where to give

Picking a Charity for 2016

This year I want to select a charity that works around climate change and I need your suggestions! The elemental tattoo is 'air' and I can't think of a better way to represent this than preserving and cleaning our atmosphere.

I've done a bit of preliminary research so anything out of the box is appreciated. I've looked into things like Cool Earth, the Sierra Club, and reducing factory farming, but if you have a strong preference for one of these or another well known strategy I'd be interested in knowing more.

I'm a bit torn between mitigation efforts vs reversal. Mitigation is focusing on things that would decrease carbon output into the environment, whereas reversal technologies would be something like geoengineering to stop the effects of current carbon levels. If you have a charity or research group that you think is doing really exciting things around either of these leave a comment! Or if you have reason to prefer one strategy over another I would be interested in knowing why.

In terms of effectiveness I am leaning towards possible reversal ideas. Mitigation efforts is a really 'crowded' space with lots of people working on the problem with lots of great awesome ideas and a lot of funding. Not to say this is an easy thing, just that it gets quite a bit of funding and attention already.

However most data suggests even if we completely halt our carbon output now we will still see a serious impact on the world that would have not only environmental, but social and economic impacts as well. So it seems prudent to also be looking at ways to either reverse or adapt to this. I haven't found a lot on a really promising way to do this, or who is doing research on this. So if you have an idea here please let me know!

This year's holiday season may change they way you think about giving

Even though I have finally just recovered from Halloween candy binge, cleaned up the makeup extravaganza, and removed the spider webs from my bushes,  the stores and shops have wasted no time stetting up their holiday displays around town. Though many (OK most) of us are bemoaning the fact that these displays have gone up before Thanksgiving, there is another undercurrent of furious activity this time of year. While we remain blissfully unaware of the stream of requests and appeals we are about receive, fundraisers and philanthropists alike are gearing up for the 2015 giving season.

meme credit to Evan Gaensbauer

meme credit to Evan Gaensbauer

Almost anyone tangentially related to the nonprofit sector is familiar with end of the year giving. Donation based organizations are putting together wish lists and development departments are reviewing their donor lists and optimizing the timing of their Facebook posts. There is a tremendous hustle that goes into this time of the year for nonprofits. With nonprofits raising 33% of their income in the month of December alone, and programs like #GivingTuesday, the nonprofit answer to black Friday and cyber Monday, their is big money to be had in reminding consumers that the holidays are traditionally a time of giving.

And most of this hustle pays off. Donors make big decisions this time of year around how they want to make their last, and usually largest, donations before the end of the tax year. But for as much hustle goes into soliciting donations, those of us writing the checks do woefully little research.

According to the Money for Good survey results only 6% of donors spend any time comparing the impact of nonprofits they donate to. Comparing that to the $358.38 billion Americans gave in 2014: last year over 377 billion dollars were handed out with less thought than most of us is give to our coffee order.

But this year there has been a growing amount of press around the effective altruism movement. Based around the idea that we should carefully weigh each decision to give, and that each human life is equally valuable, regardless of distance or status. The movement has gained growing support from people like international poker players, and even celebrities.

While most of us can't live off of just 6% of our income, some additional probing, and critical thinking into where we send our money may be in order. Unfortunately most giving decisions revolve around who has a better marketing campaign, who has a more recognizable name, and who has a lower overhead. Unfortunately none of these things actually measures the effectiveness of carrying out an organization's mission. So where do we begin?

While it can be relatively simple to give to a cause that you just read about, and to get excited about the newest coolest charity innovation, the desire to make our donation decisions easy is a problematic one. What really excites me about fundraising around my birthday each year isn't just watching the money roll in, or translating how many lives are saved based on that number. The really exciting part is getting to talk to everyone about giving.

While I don't do a lot of year end giving, my birthday rather conveniently falls right before the holiday season really begins. So each year I ask friends and relatives to donate money to a highly effective cause, rather than buy me a pint at the bar, or send me a gift card come December. This gives family members an easy out when it comes to figuring out what to send, and it gives me an opportunity to share a really effective cause.

