First published Nov 2016. Last updated Dec 2019.
If you want to make a difference, and are not already wedded to a particular issue, what’s the best charity to donate to? This is a brief summary of the most useful information we’ve been able to find.
First, we’ll sketch a process to use to compare options, then we’ll give our recommendations.
Our top recommendation, if you don’t have much time for research, is to ‘top up’ recent grants made by the Open Philanthropy Project within the problem areas you focus on, a strategy we describe below.
(Note that the Open Philanthropy Project shares 80,000 Hours’ vision and values to the degree that they’ve made substantial grants to 80,000 Hours. We have other suggestions for where to donate and how to decide below.)
Table of Contents
- 1 How to choose an effective charity
- 2 Which charities do we think are most effective to donate to if you don’t have much time for your own research?
- 3 Should you give now or later?
- 4 How do I handle taxes and giving?
- 5 Possible next steps
How to choose an effective charity
First, plan your research
- 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. You can skip ahead to see some recommendations from experts in charity evaluation. It can be worth doing your own research if you think you might find something higher-impact according to your values than your best advisor would find, or if you think you might contribute to the broader debate about which charities should be funded (producing research is a public good for other donors), or if you want to improve your knowledge of effective altruism and charity evaluation. If you want to do your own research, go to the next step.
Consider entering a donor lottery. It’s now possible to put, for example, $20,000 into a fund with other small donors, in exchange for a 20% chance of being able to choose where $100,000 from that fund gets donated. Why might you want to do this? In the case where you win, it’s worthwhile doing a great deal of research into where’s best to give, to allocate that $100,000 as well as possible. Otherwise, you don’t have to do any research, and whoever else wins the lottery does it instead.
In short, it’s probably more efficient for small donors to pool their funds, and for one of them to do in-depth research, rather than for each of them to do a small amount. The Centre for Effective Altruism now organises donor lotteries once a year — two of them are open as of Dec ‘19, and will close on 17 Jan ‘20.
If you’re going to do your own research, decide how much research to do. The more you’re giving as a percentage of your annual income, the more time it’s worth spending on research. Roughly speaking, a 1% donation might be worth a few hours’ work, while a 50% donation could be worth a month of research. Though, the more you earn per hour, the less time you should take off for independent research, as that may be dominated by simply earning and giving more. Another factor is that the more you expect your mind to change, the more research it’s worth doing (though bearing in mind we may be overconfident in our current views). Finally, younger people should do more research since it will help them learn about charity evaluation, which will inform their giving in future years (and perhaps their career decisions as well). As a young person, giving 1% per year and spending a weekend thinking about it is a great way to learn. If you’re a bit older, giving 10%, and don’t expect your views to change, then perhaps 1-2 days of research is worth it. If you’re giving more than 10%, more time is probably justified.
Second, to actually choose an organisation, what steps should you take?
Decide which global problems 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, learn about how we approach figuring out which global problems are most pressing, or see a list of problems we think need most attention. If you’re already familiar with the basics of problem selection, check the section further down with tips about which to choose.
Find the best organisations within your top 2-3 problem areas. Look for charities which are well-run, have a great team and potential to grow, and are working on a justified program. Many charitable programmes 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) would be sufficiently valuable if they worked that it’s worth taking a chance on them even if they might not work. Organisations in the latter category are those that have a “high-risk, high-reward” proposition, such as scientific research, policy advocacy, or the potential to grow very rapidly.
If you’re doing your own intensive research, then at this stage you typically need to talk to people in the area to figure out which organisations are doing good work. One starting point is that within each of our problem profiles, we include our own list of recommended organisations.
If you have to break a tie, choose the one that’s furthest from meeting its funding needs. Some organizations already have a lot of funding compared to what they can do with it. For instance, GiveWell has tried to find a good organization that provides individuals with vaccines to fund, but funders like the Gates Foundation take most of the promising opportunities. You can assess room for funding by looking at where the organization intends to spend additional donations, either by reading their plans or talking to them. Or you could see that one is further from meeting its baseline funding needed to continue operating.
This consideration is a bit less important than others: if you support a great organization working on a neglected problem, then they’ll probably figure out a good way to use the money even if they get a lot.
To get more advice on general decision-making, you can apply the process in our article on making career decisions to choosing where to donate as well: generate options, rank them, list key uncertainties, research your uncertainties, and so on. To rank your options, you’d use the factors above rather than our career framework i.e. how effective is the problem area, is the charity well-run, does it have a good team, potential to grow and a justified programme, and does it have a need for funding?
See more tips on how to evaluate charities from GiveWell. Bear in mind that the process for evaluating a large organization is different from evaluating a startup. With large, stable organisations, you can extrapolate forward from their recent performance. With new and rapidly growing organisations, what matters is the long-term potential upside, more than what they’ve accomplished in the past.
If you’d like inspiration, see this article for some possible ways individuals making modest donations might be able to give even more cost-effectively than major foundations.
