The effective altruism guide to donating this giving season

People in the effective altruism community aim to use evidence and careful reasoning to work out how to best promote the wellbeing of all. To find the highest-impact charities this giving season, they’ve done tens of thousands of hours of research and published over 50,000 words of analysis this month. We read it all, and summed up the main recommendations by area below (not in priority order):

But which of the 9 problem areas listed below should you personally give to? We’ve got you covered here too. This tool asks you six questions and adjusts the ranking based on your beliefs:2

Quiz: Which problem should you give to? →

Below, you can find (i) how we came up with the list, (ii) more advice on how to narrow down the list, (iii) more information on each charity.

What resources did we draw on?

We read all the relevant documents produced by the effective altruism community this giving season:

We chose the organisations that seemed to be supported by the largest number of authorities in each category.

I also used to be head of research at Giving What We Can and have worked at the Centre for Effective Altruism for four years. In the case of animal charities I used my own judgement to keep the number of options manageable.

What strategy should you follow when deciding where to give?

Here’s a series of steps we suggest going through to make the best decision:

  1. Do you trust someone else? If you know someone who shares your values and has already put a lot of thought into where to give, then consider simply going with their recommendations. If not, it’s time to do your own research.

  2. If you have under $10,000 to give, consider entering a donor lottery. You can give up $5,000 in exchange for 5% chance of donating $100,000. In the case where you win, you can do a tonne of research into where is best to give. Otherwise, someone else does that extensive research and decides. More information here. When it comes to doing that research, here’s what we recommend:

  3. First, decide how much research to do. The more you’re giving as a percentage of your annual income, the more time to spend doing research – a 1% donation is worth a few hours work, while a 50% donation could be worth a month of research. In addition, the more you expect your mind to change, the more research to do – if you’re giving 10% and don’t imagine a few days of research would change your mind about which option is best , probably just give there. Now here’s how to go about the research:

  4. Decide which problem areas are most pressing. You want to find charities that are working on big, but neglected problems, where there’s a clear route to progress, because this is where it’s easiest to have a big impact.
    If you’re new to 80,000 Hours, see our guide to comparing global problems and our current views.
    If already you’re familiar with the basics of problem selection, check the section further down with tips about which to choose.

  5. Find the best organisations within your top 2-3 problem areas. Look for those that are well-run, have a great team, and are working on a great program. Many charitable programs don’t work, so focus on organisations that either (i) implement programs that have been rigorously tested (most haven’t) or (ii) are running pilot programs that will be tested in the future, or (iii) that have a “high-risk, high-reward” proposition, such as scientific research, policy advocacy, or the potential to grow very rapidly – if the upside is high enough, it can be worth supporting even if the probability of success is low. We list organisations within each problem area we’ve reviewed below.

  6. If you have to break a tie, choose the one that’s furthest from meeting its funding needs. Some organisations already have a lot of funding relative to what they can do with it. For instance, GiveWell has tried to find a good vaccine organisation to fund, but organisations like the Gates Foundation take all the good opportunities. You can assess room for funding by looking at where the organisation intends to spend additional donations, either by reading their plans or talking to them. Or you could see that one is further from meetings its baseline funding to continue operating. This consideration is a bit less important than others – if you support a great organisation working on a neglected problem, then they’ll probably figure out a good way to use the money even if they get a lot.

Where would I give?

Working through this process myself, I am most drawn to two causes:

  • Reducing the risk of global catastrophes, especially from new technologies that could threaten us all.
  • Promoting effective altruism, in part because doing so will indirectly reduce the risk of global catastrophes.

You can hear a presentation from me from Effective Altruism Global that helps to explain my perspective on this. In brief, I believe that the welfare of future generations matters almost as much as people alive now; that the future of humanity could be very long and very good; and that we can materially reduce the probability of human civilization’s future potential being curtailed.

In light of that my shortlist is:

I would then choose between these largely on the basis of which one was furthest from meeting its funding needs. I believe that the Future of Humanity Institute is relatively better funded than the rest, so would probably prioritise the other three.

However, I don’t think I would go too wrong choosing from any of these options, and as I only have a few thousand dollars to give, would simply make a decision at that point.

Alternatively, I could join the donor lottery described above. Then if I won the right to disperse $100,000 I could do a more serious investigation of each of their plans and make an even more informed decision.

What has changed since last year?

