reviews

Links from Last Week

Nobody Cares How Hard You Work

Thank god someone said it! Because seriously. The American obsession with effort is crazy to me. I think this is exactly the mentality that leads to the Peter principle - we value effort and exahustion rather than outcomes. "Obvious he is better at his job than she is - look how hard he worked!" I was super happy the author made the connection to Weber's theory on Calvinism because this theory explains a lot of funny quirks in our culture, and doesn't get enough credit.

To reach creativity heaven, though, you’ll need a different approach—one that prioritizes doing the right things, not just lots of things.
— Oliver Burkeman

I forget where I found this. Somewhere in the depths of the interwebs. But it is great.


The single Best Interview Question You Can Ask

I like this question a lot. I've been doing a lot of interviewing (on both sides of the table) lately and more and more I've affirmed my belief that interviews are about finding out if you can work with a person more than about assessing their competence. I mean ability is important but really you are screening for things like internal motivation, attention to detail, work style etc. Particularly if you have a specific company culture you are very interested in maintaining or creating.

Aside from interviews I like it for talking to people! I am (was) terrible and anxious about small talk (click on the next link to find out more). So I collect interesting questions like this one. The usual "how old are you?" "where are you from?" "what do you do?" are 1. boooooring! and 2. frequently problematic. Beside questions like this quickly start conversations and get people engaged and interested. Perhaps later I will share a list of some of these gems.


19 Small Awards Anyone with Anxiety Deserves

In effective altruism meetings a lot of us talk about "doing the thing" as in needing to actively work on a problem or follow through with ideas and turn them into actions. There is also usually a lot of discussion about self-care as well as staying aware of mental states. As someone with anxiety I loved these graphics, because sometimes not over-thinking that vague moment takes a LOT of effort dang nab it! But this one in particular struck home for particularly good for the EA crowd.

2015 Birthday Fundraising Debrief

It has been one week since the "end" of my fundraising campaign around my birthday. I do have the added benefit of having a birthday around the holidays so I may have a few more donations trickle in, in lieu of holiday gifts, but not many. So I'm gonna call it here.

That is before any matching donations! So we definitely hit our goal of $2000. (If someone wants to work out the number of QUALYs here I would love to know the firm number) I am pumped about how much money we were able to raise. I'm also sort of amused with my friends that figured out how to game the matching pledge by donating $27 several times. It seems like a dirty trick perhaps, but I think it is in keeping with the spirit of trying to maximize the amount of good you are doing. After all I'm always a fan of a good ploy. And I don't think our generous donor will mind overmuch, nice young gentleman that he is.

Though I did notice a distinct difference in how fundraising felt this year compared to last year. It felt easy. Which is good I suppose, but it also got me wondering if I really reached my real goal. Sure for this year the monetary goal was raising over $2K, but my overall goal for the project is to spread the idea of being selective and thoughtful about charity donations and inspiring people to give more often. I feel much less successful in this goal, primarily because it did feel so easy. I didn't have to convince anyone, or explain why I was raising money.

Why?
Probably because most of my friends, and those who donated, are effective altruists.

They didn't need to be convinced that AMF is a great organization; it has consistently been among GiveWell's top charities (with the exception of 2009 & 2013). So it didn't take much convincing to get friends and acquaintances from the EA community to pony up $27 to the fundraiser. Actually it took no convincing. I just posted it on Facebook 4-5 times and let money come in.

There were of course larger donations from close relatives etc. but in general it was friends affiliated with EA. Great friends! Close, wonderful, lovely friends, that I am very thankful for. But if one of my goals is to disseminate effective altruism ideas to people that otherwise wouldn't be exposed to them, well then these friends aren't my target audience.

 

I think there is a combination of things happening:

- My main avenue of advertisement was through Facebook & email.
- It is harder to see what emails were successful in garnering donations
- EAs are exceptionally active on Facebook compared with other groups
- The percentage of EA contacts I have on Facebook has grown hugely since EAGlobal & helping to organizing SeattleEA
- Other peers don't use or check Facebook, most of whom are people I don't have email addresses for
- My posts likely don't get a high ranking on the newsfeeds of those that do use Facebook frequently, such as extended family
- I didn't feel the pressure to advocate/advertise as strongly this year since I knew I would get support from other effective altruists
- I knew who was likely to donate based on last year's donations so I primarily targeted those individuals

 

So while the monetary goal was reached I still feel like I could have done better this year because I did not reach very many people. Last year I spent a fair amount of time putting myself out there and candidly asking for donations from family and coworkers. I also asked many people to share the fundraiser with their friends. Next year I should do more of this direct solicitation, and I am hoping to advocate more for the dissemination of the story by people that support it. Hopefully this will mean that I reach a broader audience.