Often we are discouraged from talking about our giving habits, donation dollars aren't brought up, and asking someone where they choose to donate is taboo. However this air of secrecy means that we lack a strong discourse in our communities around what charity really means, we don't celebrate each other work we do, and we don't talk about how giving influences our lives and makes us richer. It also means that we don't always talk about how we choose the charities and causes we donate to. Because we regard our philanthropy as so private we loose out on the opportunity to share notes and compare stories around giving. We loose out on the opportunity to learn about new programs, and think critically about our giving decisions.

The last few decades of human existence has seen the elimination of smallpox, the near extinction of polio, an increase in global wealth, and a decrease in extreme poverty. However there is still so much left to do.

So this year when you start getting pamphlets and greeting cards in your mailbox from different organizations, take a moment to consider how you can have the most impact on the world. Or when Aunt Delores calls you asking what you want for the holidays this year, tell her to skip the gift card, and send that $10 to save a life.

An Email Appeal

So I've left the blog relatively silent for a little while. I've been focusing on raising money for my annual fundraiser (you know, the reason I started the blog in the first place). I've actually been doing quite a bit of writing about it, I just haven't shared it here yet. Most of my writing has been emails and Facebook posts pleading with friends and family to pony up a little cash for AMF. So I thought I would share just such a piece with you.

This is the email that was just sent out to, well... let's just say a lot of people. I am also planning on making more personal messages to people. Though I have run into one fatal problem: the only contact I have with a lot of people is through Facebook. Which normally isn't a problem, if anything it is super helpful. But just posting to FB doesn't actually get onto many people's news feed - the algorithm kicked me out as irreverent content a long time ago.

Normally we solve this news feed problem with a simple solution: we tag people. I have a couple problems with that tactic in this case. One, tagging someone usually sends them more than a notification, it sends them an email, and then also a notification anytime someone interacts with the post. Super annoying if you aren't crazy excited about my fundraiser the way I am. Secondly it seems like calling someone out.

Hey you! Yea you!
*lots of eye contact*
Did you give me money yet?

I could always direct message someone about it, but that also feels icky

Hey random friend I haven't talked to in a long time! How are you?
I'm only messaging you because I want something.
Genuine interest and questions about your life seem trite now because my motivation seems to clearly be for money.

It feels worse to do that kind of thing over direct message on FB than via email because Facebook is somehow more personal. We get junk email that we-sort-of-signed-up-for-but-can't-be-bothered-to-unsubscribe-from all the time. Deleting and/or ignoring something I got an email about doesn't seem like a big deal. But a direct message is closer to a text than an email. And everyone knows it sucks to have your texts ignored, so there is added pressure to respond or comply.

All of these seem like disincentives to donating. Worse than not getting a donation I don't want to annoy my friends - I like these people! Facebook faux pas be tricky to navigate guys. Any advice on possible alternatives would be greatly appreciated.

Without further digression here is my most recent email to a large number of friends and family.


Hi there,

Yes this is a mass email. Yes I am being that annoying. So I'll make it brief; actually my goal is to make your life a little easier. I'm going to give you one less person to think about on your holiday list.

Instead of wondering what to get me, or how much it should be worth, is a card enough, is a gift even appropriate (I mean how well do we really know each other anyway?!) I figured I'd be greedy and just ask for what I want.

I'm asking friends and family (and distant relatives, and acquaintances, and maybe a few random people on the street) to donate $27 to help me celebrate my 27th birthday.

I'm aiming to raise $2,000 by Nov 17th. The best part? An awesome friend has pledged to match every $27 donation! That means that when you donate $27 it is the equivalent of saving 6 lives, most of them children under the age of 5.

The Against Malaria Foundation is one of the most effective charities in the world. While bed nets aren't the newest, coolest, sexiest form of charity, they are effective at saving lives. Amazingly effective.

I can go on and on about the importance of effective charities, why I chose this one, how deadly malaria is, how close we are to wiping it out, how I want you to forward this email, how donating makes your life better. But I promised you a short email, so I'll just stop while I'm ahead.