The biggest single shift in our advice from last year is that we are no longer recommending that donors give to GiveWell’s poverty-focussed charities by default. Why is that? Two reasons:

  • In the past GiveWell has stood out as the most developed evaluator of charities focussed on medium sized donors. That’s remains true, but other sources of advice like the Open Philanthropy Project and Animal Charity Evaluators are closing the gap.
  • Our goal is to recommend places to give that maximise the ‘expected value’ of donations.1 This is similar to GiveWell’s goal, but not exactly the same. For one, in recent years GiveWell has narrowed its focus to charities that help the worst off people in the developing world – it does not consider alternative problem areas that might offer a higher ‘expected value’. We think there are probably problem areas that are more pressing than international development. And secondly, GiveWell recommends charities based on four criteria: Evidence, Cost-effectiveness, Transparency and Room for more funding. These criteria assess expected value, but penalise riskier or more innovative options that can’t yet point to a track record of success. We think it’s likely that some options like this are higher impact, even just within global health, such vaccine research or development policy advocacy.

We now suggest first picking a problem you want to donate to, and then going with the suggestions in that problem.

More information on each option

Biosecurity

Learn more about this problem area.

The Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense

Jaime Yassif is the program officer for biosecurity at the Open Philanthropy Project and suggests giving to The Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense. This is a bipartisan group of former high-level policymakers and government officials with experience and interest in public health preparedness, biosecurity, and biodefense.

Donate to Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense (see bottom of post) →

Climate change

Learn more about this problem area.

Cool Earth

Cool Earth aims to reduce the impacts of climate change by combating deforestation in a variety of rainforest locations. Cool Earth does not buy rainforest directly, but rather establishes sustainable agreements with local communities to ensure that local communities opt not to sell the nearby forest to loggers.

Donate to Cool Earth →

Note that this recommendation has been investigated less than many others in the list, and was chosen in part for robustness of evidence. Advocacy organisations might be more effective again but their impact would be difficult to quantify.

Criminal justice

Learn more about this problem area.

Alliance for Safety and Justice

The Alliance for Safety and Justice is a US organization that aims to reduce incarceration and racial disparities in incarceration in states across the country, and replace mass incarceration with new safety priorities that prioritize prevention and protect low-income communities of color.

It’s suggested by Chloe Cockburn, the program officer for criminal justice reform for the Open Philanthropy Project.

Donate to Alliance for Safety and Justice →

Cosecha

Cosecha is a group organizing undocumented immigrants in 50-60 cities around the country. Its goal is to build mass popular support for undocumented immigrants, in resistance to incarceration/detention, deportation, denigration of rights, and discrimination. The group has become especially active since the Presidential election, given the immediate threat of mass incarceration and deportation of millions of people.

It is also suggested by Chloe Cockburn, the program officer for criminal justice reform for the Open Philanthropy Project.

Donate to Cosecha →

Effective altruism promotion and research

Learn more about this problem area.

With both of these recommendations there is a potential bias in us recommending donating to the problem area that we ourselves work in, and the broader organisation we work for (we are part of CEA).

However, we are working on this problem because we believe it’s highly effective – so it would also be problematic for us not to mention something we really do believe is worth funding. So here’s a sincere recommendation, but take it with a pinch of salt!

If you’d like to support similar work from an organisation that is independent of us, you could give to support GiveWell’s research instead. The reason GiveWell is not prioritised here is that it does not have much difficulty meeting its funding needs.

Another option is the Effective Altruism Giving Group Donor Advised Fund, which can provide more independent advice on where to give in this area. You can express interest in joining that donor advised fund here.

Centre for Effective Altruism (CEA)

The Centre for Effective Altruism aims to create a global community of people who have made helping others a core part of their lives, and who use evidence and scientific reasoning to figure out how to do so as effectively as possible.

Donate to CEA →

80,000 Hours

80,000 Hours, as you may know, conducts research into how people can help a lot of people in a big way through their careers, and then uses an online guide and workshops to encourage people to take those paths.

Donate to 80,000 Hours →

Factory farming

Learn more about this problem area.

Lewis Bollard researches ways to improve animal welfare at the Open Philanthropy Project. He suggests two options.

Animal Charity Evaluators (ACE)

Animal Charity Evaluators conducts research in order to find and advocate for highly effective opportunities to improve the lives of animals. It then encourages donations to the charities it recommends.

Donate to ACE →

Compassion in World Farming

Compassion in World Farming USA promotes changes in conditions for farming animals including layer hens and broiler chickens through regulatory and corporate outreach.

Donate to Compassion in World Farming →

Alternatively, Animal Charity Evaluators recently released their three recommended charities for 2016 – Mercy for Animals, the Good Food Institute and The Humane League.