This hesitance to solicit people also leads me to the uncomfortable conclusion that over the last year I have done a less than fantastic job of maintaining friendships with those outside of the effective altruism community. Because of this I felt uncomfortable asking for donations directly without warming them up first. While this conclusion is uncomfortable I think it is highly likely and is something I should think more about.

I would love to hear other ideas of how to effectively market the fundraiser for next year or ways to prevent this year's failure modes. I find that I can create lots of marketing ideas for others, but when trying to apply it to myself I fall short. My restrictions are needing things to be time and cost effective.

The obvious solution is to simply aim to raise a larger amount of money in order to pressure myself into action. One thought that came to mind was filming part of getting the tattoo this year and using the video somehow. Though honestly getting a tattoo is mostly boring, so I don't know how well this would play out.

What would convince you to share a fundraiser with friends & family? Is there an obvious or easy way to get more people interested that I am missing?

 

Otherwise I'll fall back to my default:

Bad jokes, scantly related to the topic at hand. And no one wants that.

Links from Last Week

Not Yet Gods - Nate writes very beautifully. Perhaps I am always surprised by this because I think of him as an intensely mathy person, and I often struggle to explain the beauty I find in words to mathy people. Conversely I struggle to see the beauty if formula and numbers and logic. I grasp it on a very existential, ephemeral, fractal pattern, golden ratio sort of *ooh ahh* sort of way. But the true beauty of the thing is probably lost on me. 

I digress.

I often fall prey to this feeling of broken coulds. I could've written that in a more timely manner. I could've been less anxious, less depressed. I could've not had that third beer, I could've gotten out of bed earlier, I could've gone to the gym instead of sleeping. I could also learn to hold by breath for 17 minutes and be the next David Blane. But that takes work. So, so, soo much work you guys! It takes training, and patience, and drive, and ambition, and kindness. To do this without breaking you have to be kind to your monkey. My monkey probably won't try holding her breath for that long (or really any amount of time) but she is trying to make herself, and the world a little better. And that takes training, and patience, and drive, and kindness too.


A Wonderfully Simple Heuristic to Recognize Charlatans - Really this is just good advice on thinking better by using subtractive epistemology. It makes a lot of sense when you think about it.

Avoiding stupidity is often easier than seeking brilliance

History of Philanthropy Case Study: The Impact of Philanthropy on the Passage of the Affordable Care Act - The Open Philanthropy Project summarizes a 91 page write up by Benjamin Soskis in the attempt to explore effective policy change using the passage of ACA (colloquially known as Obamacare) as a case study. Concision: *shrug*

OK they say a lot more than that but basically the main point is that it is very difficult to detangle how much one intervention or one donation has in terms of impact when there are millions of dollars, thousands of donors, and lots of charities all doing multiple interventions. Personally I see this as part of the problem with a lot of traditional charity work. You aren't asked to measure, or if you are it is frequently not in a meaningful way. Saying 'we distributed 10,000 leaflets doesn't really say anything if you don't have a reasonably good idea what would have happened without those leaflets. Worse still is often the measurement is just "we printed 10,000 leaflets" without a nod to distribution, let alone impact.


Links from Last Week

Why the Rich Love Burning Man

I have a love hate relationship with this article. Or rather I have a love hate relationship with Burning Man and with this traditional sort of socialist thought. Yes I agree, this nonsense is elitism. I also think that the idea of radical self expression is intensely appealing and a part of me desperately wants to cling to the dream.

When “freedom” and “inclusion” are disconnected from democracy, they often lead to elitism and reinforcement of the status quo.

 Remittances are a driving force in the world economy.  Yea I know it is more a picture than a link. You'll get over it.

Remittances are a driving force in the world economy.

Yea I know it is more a picture than a link. You'll get over it.