This may be a mass email, but I am more than happy to answer any questions you have, or even just catch up and chit chat. It has been too long friend! Click the reply button. I won't bite :)


Oh! OH! Before I forget: If you have already donated THANK YOU! You are awesome. Please disregard this email. Don't feel pressured to take any other action than to keep on being your bad self.

Donate: http://bit.ly/1API7K5
Learn more: http://bit.ly/1LdgaPq
Read about the 5 year project: http://bit.ly/1dMIJVy
Find resources to share:

*Update* the best reply I've gotten to this email so far:

Damn, Sydney! Get down wit yo good self!

Matching Gifts for This Year

I am super stoked to announce that a friend has promised to match every $27 donation going forward this year! That means that every time someone pledges $27 (about the cost of a lunch date) 7 kids are protected from Malaria while they sleep. This is so exciting, I can't thank Jessan Hutchison-Quillian enough for supporting the project in such a generous way. Though generosity is something of a way of life for Jessan.

I am particularly excited about this because it gives an opportunity to people that normally don't have the means to give generously, the opportunity to make a huge impact. This is part of the reason I chose such a cost effective charity to begin with. It is easy to fall into the trap of wondering what good such a small singular donation could actually make. The Against Malaria Foundation gives you an easy answer to that question - and Jessan's matching pledge doubles your impact to something really substantial.

So go ahead, save 7 lives:



Reasons Why I Give to Ineffective Causes

Over the last year I have spent a non-insignificant amount on charities and causes that I would normally not consider giving to, and quite a few of them are things that I wouldn't consider the most effective or most beneficial charities. For someone that spends a good portion of my life and energy promoting the most effective causes, and encourages everyone to think hard about what they spend their philanthropic money on, it seems counter-intuitive that I would throw money at a lot of non-optimized charities & causes. For most people who identify with effective altruism it is irregular to donate outside of the top GiveWell charities.

That being said, I would wager there are lots of people out there who think deeply about philanthropy and giving that do wind up donating to causes they wouldn't necessarily recommend to others. There are a number of reasons I've chosen to do this and I thought I would share a few of mine with you.


1. It is my friend's pet cause

Now most people who buy into some idea of effective giving are going to say that is a terrible justification for donating to a cause, but let me explain. Primarily I will say that I don't donate to causes I think are not doing good or potentially doing harm. Usually I trust my friend's judgment on this, but a quick reputation check helps.

Whenever a friend puts up a "Donate to this" request on Facebook I usually try to throw at least $10 at it. I used to do more but that isn't always a viable option every time. Now $10 seems like a paltry amount - and it is - but anyone that has run a fundraising campaign knows most of the time you are stalking the page watching little donations tick in, spending time trying to figure out who that anonymous donation was from, and wondering why Aunt Agnes hasn't ponied up yet. There is a Pavlovian response we have to watching donations roll in. It is warm and fuzzy! $10 seems like a good deal to give my friend have such a great warm fuzzy feeling.

It is also substantially easier to ask friends and family to donate to your fundraiser when they know you donated to theirs. So while my money may not be doing the most good, it is an investment in generating a lot of good in the future.


2. It makes me more likely to continue to donate

I definitely fall into the moral consistency camp when it comes to moral-licensing. I do something I think of as good and my brain gets a kick of dopamine (or maybe the dopamine comes into play as I enter my credit card information). Point is I get a big kick from my reward system. I am doing good things! I am being morally consistent with my stated values! I am helping! Good girl *pat*

This means donating becomes increasingly Pavlovian as well! Beyond a kick in the short-term happy pants, there is lots of research that shows that donating more actually leads to an improvement in overall life satisfaction. So I'm happier and more fulfilled in general. This all leads to a great internal reward system.

Plus, it turns out I never lament spending that money. I will frequently look at my bank account and think about that latte this morning that I didn't really need. I've never had the experience of looking at my statement and thinking "If only I hadn't given that $20 to the 'Save the Cute Animals and Cure the Terrible Sickness Foundation' "



3. Add my name to the list please!

There are loads of groups out there that, on top of doing their mission work, also work on public policy, advocacy and lobbying. Planned Parenthood is a great example of this. While 65% of their budget went to medical services, 16% went to non-medical services, many of which centered around petitioning and advocacy.