Mental health

Learn more about the case for this problem area from Giving What We Can and Michael Plant.

Strong Minds

Strong Minds treats women in Uganda with depression through talk therapy groups led by community workers.

Three GiveWell researchers donated to it because “Strong Minds’ program has randomized evidence of effectiveness, is in [our] assessment potentially highly cost-effective, and is supported by monitoring published online.”

Donate to Strong Minds →

Nuclear security

Learn more about this problem area.

Ploughshares Fund

Nick Beckstead researches a range of topics at the Open Philanthropy Project including reducing the risk of global catastrophes and tentatively recommends the Ploughshares Fund.

The Ploughshares Fund is a public grantmaking foundation that supports initiatives to prevent the spread and use of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and other weapons of war, and to prevent conflicts that could lead to the use of weapons of mass destruction.

Donate to Ploughshares Fund →

Poverty and global health

Learn more about this problem area.

GiveWell and Good Ventures have given funding to seven groups, and left funding gaps in two charities it is recommending to other donors. These are the most thoroughly vetted charities on this list.

Against Malaria Foundation (AMF)

AMF distributes insecticide treated bednets that prevent children from dying of malaria and promotes poverty reductions through better health.

Donate to AMF →

Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI)

SCI treats school children for intestinal parasites that lower school attendance and seem to lower income from work in later life.

Donate to SCI →

How to decide between these two?

Or, to keep things simple you can follow GiveWell’s suggested 75:25 split between AMF and SCI.

Risks from artificial intelligence

Learn more about this problem area.

Machine Intelligence Research Institute (MIRI)

Machine Intelligence Research Institute conducts technical research in mathematics, computer science and philosophy, intended to reduce potential risks from advanced artificial intelligence.

A number of researchers in effective altruism support giving to MIRI:

Donate to MIRI →

Future of Humanity Institute (FHI)

The Future of Humanity Institute is an interdisciplinary research centre at the University of Oxford investigating big-picture questions about humanity and its prospects. In particular, it focuses on preventing risks of disaster.

A number of other researchers support giving to the Future of Humanity Institute:

Donate to FHI →

Still haven’t decided where to give?

Remember to use our quiz first:

Quiz: Which problem should you give to? →

If you’re giving more than $10,000 and still can’t decide, fill out this form and we might get in touch!

Notes and references

  1. Expected value quantifies the value of something by multiplying how good it would be by how likely it is to occur. So if you have two projects, and one is twice as likely to succeed but would accomplish half as good if it does, then both have the same ‘expected value’. Learn more about expected value.
  2. Here’s an idea of what attitudes we’re asking about to predict support for a particular cause:Poverty:
    • If you require strong evidence of some direct impact due to skepticism about charities being helpful in general, or wanting to lower the chance that your donations don’t do any good.
    • If you believe that the welfare of humans is much more important than those of e.g. pigs or chickens.
    • If you’re focussed on helping people in the present, rather than making life better for generations hundreds of years from now.
    Animal welfare:
    • If you think that 100 pigs (or fewer) suffering a given amount is ethically as bad as 1 human suffering the same amount.
    • If you’re more focussed on preventing suffering than enabling additional positive lives.
    Global catastrophic risks (e.g. pandemics, nuclear war):
    • If you care significantly about improving the welfare, or preserving the possibility of existence, for generations 100 or 1,000 years from now.
    • If you’re willing to take a risky bet, knowing there’s a good chance your donation itself won’t be decisive.
    • If you believe there is a decent chance of a serious disaster striking human civilization in the next 100 years (1-10%).
    Risks from artificial intelligence:
    • All of the stances above for catastrophic risks....
    • ...and also believing that poorly designed artificial intelligence is a particularly large risk, or a particularly neglected one.
    Research and promoting effective altruism:
    • If you think that multiple cause areas above are similarly pressing.
    • Or if you don’t know which of the problems above (or others we haven’t considered) is most pressing.
    • If you’re willing to accept a risk of your donation not having any impact, in exchange for a chance of a big payoff.
    • If you believe that further research or outreach can move large numbers of people to work effectively on the problems above.

Robert Wiblin

Rob studied both genetics and economics at the Australian National University (ANU), graduating top of his class and being named Young Alumnus of the Year in 2015.

He worked as a research economist in various Australian Government agencies, and then moved to the UK to work at the Centre for Effective Altruism, first as Research Director, then Executive Director, then Research Director for 80,000 Hours.

He was founding board Secretary for Animal Charity Evaluators and is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers Community.