Trust the World

After reading this, as well as her article on Effective Altruism I think Leila Janah is becoming one of my favorite people. I know, I know the title is "Why Effective Altruism Isn't Enough" but honestly, I think what she doesn't realize is that the points she is arguing lie very closely inline with EA. In fact I think they are EA ideas.


I Quit My Development Job and Ate Some Humble Pie

Combining this with Janah's article, as well as my growing hesitation with traditional socialists, I am beginning to think the way forward is somewhere, unsurprisingly, in the middle ground. Something like democratized socially conscious venture capitalism. Was that buzz-wordy enough for you?


No, I am No Crowdfunding This Baby

Her prayer to the holy trinity may be my evening prayer for the coming months. More than that this article reminded me how much I love Amanda Fucking Palmer and all the fiesty, artsy, kick-ass ladies who came before. Because who, in her adolescence, didn't feel like the Girl Anachronism?

Patti…Ani...Björki…hear my prayer. May I not get fucking boring.

Pattern-matching

 Photo credit: Laura Gamse

Photo credit: Laura Gamse

While I was at EA Global, I was able to see more directly some of the outlooks of other EAs that I haven't been able to experience first-hand. While by and large this was a good experience, it also led to several moments of contention.

First and foremost, on lot's of minds was the debate around serving vegan food at the event. Jeff wrote a good summation of the whole problem; one of my favorites (unsurprisingly) comes from The Unit of Caring; and the lovely and talented Aceso Under Glass is clever and sciencey as always. I don't really have a strong opinion. I like food; it is yummy. Please serve more of it next time.

I also had mixed reactions to the emphasis placed on AI risk. As usual Dylan Matthews at Vox (who was on one of the best panels) wrote a completely on-point article. He has this ability to explain complex layered ideas so succinctly. I want to steal his ability. Or maybe his editor.

In any case his article "I spent a week at Google talking with nerds about charity. I came away... worried" is clickable gold. Go read it. I'll wait....

   *hums jeopardy theme song*

Good, right?! I'll leave the crazy math alone. For now. What struck me as undeniably true, and a great summation of the best criticisms of EA is this:

"And you have to do meta-charity well — and the more EA grows obsessed with AI, the harder it is to do that. The movement has a very real demographic problem, which contributes to very real intellectual blinders of the kind that give rise to the AI obsession. And it's hard to imagine that yoking EA to one of the whitest and most male fields (tech) and academic subjects (computer science) will do much to bring more people from diverse backgrounds into the fold...
Effective altruism is a useful framework for thinking through how to do good through one's career, or through political advocacy, or through charitable giving. It is not a replacement for movements through which marginalized peoples seek their own liberation. If EA is to have any hope of getting more buy-in from women and people of color, it has to at least acknowledge that."*

I laughed. I cried (almost). I jumped out of my seat (actually). Spot-fucking-on.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm actually inclined to believe there is risk in an indifferent, sufficiently intelligent artificial intelligence. This is a new development -- before EA Global I believed the chances of AI being an existential risk were very, very slim. However, I think climate change, nuclear fallout, and pandemics are all more likely to kill us off; I think I am just not willing to put my money or time into mitigating existential risk. Ultimately there are millions of people across the globe now that are suffering. To me, the potential future death of many doesn't take precedence over the certain hardship and misfortune of individuals alive today.

Beyond my personal assessment of prioritization, Dylan points out it is problematic that it is the nerds proclaiming their own brilliance will be the downfall of us all. Talk about a pale and male problem! Lacking diversity can easily lead to self-aggrandizing, ossification, and (dun dun dun) ineffectiveness. The self-absorption problem Dylan is talking about is real. Hint: self-interest is the antonym of altruism.


One of the other fractures I noticed is that of movement growth. There are those that are concerned that bringing more people in on the idea of Effective Altruism quickly could result in a large culture shift. While at the conference I was discussing the talk triplet on movement building - another one of my favorites - and someone mentioned the concern around growing to quickly, or even growing too large at all. The concern being that by growing we would wind up being not as effective or exceptional.

The argument goes something like this: the best way to make change and construct something better is by using the best minds and skills available. These individuals (in this case, those of us here at the conference) are better suited to decide the best way to proceed in creating the correct kind of change. If we focus on bringing in more people we would dilute this exceptional talent pool and undermine our ability to create a better world.

The red warning lights inside my brain were blaring loudly.