Part of what makes any advocacy work successful is the ability to cite their number of supporters. In a democracy, numbers are king. If you can say you have 8 million supporters, chances are better you can get a representative to listen. Large numbers add clout and legitimacy to your campaigns.

So even if I just give $10 or $2 my name, little as it is, gets thrown in that pile of names. A lot of advocacy can boil down to comparing who has a bigger pile. Policy reform is a big sticky mess that is hard to measure and harder to influence, but a small amount of money to add my name to a list of people who say "yes I agree with this thing, please count me in" seems like a good, low cost start.


4. It is a service I use/appreciate or think I should be paying for anyway

I am lucky enough to live in the amazing city of Seattle; if you've never been to the Pacific Northwest - it is terrible, please don't move here. Just kidding, it is great you should totally come visit. We'll get coffee. At midnight.

Aside from an abundance of caffeinated millennials Seattle also has some of the best radio around. You remember radio right? That thing you used to listen to in the car? Well Seattle has such good radio even the White House press office takes note. So when John in the Morning comes on and asks me to pony up some spare change, I do.

This public radio station is a service I use almost daily. It adds dramatically to my life satisfaction and my feeling of being connected to the world, and particularly to my city. I don't consider this philanthropy, these donations come out of my entertainment budget. I am giving for me, for selfish reasons, driven by my passions and needs. So I don't consider this part of my philanthropic giving, but the US tax code does, so I'm listing it here.


5. Signal boost a campaign or cause

I'm not the only one that runs event fundraisers. Loads of people do! Most of the time my friends choose highly effective charities, so usually it is something I'm totally on board with. Sometimes it is just a great concept for a fundraiser, and I want to encourage people to think creatively about fundraising and philanthropy. Sometimes it is for a unique organization that I support in theory, but don't have any evidence for yet.

Really this bullet can be summed up like this: Hey person, I dig your thinking and I support you. +1


6. A handful of other EA/rationalist related items

These are sort of tertiary justifications that lend legitimacy to my above reasons.

  • I'm in favor of being cause neutral. I don't want to get stuck in a giving pattern that may make me ineffective, so flexing my donation muscles in other places seems like a good plan.
  • I don't know everything and you are probably loads smarter than me. No seriously. If someone says "hey this thing over here is really important" I should lean towards giving it a shot, or investigating further.This cause you have identified could be super duper important and I just don't know it yet.
  • Sometimes ineffective or high-cost things have enormous nu-knowable great outcomes.
  • I wouldn't have spent the money on any other charity. Some utilitarians would argue that by giving money to less than the absolute best cause I am actually doing harm and costing lives. However the money I donate to one-off fundraisers and annual memberships is money that I otherwise would have spent on toys for my cats, or a meal out with friends.

The 7 Best Ways to Help with the Syrian Refugee Crisis

The refugee crisis in the EU and the Middle East has pulled in an extensive amount of media coverage recently, and like natural disasters, the horrific situation has motivated many to try and help. There are loads and loads of international organizations, government petitions and small fundraisers floating around to help Syrian refugees in various countries.

In 2014 there were 59.5 million displaced people around the world, and 4 million of them are from Syria. That means that 1 in every 122 people in the world are either a refugee, displaced person, or seeking asylum.



Before we donate, like any good investor (when we donate we are investing in a better world) we have to do a little homework to understand how to approach this particular market. Thankfully there is loads of information out there about why there is currently a refugee crisis unlike anything seen since WWII.

Vox published a great piece called The refugee crisis: 9 questions you were too embarrassed to ask. As well as the shorter: The Syrian refugee crisis, in 4 maps and charts. Skim it, or even just read the big bold numbered bits. I trust you'll get the gist of it; you're a smart cookie.

no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
— Warsan Shire

OK so we've established that the situation is bad. How do we best help?

There has been a massive push to let in more refugees to many countries. Immigration is a hotly contested issue, with most governments leaning towards the conservative perspective of keeping people out. Though as Will MacAskill points out "The question of how many refugees to accept is purely a political one, not an economic one." There has been lots of research on how immigration, and even open borders are actually economically beneficial for the accepting country. Frequently the fear associated with allowing immigrants and refugees isn't actually about economics, but of shifting cultural demographics and a changing sense of national identity.

