Values Added

Part 3: Who Should I Give To?

Up to now we’ve talked about why you should give and how much of your income you should ideally think about donating. Now we get to the fun part – Deciding which organizations to give to! So many organizations (and non-organizations) do amazing work. And you can be a part of it–literally contribute.

Finding the most cost-efficient charities: Effective altruism.

One way to choose the charities you want to support is to follow the views of the Effective Altruism (EA) movement and aim to identify the most efficient ways to directly save lives and improve their quality. For instance, a few dollars can buy a bed net and likely prevent someone (or several people) from getting Malaria. That’s a very low-cost, high-impact intervention.

Before we discuss this approach more I should acknowledge that it’s been in the news lately for a bad reason: one of its prominent adherents turned out to be a disastrous CEO. That said, I think his having given away a lot of money was probably a good thing (perhaps the best thing he did) and I don’t think his mistakes reflect much on the approach. There are many reasonable critiques of this approach and good arguments in its favor so I suggest focusing on those. 

In the EA analysis, people don’t necessarily focus on charities nearby. Because human lives are just as important no matter where they live, effective altruists say we shouldn’t assume that the best place to give is right where the donor happens to live. It is a lot more expensive to save lives in the U.S. than it is in developing countries. If we measure interventions by the cost to save a life, international public health efforts tend to rank very highly. As a result, international efforts tend to be a big focus for effective altruists.

There are many organizations that evaluate charities with an EA approach, for instance, Give Well. I find this approach compelling and it is one of the reasons I’ve been giving to Project Muso since the organization’s founding. Project Muso has radically improved health outcomes in Mali, reducing the infant mortality rate by the greatest rate ever recorded in a peer-reviewed study. It has been the biggest share of my giving most years since it was founded in 2005. Ari and his partner Rebecca give one of their largest gifts each year to Doctors without Borders for similar reasons.

As effective as some direct service organizations are, though, they primarily mitigate the downstream impacts of imbalances of power and wealth, rather than changing the fundamental structures that give rise to health and income inequalities. In light of this, many donors are increasingly looking “upstream” by giving to organizations that fight to change the laws and policies that give rise to poverty and poor health, to begin with. 

An example of this is giving to political candidates who promise to change how government works, for example by instituting more progressive taxes, higher minimum wages, more robust safety net services, and increased access to free, public healthcare or education. Advocacy organizations also fit into this model. For instance, organizations may mobilize voters, lobby the government, organize activists, or even do research that influences laws and policies. I find the advocacy approach very persuasive and so give significantly to advocacy groups and progressive political candidates.

Advocacy organizations have the potential to dramatically increase the impact of our giving. Because local, state, and national governments have budgets in the trillions, influencing even a small portion of these budgets can be tremendously valuable. For example, back in 2010, Ari and I co-led an Invest in DC campaign that helped convince the DC Council to raise taxes on very high-income residents and use the money to preserve and expand critical safety net services. 

A relatively small investment of time (a few hundred hours) and money (a few thousand dollars) in this campaign made by a few hundred people led to tens of millions of dollars being available to meet those needs that year and every year since. The total cost of the campaign was likely under $100,000 but it has generated about $100,000,000 in safety net services (that is a 1000x return)! Even aside from tax and budget fights, policy campaigns, like those to raise the minimum wage or fight against wage theft, can similarly drive many millions of dollars directly into the pockets of those who really need the money. While not every advocacy campaign succeeds, the huge multiplier effect of those that do can make them among the highest leverage dollars a person can donate.

More recently, in 2021, Councilmembers Brianne Nadeau, Janeese Lewis George, and Charles Allen led the fight to increase taxes on DC households with incomes of several hundred thousand dollars and up (mostly millionaires). The additional revenue provides more housing for people experiencing homelessness and additional support to childcare workers (who are mostly women of color in DC). As helpful as my donations have been over the years, my work to help those councilmembers get elected (and my contributions to their campaigns) probably made a much bigger difference since that tax law change is projected to move around $150M per *year* to fight homelessness and support low-wage workers. 

Should I give to political candidates or just normal 501c3 organizations?

I do both. Giving to politicians is similar to advocacy. The returns are uncertain since the politician you support might lose. Or perhaps they get elected, but then fail to follow through on their promises. Or they try their best, but they’re ineffective or get blocked by other political actors. I think about all of those possibilities and try to target my political giving to help politicians who are likely to stick with their values and also be politically effective. But this is an inherently high-variance strategy and you can’t expect every donation to feel like it had a clear positive consequence the way that direct service giving can.

Political and advocacy work don’t always (or even all that frequently) produce immediate, decisive, and powerful results. It tends to be an unpredictable march with steps forward and back–ideally more forward than back. It takes vision to stay positive during the setbacks along the way but when it works, the results can be very dramatic. When new people are elected who are able to institute positive change, it’s generally impossible to know how much of the improvements can be traced to your own specific donations (or actions). But since the changes can be so large, directing millions or even hundreds of millions of dollars towards policy improvements, your donations can have an outsized effect. Even if 0.01% of a change can be traced to my giving, my political giving that year had an enormous impact (or return if thought of as an investment in justice). 

