The best causes – updated

Both Giving What We Can and Givewell recently revised their charity recommendations, so I’ve updated this post to account for them.

If you’re reading this, I’ll assume you’re convinced by the philosophy of 80,000 Hours – so you won’t find an argument for that philosophy here. This post is just to help you decide where to best give your money right now, based on the combined recommendations of the above organisations allowing for a couple of factors they don’t address.

So… plenty of organisations want your money, but a select few really stand out. What’s the best option?

Honestly, we don’t know yet. Thanks to GiveWell and Giving What We Can, efficient philanthropy has become much easier in the last couple of years, but they might still find better causes. Their recommendations overlap, but are far from equivalent, partly because of the different values they espouse. However, their work has already been so useful that using it to give now is literally thousands of times better than using the best evaluators was only a few years ago, which focused only on admin costs and ignored what the charities were actually trying to achieve.

So below is a list of groups you might consider supporting, in no particular order, why they’re a top candidate, and at the end some considerations to help you decide between them. I’ve kept the summaries brief and linked to more information at the bottom.


Against Malaria Foundation

AMF provides treated malaria nets to high-risk populations. It’s Givewell’s top charity recommendation for 2011, and a top-tier one for GWWC.

Why AMF?

  • Simply the reason above – no other charity scores as well in both organisations’ ranking.
  • As of the latest update to this post, they have the best cost/life years ratio according to according to Nick Beckstead, GWWC’s head researcher : ‘$25/DALY. Know that optimistic estimates put it at $10/DALY, but they are probably wrong.’ (Givewell prefer to avoid the DALY metric)

Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI)

SCI focuses exclusively on curing people of parasitic worms that cause very unpleasant deformities (Google ‘Schistosomiasis’ in an image search for some examples – I won’t subject you
to them here); it’s recommended by both Givewell and Giving What We Can. It has an awful name, though – perhaps the reason it’s been so underfunded.

Why SCI?

  • SCI probably offer the second-cheapest health intervention – ‘$20-$170/DALY, with wide uncertainty’ (note this estimate has changed a lot from the original amount).
  • Besides its health benefits, SCI seems to be a great boon for education. One public paper estimates that for every US$3.27 you donate, you’ll be effectively buying an extra year of schooling for would’ve-been sufferers. Givewell have written a critical appraisal of such papers, suggesting that they overstate the case. They don’t estimate by how much, but conclude that it’s ‘highly plausible that deworming has subtle but significant developmental effects that improve quality of later life’.

Vegan Outreach

I know, the V-word. Stop backing away – it’s not (quite) what you think. VO’s
mission is to persuade people to become vegan by being a good example of
friendly vegans. They print and distribute leaflets that appeal to calm reason (and
yes, emotion) to convince people to switch to a vegan lifestyle in the US,
where farming laws are lax enough that meat eating is arguably more harmful
than anywhere else.

Why Vegan Outreach?

  • If you believe that animals’ suffering is similar in kind to humans’, even if not in degree, and if you take VO’s data about their success rate at face value, then this is a clear winner. According to Alan Dawrst’s summary of their claims (PDF. See section 5), $1 prevents between 100 days and 51 years of factory farm suffering.

  • Because of the huge impact of the livestock industry on climate change, this is currently the closest thing to an environmental charity on the recommendations list. Though the degree of difference is controversial, more vegans means lower greenhouse gas emissions.

  • Similarly, though independently, reducing our meat consumption also means
    we use less freshwater.


Givewell themselves

Unlike GWWC, Givewell accept direct donations. You can select for these either to go exclusively to their top charity pick(s) (aka re-granting). Alternatively, you can leave it up to them where the money goes, including operating expenses for them (aka unrestricted).

Why Givewell?

  • If you give money to them for re-granting, it’s going to be much the same as donating it to their top charities directly (DD). In favour of going via Givewell is the chance of them getting new data in the interim, which means they can redirect your money to a better cause than their current best. It might also have benefits for tax deduction, depending on which country you live in. Against it is the delay, and slight extra processing requirement – if you’re you know where they’ll give your money, there’s little reason to complicate the process.
  • Given how much value Givewell have had in redirecting philanthropic funds to ever more effective causes, giving them the option to expand their operations could pay huge dividends. This seems strictly superior to not giving them that option, assuming you trust their honesty and competence – and they’ve never given any reason for us to doubt either. Obviously it doesn’t force them to do so, so the benefit over re-granting could be miniscule. So, If you think re-granting seems substantially inferior to DD, you should probably still go with DD.

Diversification

One further possibility remains. I’ve been talking about ‘the best’ cause,
but could all of these groups be worth giving a fraction of your donation to?