When comparing to the massive amount of human suffering vs the uncomfortable feeling of a changing community the option to allow in more refugees seems to be the obvious better choice. So perhaps the most impactful way to make make progress on the refugee crisis is actually little grassroots lobbying. There has been an impressive show of support in the EU to accept more refugees. In the US there are lots of petitions out there to sign asking the US to allow in more refugees, and end the Syrian conflict:


Those are the fastest, probably most effective ways to create a long term solution to the refugee crisis. However policy change is slow and hard won. Obama recently increased the number of refugees the US will accept overt the next year to 10,000. This number pales in comparison the the tens of thousands the US used to accept, and those allowed in still face an uphill battle of paperwork.

So how do we help those trying to seek refuge now and make sure we are doing the most good we can? Well the first answer is simple. Send cash. Cash donations are always more useful than sending goods directly.

  • UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR): 5min & $20
    My best recommendation for your donations. This organization is taxed with supporting all refugees world wide, is supported by the UN, but is still constrained in it's ability to function by lack of funds. Building the international community relies on supporting organizations like this one, and showing your support shows countries that humanitarian aid is valued. The other reason I strongly recommend this organization is because they work on all levels of refugee needs, from emergency shelter and water to legal needs and boat rescues.
  • Oxfam America: 2min & $35
    Oxfam is working in the refugee camps to establish and maintain sanitation, clean water and to provide essential supplies.
  • UNICEF: 2min & $50
    Providing food clothes and most importantly immunizations for refugees. Displaced people are hard to track, move constantly and are susceptible to many diseases. Immunizations are important!

There are loads of other organizations out there and lots of other lists that can point you in more donation directions, but after doing some digging these three were the ones that stood out to me as being knowledgeable, transparent, on the ground, and providing necessary services.

I would also be interested in learning about any effective organizations working to help refugees navigate the complex legal systems in place. The US in particular has a rigorous process that includes collecting biometric information and a plethora of bureaucratic hoops. I imagine that finding a way to allow many people to navigate this system quickly would be highly beneficial.

But then again, with more open borders that would be a moot point.

Zaatari Camp in northern Jordan Photo: Will Wintercross via the Telegraph

Zaatari Camp in northern Jordan Photo: Will Wintercross via the Telegraph


GiveWell has also endorsed giving to Doctors Without Borders. 2min and $50
As always please make your donations unrestricted!

YouGov released poll data for US support of taking in more refugees. Given these numbers I am inclined to think that it may also be a good use of time to start talking with friends about the overall benefits more open border laws. A shift in public opinion is challenging but potentially highly impactful.

Infographic: How Do Americans Feel About Taking In Refugees?  | Statista
You will find more statistics at Statista

Open Philanthropy Project

During my trip to the Bay for EA Global I had the chance to visit the GiveWell offices along with other attendees. We listened to Elie Hassenfeld talk about GiveWell operations more in depth and their attempts to find more charities to recommend. The most encouraging take away I had from the talk was that as GW is able to move more and more money (in 2014 they moved about $29.5 million). This means charities have a larger incentive to participate in their lengthy and intensive evaluation process. Because let's face it, the reason the GW process is so good and so trustworthy is because it is a gigantic pain in the ass. A pain in the ass with a 96% fail rate (according to some quick back of the envelope math). They are also looking more and more into assisting in the creation of new charities, as well as funding repeats of control trials on the effectiveness of interventions.

All that is very exciting, and was great to learn about. But what I really signed up for was to hear about the Open Philanthropy Project.

There currently isn't a lot out there about Open Phil. There is a basic website and a bunch of blog posts on the GW blog and the Good Ventures blog. Most of what you can figure out is that it is a partnership between GV & GW (those aren't confusing or amusing abbreviations at all). While Good Ventures is the org that functions like a foundation to dole out the billions Dustin Maskovitz and Cari Tuna plan on giving away, the Open Philanthropy project seems to be the research arm that asks how to do as much good as possible. Luckily one of the first things we learned is that there is currently a plan to make Open Phil a more straightforward and action oriented organization. They will be creating a website that explains their work and the direction they are heading.