For example, I have given time and money to many candidates seeking election to the DC Council (a combination of the State Senate, State House, and County/City Council all rolled into one chamber). Many of them have lost. But about half have won. Those Councilmembers have helped our city budget a lot more for badly needed social services. Though the increased spending still isn’t as much as I think we should be doing, it’s tens or hundreds of thousands of times more than I could ever have given personally.

Political candidates tend to focus on winning election (and re-election), quite reasonably. That often means making decisions that maximize voting in their election rather than making choices that change the electorate for the long-term. Some techniques, organizing, for instance, tend to help in the immediate term and long term. Identifying new voters, engaging in political education, and connecting with them as long-term allies is labor-intensive but gets values-aligned votes for decades. 

By contrast, sending mail to a super-voter might help the candidate get that vote in that election, but doesn’t really change the bigger dynamics. Candidates are incentivized to send the mail, not do the long-term organizing. Although I do support some candidates’ campaigns directly, I try to target most of my support to organizations and campaigns that are focused on building long-term power through techniques like political education, organizing, and movement building, rather than campaigns that mostly dump money into media consultants and short-term name ID boosting like mail, TV, and paid digitally. I want people who bring new folks into the process, not just those who want to maximize their share of people who have always voted. If you are looking for a group that helps identify ways to support politically-aligned movement building, learn more about the Movement Voter Project.

What about when friends or strangers solicit me directly?

So far, I’ve been sharing big-picture frameworks that assume the goal is to reduce suffering, save lives, improve lives, and do other things that are at least somewhat measurable. There are other reasons to give. It’s not always about measurable, efficient outcomes. For instance, when I walk to a restaurant a few blocks away in our neighborhood with my kids, we are often solicited along the sidewalk by people in need. Any dollar would probably be more effective at saving lives if it was invested in bed nets, but we aren’t social justice robots, we are people. 

While it might not be the most “efficient” use of my charitable giving budget to give to the person in front of me, there was a positive value to sharing this moment with another person and cultivating a feeling of openness rather than needing to close my heart to the need in front of me. I also didn’t want to teach my kids the practice of ignoring someone else’s needs and pain by looking away. Actually, my discomfort explaining this inefficiency issue to my daughter when she first asked, convinced me to abandon that well-reasoned but uncomfortable approach. These days I keep several dollar bills in my jacket pocket and when someone asks, I typically give them out indiscriminately. Not only is opening one’s heart with generosity a good practice, but it also models kindness to my kids. It’s a lot better than having to give confusing answers to the tough questions kids ask about why adults do or don’t help people in need.

Similarly, when friends solicit, I don’t get out a calculator to decide how to respond. While a lot of my tithe is committed to organizations I give to consistently every year, I reserve a portion of my gifts for causes supported by people I know. I want friends and family to have a positive experience in mobilizing resources for good in the world, and I’d like to encourage them by being positive and sharing that experience with them.

And that goes double for any young people who reach out. When I was a middle schooler, I got very involved with the Philadelphia AIDS walk. I called adults I knew from my religious community, neighbors, family, and friends. All were touched (or perhaps felt obligated) and nearly every single person I ever asked to sponsor me said yes. Perhaps I was lucky that in the community I grew up in, people were justice-minded. I learned the lesson that when you work for a good cause and ask people to join you, they generally will. I hope young people growing up today learn the same lesson.

I have several set levels of giving. I will generally give:

  • $1 to anyone who asks and seems to be in need (often given directly while in the neighborhood)
  • $36 in response to requests from friends who take the time to reach out personally about a cause they care about (I am sure many mass solicitations are in various unseen email tabs–sorry if I’ve missed one!)
  • $360 to a cause that I think is important but not a specific focus
  • $720 or more to a cause which I think is important, efficient, and is a strategic giving priority

Should I give time or just money?

Some people dedicate their lives and careers to social change and as a result, have lower incomes and fewer dollars to give or don’t give money at all. They are giving a lot of their life energy and time to the cause through their work. Other people give a lot of money, but their work is less justice-focused. In both cases, people are doing laudable things. You can certainly choose one or the other.

But you don’t *have* to choose one over the other. You can do both. Most of our clients do.

Regardless of your job, you can also donate time. You can knock on doors for a campaign, mentor kids, help returning citizens learn in-demand job skills, or do so many other amazing things. This is valuable too and, as above, can be combined with a career in the common good and/or committing significant resources to charitable/justice purposes.

It’s good to use time to make the world a better place, as well as your financial resources. You don’t have to choose!

Action Steps

Now it’s time to think about the charities, causes, and campaigns you want to be a part of. Think about the work that you want to support—whether it’s distributing food to people temporarily down on their luck, supporting multinational efforts to develop self-sufficiency in poorer countries, fighting climate change, electing better politicians, or donating to the arts. Your priorities should determine which organizations get your money.

Think about giving to political candidates who share your priorities. Remember that even though political gifts are not as certain to have an impact as direct donations, they can have a very large effect when they succeed.

Don’t forget to set aside money for giving to people who ask you—whether they are needy people in your neighborhood or friends and co-workers raising money for their favorite causes.

Consider donating your time and skills along with money. Volunteering is part of giving—and it has its own rewards.

Photo by Elvert Barnes

Updated December 2022