 

There's nothing wrong with putting the best and brightest on the problem. It is the idea that only the most capable should be deciding how to instigate change, and that everyone else less suited to the job should be excluded, that is problematic. More than that, it is elitism. Battered in good intentions, deep fried in utilitarianism, and dusted with sugar. But still elitism.

This strain of thinking isn't knew. Mill's work on liberty is focused on the elite, class based individualism, and those he considers to be of superior intellect. The idea of elitism isn't new to utilitarianism. This line of thinking matches well with the reasoning of exclusion: inaccessibility is good because it keeps the riff-raff out. As I've discussed previously those with different strengths, and different experiences are necessary for an effective organization. To dissuade participation, or ignore opinions is to exclude data.

Almost without exception as a larger society we have decided that elitism is morally wrong and leads to injustice. We come to this conclusion through a history of elitism leading mainly to injustice and brutality. In other words pattern-matching indicates these behaviors and beliefs make you an asshole.

All this narcissistic thinking makes me wonder what drew such individuals to Effective Altruism in the first place. Hint: self-interest is the antonym of altruism.

It is concerning when anyone can walk away from our gathering with a feeling that we are too self-congratulatory, or that we are prioritizing areas based on our demographic. It troubles me acutely when this person is myself.

Overall I loved the event. However the occasional undertone of pomposity gave me a feel for why others are so concerned about EA being undemocratic. It made me realize the real importance of having traditional nonprofit workers and social justice advocates, women and minorities in the movement.

Clearly we need someone who can step back from the philosophical argument and go "wait, you know that makes you an asshole, right? Right?"

 

* Someone recently pointed out to me that the term 'people of color' is very clearly a US word and is not only inapplicable other places, but even offensive. In other parts of the world (and in the US) discrimination is based on much more than melanin. I was cautioned that using this terminology poses a clear US-slant on something that is a global problem and to consider it's usage carefully.

An Illustration of My Fears

This. So much This.

  Illustration by Tara Jacoby

Illustration by Tara Jacoby

Every now and then I get reminded of the importance of story telling; or we can call them illustrative examples. This story reminded me of that, mainly because it clearly represents two of the things I have been thinking about recently: the things I find so wrong and so disheartening about charity work (and poverty alleviation in particular) as well as the exactly thing I fear most about the Effective Altruism movement.

Things that are fucked up and wrong: victim blaming, nonsense goals and mission statements, strong leadership that is wrong leadership, silencing of relevant leaders, over emphasis on acquiring more funding (mainly because there never feels like enough to go around) and on and on the list goes

Things I fear for EA: becoming the crazy white dudes in a conference room proposing an exciting new study on people we don't know and don't understand. Because surely a study will solve this problem; never mind that the study itself is irrelevant and dehumanizing.

Book Review: How to be Great at Doing Good; Part II - This is How We Do It

 

This is part two of my book review of How to be Great at Doing Good by Nick Cooney.

For better background please start with Part I

Reading the second part of How to be Great at Doing Good is like painting shellac over the top of the puzzle you just completed. You've invested time and effort into piecing together this intricate picture, and now you want it to stick - hopefully forever. The second half of this book reinforces and glues together all the little pieces we were working with in the first half. It adds some practical ways of overcoming the biases and cultural norms that hold us back from doing a lot of good.

In this chapter Cooney also introduces us to another premise [for previous premises see Part I]. While this one is only articulated explicitly a few times, it is another fundamental underlying belief of the author (and to many Effective Altruists).

    4. All lives have equal value. Animal lives also have intrinsic value.

While it sounds similar to the Bill & Melinda Gate's foundation mission statement (because, well it is) the point made in this premise is a good one, and it sets us up well to discuss the second half of the book. We, as humans, have a tendency to favor taking care of those both geographically close to us, as well as most similar to ourselves (socially, racially, economically etc). Cooney goes into a number of studies that show how true and reasons why these preferences may exist. However, he sums up how this can be harmful succinctly when he states:

[W]e provide care to those who are in front of us at the expense of the many who are not... If our goal is to reduce suffering and increase well-being, it doesn't make much difference where on the globe that's taking place and who is experiencing it.

This one bias means that frequently we overlook the greatest amount we can do because the problem is far away or involves people not like us. For example very few US based charities look for opportunities to work overseas, where their resources may go much further in helping people in their cause area. This means that these charities are not prioritizing the cost per saving a life, but prioritize helping those closer and more like themselves, or more accurately, closer and more like their donors.