Which charities do we think are most effective to donate to if you don’t have much time for your own research?
Match giving from other smart donors
We think the leading foundation that takes an ‘effective altruism’ approach to giving is the Open Philanthropy Project.1 (Disclosure: they are our single largest funder.) You can learn more about their mindset and research in our various interviews with current and former research staff.
They have far more research capacity than any individual donor, but you can roughly match the cost-effectiveness of their grants without needing to invest much effort at all. One way to do this is by co-funding the same projects, or giving based on what their analysts have learned.
The Open Philanthropy Project often doesn’t want to provide 100% of an organisation’s funding, so that it doesn’t become too dependent on them alone. This creates a need for smaller donors to match or ‘top up’ their funding.
In light of the above, each year many grant-makers at the Open Philanthropy Project offer giving suggestions for individual donors that you can follow. Here are their Dec ’19 suggestions. You can also read their suggestions from Dec ‘18, Dec ‘17, or even Dec ’16 for more ideas.
On top of those posts, the Open Philanthropy Project maintains a database of all their grants, which you can filter by year and focus area.
For instance, if you’re interested in giving to support pandemic preparedness, you can get a list of all their grants in that area, read through some recent ones, and donate to an organisation you find attractive and which still has room to absorb some more funding.
Here’s a list of Open Phil’s focus areas, including links to their grants in each one:
Our top priority areas
- Biosecurity and pandemic preparedness: explanation of the area and list of all grants.
- Potential risks from advanced artificial intelligence: explanation of the area and list of all grants.
- Effective altruism and others: explanation and list of all grants.
- Global catastrophic risks more generally: explanation of the area and list of all grants.
Other focus areas we’ve investigated
- Farm animal welfare: explanation of the area and list of all grants.
- Scientific research: explanation of the area and list of all grants.
- Global health and development: explanation of the area and list of all grants.
Focus areas we know less about
- Criminal justice reform: explanation of the area and list of all grants.
- Macroeconomic Stabilization Policy: explanation of the area and list of all grants.
- Immigration policy: explanation of the area and list of all grants.
- Land use reform: explanation of the area and list of all grants.
The EA Funds
The best charity to give to is both hard to determine and constantly changing. So, we think another reasonable option for people who don’t have much time for their own research is to give to the Effective Altruism Funds.
You choose how to split your giving across different focus areas and then a committee chosen to be knowledgeable about each one makes grants, with the aim of selecting the charities which will make your donations go furthest. This is a great way to delegate your decision, provided you feel reasonably aligned with the committee.
(Note that these funds are operated by our fiscal sponsor, the Centre for Effective Altruism, and due to our similar views on how to do the most good, we have received grants from both the Meta and Long-Term Future Funds. Peter McIntyre, our Head of Recruiting, is one of six members of the Meta Fund committee, but recuses himself from decisions about 80,000 Hours.)
As of Dec ‘19 there are four different funds to choose from — one each for Global Health and Development, Animal Welfare, the Long-Term Future and ‘Meta’ work. The linked pages describe the experts who make grants from the funds and where they’ve chosen to give in the past.
One thing to note is that the Long-Term Future Fund aims to make high-risk and speculative grants, often to individuals or early-stage projects. As a result the effectiveness and relevance of some of its grants has been questioned, including by some on the 80,000 Hours team. We recommend reading their (extensive) explanations of past grants before giving to the Long-Term Future Fund, and checking whether they are the kind of thing you’re intending to support. If not, we suggest instead donating to another Fund or topping up grants from the Open Philanthropy Project, as described above.
Grantmakers from the last three also did ‘Ask Me Anythings’ in Dec ‘18 to address questions from prospective donors.
If you prefer to have more control over where your money is going, you could also ‘top up’ a particular past grant made by an EA Fund which you approve of.
Read the research conducted by other informed donors
Here are some other resources you could potentially draw on:
- Technical AI safety research: A contributor at the Effective Altruism Forum publishes a review of organisations once a year — here’s their Dec ‘19 update.
- Global health and development: GiveWell identifies and recommends charities that are evidenced-backed, thoroughly vetted, and underfunded. Many of the staff at GiveWell also write about where they are giving personally, and make suggestions for the public. Here’s their post from 2019. You can also read their ideas from 2018 and 2017.
- Farm animal welfare: Animal Charity Evaluators (ACE) uses seven criteria to recommend the charities they believe most effectively help animals. Their staff also write about where they’re giving — the latest such post is from Dec ‘19. (Note this 2018 critique of ACE’s research, and their response.)
- ‘S-risks’: The German Effective Altruism Foundation has launched its own expert-advised fund focused on the possibility that future technologies could lead to large amounts of suffering.
- For your convenience we also compiled a list of all the annual reports or appeals for funding from organisations that we found on the Effective Altruism Forum in Dec ‘18.
Want to suggest another resource to join this list? Email [email protected]
Finally, here are a few articles about other decisions you might face while trying to maximise the effectiveness of your donations.