to meaningfully help a resident of a rich country.
But I usually got a lot of pushback. People want to give to their specific communities, or particular causes they’re passionate about for personal reasons (like curing a disease that killed a loved one, for instance). And they often want to use charity as a way to connect with broader trends in the news — by, say, donating to help provide representation for immigrant children on the US-Mexico border.
And for years, I didn’t have much to say to that, other than that it’s fine, of course, to give to your community and personal causes; this guide is mostly meant to offer alternate suggestions if you don’t have existing philanthropic interests and are curious for ways to help.
But a lot has happened in recent years to make donations of that kind easier. The group Charity Navigator acquired a nonprofit called ImpactMatters and began incorporating its estimates of the bang-for-the-buck provided by charities in several sectors.
So you can specify that your goal is, say, to provide a night of shelter for a person experiencing homelessness, and Charity Navigator will provide you with a menu of nonprofits and their cost per night of housing. Fellowship Deliverance Ministries in Georgia, for instance, is estimated to provide a night of shelter for $2 per person. You can also narrow it down by where you want to give: Here’s a list of Washington, DC-based charities with impact evaluations, for instance.
6) Consider meta-charities
Another option is giving to groups like GiveWell, Innovations for Poverty Action, The Life You Can Save, and Giving What We Can that evaluate development approaches and charities, and encourage effective giving. Suppose that every dollar given to Giving What We Can — which encourages people to pledge to donate at least 10 percent of their income until retirement — results in $1.20 in donations to the Against Malaria Foundation. If that’s the case, then you should give to Giving What We Can until the marginal effect on donations to Against Malaria hits $1 or lower.
“If they can turn a dollar of donations into substantially more than a dollar of increased donations to effective charities, isn’t that the best use of my money?” asks Jeff Kaufman, a software developer who with his wife, the effective altruism activist and organizer Julia Wise, gives about half his income to effective charities and meta-charities.
7) Saving lives isn’t everything
If you care mainly about reducing early mortality and giving people more years to live, then you should give all your donations to the Malaria Consortium, Helen Keller Intl, or the Against Malaria Foundation. Malaria is a frequently fatal disease, and cost-effective interventions to reduce malaria infection are a great way to save lives. Similarly, vitamin A supplementation, like Helen Keller does, is an effective way of reducing child mortality, as is vaccination (as promoted by New Incentives).
But the rest of the charities GiveWell recommends don’t only focus on reducing mortality. Quality of life matters, too. Parasitic infections hamper children’s development and education, which can have negative consequences lasting decades. Having increased access to cash may not extend the life of a GiveDirectly recipient, but it does make life considerably more pleasant.
8) Don’t give to a big charity
You’ll notice that all of the charities GiveWell recommends are reasonably small, and some big names are absent. That’s not an accident. In general, charity effectiveness evaluators are skeptical of large relief organizations, for a number of reasons.
Large organizations tend to be less transparent about where their money goes and also likelier to direct money to disaster relief efforts, which are usually less cost-effective, in general, than public health programs. “Overall, our impression is that your donation to these organizations is very hard to trace, but will likely supplement an agenda of extremely diverse programming, driven largely by governments and other very large funders,” wrote GiveWell co-founder Holden Karnofsky in a 2011 blog post.
9) Maybe just give money directly to poor people
For years, one of my primary charities was GiveDirectly, which is the only cause outside public health to get GiveWell’s top rating, and, to my knowledge, the only charity devoted to unconditional cash transfers. I gave to them partly because there’s a large body of research on the benefits of cash transfers, which I find quite compelling.
But I donated to GiveDirectly mostly because I didn’t trust myself to know what the world’s poorest people need most. I’ve been profoundly lucky to never experience the kind of extreme poverty that billions of people worldwide have to endure. I have no idea what I would spend a cash transfer from GiveDirectly on if I were living on less than $2 a day in Uganda. Would I buy a bednet? Maybe! Or maybe I’d buy an iron roof. Or school tuition for loved ones. Or cattle.
But you know who does have a good sense of the needs of poor people in Uganda? Poor people in Uganda. They have a very good idea of what they need. Do they sometimes misjudge their spending priorities? Certainly; so do we all. And bednets and deworming treatments appear to be underpurchased relative to the actual need for them. But generally, you should only give something other than cash if you are confident you know the recipients’ needs better than they do. With the exception of bednets — which really do seem underprovided when they’re just put up for sale rather than given away for free — I wasn’t confident of that. So I gave cash.
As the World Bank’s Jishnu Das once put it, “‘Does giving cash work well?’ is a well-defined question only if you are willing to say that ‘well’ is something that WE, the donors, want to define for families whom we have never met and whose living circumstances we have probably never spent a day, let alone a lifetime, in.” If you’re not willing to say that, then you should strongly consider giving cash.
10) Give what you can (though if you can spare it, pledging to give 10 percent of your income would be fantastic)
One of the hardest problems in philanthropy is deciding how much to donate.
There are some people who argue the correct answer, unless you’re near the end of your life, is nothing: you should, in this view, not give to charity during your career, and instead save as much of your money as possible and donate it when you die.
Another approach is to “earn to give”: take a high-paying job, typically in finance or tech, and give away a huge share of your earnings, like 40 to 50 percent.
I wrote about people who do this back in 2013, and I know that many of the people I profiled still earn-to-give; for them, at least, this is a sustainable option. The entrepreneur Sam Bankman-Fried even earned-to-give his way into becoming a billionaire. It’s a really good career option if you like working in finance and tech, but frankly it’s not the best option for most people, and there are a lot of amazing jobs — in scientific research, in the private sector, in direct charity or nonprofit or government work — where the typical person can do more good than they could by using their career as a mechanism through which to generate donation money.
So I suggest a more moderate course. I’ve signed the Giving What We Can pledge, which commits members to donating 10 percent of their annual income to highly effective charities. That is a totally reasonable number, comparable to alms in many religions, that requires minimal sacrifice relative to what earn-to-give people do. (Here’s an interview I did with Toby Ord, who started the pledge.)
Even if 10 percent is too much for you, though, don’t despair. Giving $1 is better than giving $0. Perhaps the most important thing is to just get into the groove of donating, to make it a habit. I use direct deposit on my paychecks to make most of my charitable contributions, just so it’s extremely automatic and hard for me to avoid doing. Going from not giving to giving a little, regularly, is a huge positive step.
Update: This story was originally published in 2020 and has been updated throughout for 2021.