This preference directly impacts a charity's ability to do the most good because they are not looking at their bottom line. Part of this is because few charities examine their work from a data-driven framework. Cooney points out that charities rarely gather data on 'cost per' - mainly because donors don't ask for it. If organizations don't have incentive to collect good useful data they frequently don't. Often they feel they don't have the resources, there is to reason to, among many other reasons.

Does it seem strange to you that donors aren't asking for this information? It did to me too! But according to the Money for Good surveys only 6 percent of donors spent any time whatsoever on comparing the impact of different non-profits they donated to.

The vast majority said they do care about impact, and one-third of them said they would like to see research that compared different non-profits. But saying and doing are two different things.

That is the crux of it isn't it? Saying and doing are two different things. And doing things is hard. Comparing charities isn't just hard, it is intense, extensive, analytical, time consuming work.

Cooney proposes, what I think, is a very elegant solution! Charity brokers. The same way we have stock brokers than manage our money in the complex, confusing, data driven world of finance, we need experts in the field of charities available to donors. However there is almost no one out there doing this work. and of those that are out there less than 5% of them "recommend charities based on how much good they do." Egads! What are they recommending them based on?!

Unfortunately in the vacuum of charity brokers donors turn to things like Charity Navigator, and GuideStar. Both organizations do an important job of guarding against fraudulent organizations however their ranking systems are not based on how successful a charity is. Partly because charities don't make their bottom line data readily available so donors and these sites rely on what is available. Things like the number of members on their board and the amount spend on administrative and salary costs each year. Which is a terrible way to judge a charity.

So a lack of donor demand leads to charities not collecting data, or collecting the wrong data, which leads donors who are interested in data to turn to unhelpful and inconsequential information.

It is our job as donors to help stop this Catch 22. By requesting explicit clear cost-per breakdowns and bottom line data from our charities. By letting charities know we don't care about overhead or administrative costs. By donating our money as unrestricted funds and grants without limits or specializations. It is important as donors to request this information explicitly and consistently from our organizations.

And what about those of us that work at non-profits? How can we help stop this cycle? By collecting data! Cooney specifically points out how organizations should be running tests to determine the best way to do good. Frequently non-profits think that they lack the hours, man power, and money do run such tests, and that doing so would detract from the work they are trying to do. Cooney points out that by running these tests to find out what we don't know, to find out what works best, an organization can actually increase their ability to create impact significantly and make their money go further than they ever thought possible!


Why aren't we doing all this already?

Good question! Cooney points out a large number of reasons but since this is a summary I thought I would sum up four biases that stuck out to me while reading. These are four of the biggest obstacles we face when thinking about how to do the most good.

Bias 1: We prioritize people that are most like ourselves. Be it geographically, socially, racially, econ.... wait didn't we just read this? Ya Bias 1 is essentially a counterpoint to Premise 4. Again Cooney give lots of reasons for this, but what we are mainly concerned with is that we are predisposed to care more about those like ourselves. This means we dismiss out of hand things that could be potentially do more good because they help those far away, or different from ourselves.

Bias 2: We prioritize individuals over groups. We are more likely to feel sympathy for the individual person we pass on the sidewalk or a small child we see on a pamphlet than we will have a connection to a large group or organization. This means that often it feels better to give someone a dollar than give a dollar to an organization that could stretch it to help several people. It also means that when we see our money helped 20 people we still don't get as much of an emotional payoff as when we directly help one person.

Bias 3: We don't like change. It is that simple. We don't like change. We don't like it when our local coffee house rearranges their tables, we don't like it when policies at work change, we get scared and nervous about moving. We don't like change. It keeps charities from reevaluating their work, and it keeps us from changing our giving habits. It even stops us from thinking about changing our giving habits.

Bias 4: I call this the monkey see monkey do bias. Or perhaps more accurately money see money go. We think that because many people have done a thing it is clearly a good thing. We create our own social norms around giving. Lots of people give the the Salvation Army so they must be a good effective charity, because otherwise how could they have gotten so much funding and become so large? Unfortunately everyone else is subject to the same biases we are. And when it comes to charity work, income does not equal output.