But that isn't up now. So what exactly have they been doing the last two years?

As Holden put it Open Phil is "the start of a good debate." Their work has not been to evaluate and pick charities, but to assess causes. The ultimate goal being to shape the field of philanthropy moving forward, to be at the forefront of making the world a better place. And often being at the forefront of things means asking crazy questions and being open to loads of possibilities.

So what does it mean to look at the entirety of the philanthropic landscape? Well it turns out that it means there are a couple Google Docs out there that are handling this world-changing question.

I'll let that sink in: there are Google Docs that are the culmination of loads of deep thinking and years of research that is deciding the future of philanthropy... The same program I use to track my grocery list is being used to tabulate and track the potential of billions of dollars.

I kind of felt like I'd stumbled upon the inner cabal! There is a list floating around in the cloud ranking the importance of pandemics, global poverty, magnetic storms, malaria, organ donation, immigration, and scientific research standards.

Google please don't crash.

Cari Tuna (Lettering by Joel Holland for The Washington Post/Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

While ranking causes seems like an obvious step to most people who have bought into the idea of effective altruism, the idea of purposefully studying and selecting a cause is actually fairly new. More than just a step to take, Open Phil thinks it is one of the most important decisions you can make in your philanthropic donations. Thus this stage deserves extensive time, commitment, and thought. Because being vaguely familiar with a cause isn't sufficient to make an impact in that cause. To make an informed decision about a cause it is necessary to understand the cause in it's entirety as much as possible.

So after selecting causes based on things like tractability and importance the next step Open Phil has identified is hiring and cultivating Program Officers. These are individuals who have spent a significant portion of their life working in a particular cause area. People who are familiar with the landscape, know the players, and are well versed in the nuances of the cause. The particular people Open Phil is looking to hire have these qualities, but is also willing to make bold decisions towards progress. Needless to say this leads to a fairly extensive hiring process.

They have however made their first hire! Chloe Cockburn was hired as their US Criminal Justice Reform Program Officer. Chole's last role was with the ACLU. I actually ran into someone from the NY office of the ACLU and she said that they had a group cry about Chloe leaving. A note in her favor I would say.

Aside from cultivating and identifying these Program Officers Open Phil is also interested in targeting rich young philanthropists. Large donors who have not yet hardened their area of focus or become set in a pattern of philanthropic giving. This would mean redirecting much of the future money of philanthropy to important causes, and the most effective solutions in each area.

Oh did I not mention that? The other part of Open Phil isn't just looking at which causes are the most outstanding, but also which ways of approaching each problem is the best. As I understand it, a large chunk of this will fall onto the shoulders of their new Program Officers, as these individuals decide how best to delegate funding, a few million dollars at a time.

Ranking causes and organizations isn't something completely new for EAs. What is interesting is that it is the first time someone has looked at social or policy change through an EA lens. This is so exciting to me. The lack of focus in this area is one of the first, largest, loudest, and sometimes most relevant critiques of EA. Aren't we just putting a band aid over the overlying problems of the world? Shouldn't we be investing time and energy into uprooting social, economical, issues that cause these problems? The counter point from most Effective Altruists is, sure - but we don't know the effective way to go about that that.


Open Phil seems to be the best way to go about creating that systematic change. Why? Because they are asking the hard questions, and are going in with an open mind. One of the most encouraging parts of my visit was during the Q&A portion of Holden's presentation. Despite being asked to narrow in or come up with a solid answer on how to go about doing most of this work his answers were almost continuously "I'm not sure. We are researching that." I found this so encouraging! Because again, in order to make change in a particular cause area you have to really truly understand it. Still sometimes even that isn't enough.

Charting and evaluating philanthropy on this scale is a massive undertaking, and something that has rarely, if ever been done successfully. But they aren't starting from scratch. They have generations of nonprofit workers and NGOs to learn from. Open Phil is focused on the history of philanthropy and learning from the past. Too often people see a need and instead of working or improving systems in place they create a new system, reinventing the wheel . In philanthropy it seems we have lots of wheels, but none of them seem to be using the same size fitment.