I think this is the wrong approach. Steven Landsburg has already argued this,
so I’ll simply point to his essay Giving Your All.

Speculative causes / wait and see

Giving What We Can give mild recommendations of a couple of indirect aid organisations, to wit the research-oriented Sabin vaccine institute and the advocacy organisation RESULTS on the grounds that they offer ‘a potentially more significant return’ than its current recommendations.

In the end, it sounds as though the expected value of donating to either group is lower than the others I’ve discussed above, so there’s no rational reason to give to these groups at the moment.

But if you’re considering investing your money to donate later, this makes that option seem slightly stronger. If either of these organisations do turn out to be better than the current recommendations, then it might be better to give them a lump sum later. That said, there are numerous considerations behind choosing whether to donate now or later, so this should only sway you if you already thought the decision was a close one.

Final Considerations

Hopefully, the recommendations of different groups will align more over time, and then it will be obvious which cause to give to, at least until they’re so successful they don’t need your money as much.

Meanwhile, choosing between these options will likely depend on your values. Some key considerations:

  • GiveWell and Giving What We Can employ different research methodologies, so they reach different conclusions. Perhaps the main difference between the groups in that GiveWell rate transparency as a plus in itself, whereas GWWC are interested in it only in that it makes for higher uncertainty. Presumably Elie and Holden (the GiveWell founders) wouldn’t say that
    transparency is an ultimate virtue, but they’ve pointed out that their focus encourages greater honesty in the long run. You can see extensive (but unfinished) discussions between the two groups in the comments following these threads. Givewell’s Holden Karnofsky emailed me re this comparison, suggesting that it gives too much weighting to GWWC’s estimates. While it seems unlikely that the recommendation of each organisation should be taken as equally valuable, I wouldn’t want to retract the comparison without hearing a similar evaluation from GWWC researchers (which I’ll seek for the next update), but I’ll quote Holden’s response in full:

The links pointed to here are pretty old and we think there are now better places to get a feel for the orgs’ differences. One is http://www.givingwhatwecan.org/resources/our-methodology.php.
While there are some subtle differences in the values of the two groups, we don’t feel these can be said to be the primary differences. The primary difference, in our view, is that GiveWell invests substantially more person-hours in its recommendations and publishes the full details of its analysis.
As stated at the link above, Giving What We Can’s current recommendations are based largely on information and analysis provided by GiveWell (the reverse does not hold); GWWC’s future plan is to seek to add value by explicitly focusing on areas where GiveWell is not working, i.e., to supplement rather than duplicate the work GiveWell does. Also note that GWWC’s main “charity recommendations” page states that it “might follow GiveWell” in deciding between the top three charities.
All this considered, we feel it is not accurate at this point to portray the two groups as following independent methodologies whose conclusions can be taken as support of each other.

  • The GiveWell founders Elie and Holden have both said they consider animal welfare relatively unimportant, whereas Giving What We Can have focused their research on health intervention so far, so while Alan Dawrst is a solo researcher, the bigger groups’ failure to endorse Vegan Outreach might not tell us much.

  • While the effects of parasitic worms are deeply unpleasant, they’re seldom fatal. GWWC have taken this into account in their estimates, but it means that while the other interventions actually save people’s lives, SCI and ‘only’ tend to improve them. In my view that makes SCI’s intervention likely to be slightly underrated, but that’s an argument for another post…

  • The causes here are only the ones whose results have been fairly well examined – whicheans they’re biased towards groups whose goals are easily measurable. Plenty of other causes are potentially as important or more, from the familiar (political campaigning, medical research), to the more controversial (research into human extinction, developing genuine artificial intelligence). We’ll look at these more in future posts.

That’s it from me. Tell me if I’ve missed anything, and I’ll try and keep this post up to date.

It’s up to you from here…


What happened to..?

A few words on the charities that dropped off the list:

Deworm the World

Giving what we can still rates SCI and DtW as top-tier, but while Givewell have evaluated both, they’ve only recommended the former. So for the time being, there seems little reason to give to a charity that, however good in its own right, is strictly dominated in evaluations by another – very similar – one.

Stop TB

Both Givewell and GWWC have downgraded this – GWWC have simply dropped their lower-tier recommendations in favour of a clearer message, Givewell’s evaluation states that they ‘do not have a clear understanding of Stop TB’s room for more funding’. It sounds as though this was a low-hanging fruit that might have been picked.

Village Reach

As with Stop TB, Givewell have downgraded this on the grounds that they’ve actually received so many donations most of the quick gains have been gotten. Final thought – it’s exciting to see the influence of these organisations being such that these effective causes are being addressed so quickly!

Author: Zander Redwood

Zander Redwood