And always remember: the goal of charity is to make the world a better place.

If we loose perspective of this, we will not be able to truly create change.

Links From Last Week

 My new desk inspiration

My new desk inspiration

Excited Altruism

A great write up on how optimization, particularly for a good cause, is actually really exciting! Sometimes people seem to think being interested in effective altruism means giving up your passion. I've found the opposite to be true. My passion is helping people, optimizing for it feels more successful. The comparison to athletic mantras seems to fit well: "Athletes sometimes talk about “giving 110%” or “leaving it all on the field” – they can’t be satisfied with their effort if they feel they held anything back." This is what effective altruism feels like; it feels like not holding back.


Half-Assing it With Everything You've Got

Words cannot express how much I love this article. I particularly loved his analogy of homework. This theory and way of approaching school work is what got me through college. Most people looked at me like I was crazy when I explained it, so eventually I just stopped trying to explain.

"I personally find that shooting for the minimum acceptable quality is usually fun. Doing the homework assignment is boring, but finding a way to get the homework assignment up to an acceptable level with as little total effort as possible is an interesting optimization problem that actually engages my wits, an optimization problem which both my inner perfectionist and my inner rebel can get behind."

Robots & Basic Income

If you've never heard of basic income it is the idea that everyone is given certain basic amount of money so that they can exist happily in modern society. No job necessary. This seems pretty awesome to me, for a number of reasons, and I'm looking forward to talking with more people about the idea. This author talks about how technology is moving this closer to a reality, or even maybe an imperative.


Silicon Valley Philosophy

For those of you out there where philosophy and coding collide. Very funny.


Progress for Children

A photo story book from UNICEF. Beautiful photography paired with stats and achievements in helping children. A good reminder of why to give, and why giving makes a difference.

The number of children out of school has fallen from 106 million in 1999 to 58 million in 2012. But with population growth considered, if our rate of progress remains the same, roughly as many children will be out of school in 2030 as there are today.

Book Review: How to be Great at Doing Good; Part I - Why it Matters

Peter Singer's new book The Most Good You Can Do made a big splash in the Effective Altruism community. And for good reason; as one of the  most prominent and vocal proponents of Effective Altruism Singer holds huge sway in the community and draws large amounts of press to the movement. While this book is still on my reading list, from what I've heard it is also one of the first books that lays out what EA-s believe (as much as that can be summed up). John described it as an anthropological view of Effective Altruism.

But in all the hubbub, the book tour, the excitement, and the press coverage I think there was a fantastic little book that was lost in the clamor. I have been amazingly impressed with How to be Great at Doing Good as a primer for thinking about charity evaluation. The author, Nick Cooney, brings some good street cred to the work - getting praise from Singer, Holden Karnofsky, and Adam Grant, being the founder of one of the most effective animal charities out there, as well as already being the author of 2 other charity related books.

I'm breaking my summary and analysis of the book into two posts. This one is for the first half of the book (Chapters 1-5 for those of you following along at home).

What I love so much about this book is its accessibility and gentle framework for thinking about assessing charities, and a primer for EA ideas in general. Plus the writing is upbeat, friendly and approachable. Most EA writing is dense, academic, technical, and can come off as... well a bit cheeky at times. So this book immediately struck me as a great one to hand out like candy to anyone curious about gauging charities.

Cooney uses three basic premises to inform most of his discussion in the first few chapters (and beyond). Because these fundamental ideas permeate the entire book let's spell them out now and make future references simple.

  1. The purpose of charity work is to reduce suffering and increase well being
  2. Giving to charity, in any form, is a selfless act, and not something done for personal gratification (though it is a fringe benefit)
  3. Where we work, and where we donate, inform our sense of identity and self-esteem

While 1 & 2 are laid out clearly (and referenced often) the third is stated explicitly only once or twice, but is a pervasive undercurrent throughout the chapters. Indeed, it is this premise that makes the book more accessible; particularly to those of us that have spent our careers in the nonprofit world or donate large sums of money. While as premise 2 states, we don't do charity work for personal gratification it is a side effect of the work, and it becomes emeshed with our life satisfaction. Throughout the introductory chapters the author points out to his readers that we should view analysis of our work and our donations "not as threats, but as opportunities."