The thing that I find so exciting about all of this is that there is a chance it might actually work! Growing up around people that cared deeply about social justice, human rights, and political reform, change felt like an uphill battle. Trying to organize the political will to take on something like reforming the US incarceration system was nearly impossible. Let alone trying to stand against those that have millions invested in keeping the prison industry alive and well. It always felt that these sorts of reforms was David vs. Goliath. But with a large sum of money, and a lot of thoughtful careful effort, change seems to have a tangible future.

What attempts at social reform used to feel like

What attempts at social reform used to feel like

What it felt like after leaving the GW offices

What it felt like after leaving the GW offices

Hear Holden talk about Open Phil at EA Global:

Effective Altruism and the Arts

From time to time I find myself explaining Effective Altruism ideas to those who have a long history of donating to the arts. Understandably, most of the time the idea that their donations thus far have been "ineffective" rubs people the wrong way and leaves them a bit prickly to the idea of Effective Altruism.

I wanted to take a minute to share a response I wrote to a blog, mainly for the selfish reason of having an easy link to direct people towards about my opinions on EA and first world charities. This was written as a response to the blog entitled Effective Altruism Probably Isn't

I agree that the question "how many lives are saved" does lead you to the answer that you should be donating to a very singular type of cause. Though I don't think there is a problem with this. Asking how to save lives is a good and important litmus test to pass in your charitable giving. I think the key point that may be missing in wondering about supporting things that "make life worth living" is that charity isn’t about self-actualization; it is about making the world a better place.

The best way to help people give their money is to help them define their own passions and concerns and then help them find agencies which serve to promote those.

I think in this quote of yours the idea of 'altruism' is getting mixed up with self-actualization. Now don't get me wrong! I am all in favor of making life worth living and allowing everyone to peruse self-actualization. What I think is problematic is when this gets conflated with charity. Charity isn't selfish. Charity isn't about me.

because these suckers are expensive

because these suckers are expensive

I love the ballet. I was a dancer for 10 years. I donate to my local ballet because I love it and because it speaks to me on a deep and soulful level.

I don't think this is charity: it is self-interested.

These donations come out of my entertainment budget, not out of my philanthropic budget. Because these donations are about me. And that is OK! That is good! Self-care, fulfillment, and meaning in life are precious parts of being human. But that doesn't negate the fact that there are thousands, millions, of people around the world who don't get the chance to approach self-actualization. So I choose to do my charity where it will be most effective at saving lives, in the belief that those lives will have a chance to contribute to the beauty of the world. But these people will never be able to contribute if we only focus on causes that speak to our passions.

While most of these ideas aren't new to most Effective Altruists I think they bear repeating. Again and again.

I think I also fall into the relatively small camp of people that think EA values could, and probably should, be extended to the nonprofit world as a whole. I don't see anything wrong with asking yourself "is my local soup kitchen feeding the most people possible?" Notice I didn't ask if my local soup kitchen was serving the cheapest food possible, or what their overhead was. It isn't about doing things cheaply necessarily, it is about doing them effectively.

I think that getting people to ask these deeper questions of charities and their own philanthropic work is ultimately what changes the world. Arguments about diversity, AI risk, and utility aside, what is going to make impactful and lasting change is the ability to analyze and reason about our philanthropic choices.

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.

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.

This Year's Charity


This year I am raising money for The Against Malaria Foundation. One of the major symptoms of this deadly disease is fever, so this year's element will be fire.


Our goal is to raise $2000 which will go to provide bed nets for those in areas impacted by malaria. The best way to protect pregnant women and children, those most impacted by the disease, is through preventative measures like Insecticide-treated bed nets (ITNs). As part of this challenge I've chosen to support those organizations that have proven to be more effective than other charities. AMF is able to provide each net for a total coast of just $6 each.

That means if we reach our goal over 300 people will be protected from malaria.