It is through premise 1 that Cooney encourages us to consider the bottom line, not the umbrella of a mission statement, but the true purpose and goal around reducing suffering, and increasing well being. It is through this that we are then able to compare charities and how effectively they complete their work. This emphasis on the 'bottom line' is rarely promoted in the charity world, but is something that is necessary to create real change.

Cooney makes the argument for bottom line thinking and comparisons with a compelling fact:

"The average American does about 20 hours of research & comparison-shopping before buying a new car. How many of us spend the same amount of time researching & comparison-shopping before choosing which charities to support? The fact is that our charity decisions are far weightier than our decision of whether to go with a Nissan Altima or a Toyota Corolla."

There are real lives (potentially many lives) that are saved or significantly impacted by our donations, so we should be taking these decisions very seriously and give them the weight and brain-space they deserve. So the success of charity matters, and we as volunteers, workers, or donors should care about it. Why? See premise 2.

We have the why of evaluation, now to address the how. It seems easy to find charities that meet the definition of charity (premise 1) but comparing vastly different goals can feel like an impossible task. Cooney points out that we actually do this all the time. Deciding whether to donate Greenpeace or the Tea Party is usually an easy decision for most people. It doesn't matter WHICH choice they make, only that it is usually clear to people which bottom line they prefer. It is with this same heuristic intrinsic knowledge of our values that we can put real numbers to comparing charities.

When faced with two charities that have different bottom lines ask yourself a simple question. How much outcome/bottom line would charity X have to provide to get your $100 donation vs the other charity? Put another way: suppose you have a desire to give to charity X, but before you do you are comparing them to charity Y. Charity Y currently achieves its bottom line 1 time for $100 and charity X currently achieves its bottom line 100 times for $100. Because you prefer X, you believe it does more good - in fact, you believe it does ten times as much good. So ask yourself: how many times would Y have to achieve its bottom line for $100 for you to prefer that charity? Suppose you decide that Y would actually have to provide 200 of their bottom line before you would consider donating to them over charity X. So actually you think X does 200 times as much good! That gives you an idea of how many times better you think one charity is compared to the other.

By asking yourself how many times Y would have to achieve it's bottom line before you would decide it is as efficient or more efficient than X, you can assign a numerical value of how efficient you believe one charity is vs another. Their bottom lines may be different, they may be saving animals, or hiring actors for the local theater group, or curing children of TB. The point is you can create a simple heuristic comparison that allows you to figure out what charities you consider better at achieving their bottom line, and how important that bottom line is.

Feeling uncomfortable with this? Cooney would gently refer you to premise 2.


Wait, wait, wait wait!

But I LIKE saving bunnies, I LOVE donating to the ballet, I get deep meaningful satisfaction out of volunteering at the food bank.

That is AWESOME! Don't stop doing those things. You don't have to stop giving to those places. Only re-consider calling them part of your charitable giving. Instead call volunteering what it is - a way to feel warm and fuzzy about yourself, a way to feel like you are participating in your community. Budget the ballet donation for what it is - entertainment. It just comes out of a different budget line. Why? Because the suffering you are reducing is your own (premise 1 & 2 double whammy). And that is a good thing! You shouldn't suffer! You should get your warm fuzzies (props to Elizabeth for the phrase I'm stealing); just don't expect to find them while you are changing the world.

So what holds us back from adjusting our spending and doing? Cooney lays out a few simple psychological barriers:

  1. Lack of exposure to the idea. We aren't encouraged to think critically about altruistic gestures
  2. We want to keep things the same. We are naturally adverse to change, in our own lives and habits as well as in organizations
  3. We have a natural preference to help those most similar and in closest proximity to ourselves. This means we can overlook potentially huge good we could do elsewhere
  4. It is just easier not to. It is challenging to think about comparing charities and frequently we turn to charity work to get away from bean counting
  5. The best and most effective thing isn't always glamorous, interesting, or emotionally gratifying

 

Luckily he also provides us with a few ways to overcome these barriers:

  1. Give yourself space to think. This is hard work, guys! Give yourself room to think, be wrong and reevaluate.
  2. You are allowed to be human! Of course you have emotional reactions, follow your intuition, and act on instinctual empathy. Though perhaps this is done best in other areas of our life (premise 2 again).
  3. Remember the bottom line. Keep in mind that giving to one organization vs. another can ultimately mean saving 1 life when you could have saved 10. And lives are important.