Not only is this an amazingly inexpensive way to save a life AMF is rigorous when it comes to tracking their nets; making sure that nets are distributed to intended recipients and tracking their use over time. They are one of GiveWell's top rated charities and GW has looked into their organization extensively. You can read all about them on the GiveWell evaluation page.

To support this year's fundraiser, please donate below. You should can share the message! Check out my resources page for easily sharable materials to spread the word.


10% of Harvard Donation


John Paulson, a wealthy hedge fund manager just donated $400 million to the Harvard School of Engineering, which will now bear his name. I have a hard time imagining how exciting it must be to get that check! To be able to cut that check!

But now that I'm thinking about it, I'm not sure an Ivy League school would be my first choice. Or even my second. I'm not the only one to think this. Author Malcom Gladwell had a rather poignant quote on Twitter, and Vox had an article earlier in May along the same lines.

So I wondered what could have been done with just 10% of his donation if it had been given to a highly effective charity? Harvard still gets $396 million (nothing to sniff at), John probably still gets the department named after him, and a nonprofit can make a huge difference in thousands, or millions of lives. So what is that other $40,000,000 really worth?

Here is the breakdown if just 10% of that had gone to any one of these highly effective charities:

  • 50,000,000 children protected from schistosomiasis for one year by SCI
  • 400,000,000 children dewormed, or 4,444,444 people provided clean water for one year by Evidence Action
  • 36,000 households funded (averaging 5 people each) by GiveDirectly
  • 24,096,385 people protected from malaria or 11,986 lives saved by the The Against Malaria Foundation
  • 26,666 schools built, or 222,222 hand washing stations, or 400,000 latrines built by Oxfam
  • 1,355,200 women transported, or 75,288 complete reparative surgeries completed by Fistula Foundation
  • 800,000 people cured of blindness via surgery, or 266 rural hospitals built by The Seva Foundation
  • 153,846,153 people provided with micronutrient food fortification for one year by Project Healthy Children
  • 1,600,000 people given high quality healthcare in rural Nepal by Possible
  • 2,250,984 years of healthy life provided by Population Services International

Any one of these things could be done with just 10% of his donation. Just 10% for what he already allotted to give away anyway.

Numbers via The Life You Can Save's this nifty charity impact calculator

The Power of a Purchase

I grew up with parents that bought from local organic before it was a 'thing', who explained the implications of spending more money on Fair Trade coffee, and who insisted on washing and re-used our sandwich bags to cut down on our plastic waste. BTW my classmates in elementary school thought I was really odd, and a bit of a know-it-all - thanks mom. Part of what I was taught early is that ultimately we vote with our wallets. And I still believe that to this day: how I spend, even more than how I act, directly impacts the future we invest in as a society.

So recently I've been wondering about the difference between $1 spent on a Fair Trade item and the $1 donated to a good charity. Giving What We Can posted a blog post about this that got picked up by the Huffington Post. I love that effective thinking, living, and giving are getting so much coverage lately. That being said this article didn't ask my most basic question - how can I best cast my vote?

While I'm glad people are thinking about this I didn't seeing a real direct dollar-to-dollar comparison. Yes $1 can deworm two children and I know the benefits of that, but it seems like it is very hard to break down the economics of that $1 spent on a more expensive bar of chocolate that is Fair Trade.

I also agree with another commenter who mentions that my decision to buy FT goods isn't about charity, it is about fairness. I believe that people should be paid a sustainable wage, as a bare minimum. So I am also inclined to separate what I give charitably from what I spend on groceries. I buy FT not as a way to donate to a cause but because I think of it as a basic obvious truth that people should be paid fairly, therefore things cost more. This budget is separate from the budget I use to make the world a better place. FT is about doing good, donation is about striving for better than good.

That being said, I would be willing to change this behavior/ideas if there was a clearer way of comparing the two. Perhaps comparing the percentage given to improve production compared with the impact of the same money going to an effective agriculturally focused charity? Again the economic outcome of buying Fair Trade seems fuzzy and hard to track. Hopefully someone smarter than me is willing to run these numbers because I would love to know what they are.

I think there is also something to be said for feeling good about the products you are buying, and making conscious choices every day.