Giving to charity is great, not just for the recipients but for the givers, too.
But it can be intimidating to know how to pick the best charity when there are thousands of worthy causes to choose from, and especially when the world is recovering from a massive pandemic and economic shocks that are still causing suffering around the globe.
Yet that suffering makes it all the more clear why giving, and why doing our best to give effectively, is so important. There’s a lot of need out there, and it matters not just whether we give, but how. Effective giving can translate into more lives saved and more lives improved. Even among charities that target the poorest people in developing countries — where charities can typically be most impactful because a dollar goes much further — the most effective charities produce a whopping 100 times more benefit than average charities, according to expert estimates.
So this holiday season, we thought it might be helpful to update our annual guide to giving. Think of this as not only a rundown of charity recommendations but also a broader guide to thinking about how to give. Here are a few simple tips for end-of-year giving that can help.
1) Check in with charity recommenders
It's of course possible to research charity options yourself, but you can save some time by outsourcing that labor to a careful, methodologically rigorous charity recommender like GiveWell. Charity Navigator has started following in GiveWell’s footsteps by evaluating charities based on their ability to do the most good at the lowest cost; GiveWell has a longer track record, but Charity Navigator’s impact scores are worth consulting, too.
GiveWell, which functions somewhat like a grantmaker, currently lists four top charities. Its recommendation, if you find it hard to choose among the four, is to donate to the Top Charities Fund, which goes directly to those top charities based on GiveWell’s assessment of where the money is most helpful given the different groups’ funding needs.
The top charities are:
- Malaria Consortium, which helps distribute preventive antimalarial medication to children (a program known as “seasonal malaria chemoprevention”)
- Against Malaria Foundation, which buys and distributes insecticidal bed nets, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa but also in Papua New Guinea
- Helen Keller Intl, which provides technical assistance to, advocates for, and funds vitamin A supplementation programs in sub-Saharan Africa, which reduce child mortality
- New Incentives, which increases uptake of routine immunizations by offering small cash incentives to families in Nigeria when they get their children vaccinated
GiveWell chose those charities based on how much good each additional donation would do, not necessarily how good the groups are overall; in other words, these are organizations that can put new funding to use, rather than sitting on it. Other charities do great work, too, but if they’re already decently funded, they might not do the most good with your extra dollar.
GiveWell also supports novel interventions, but through its All Grants Fund, not its Top Charities Fund. That can mean giving an organization a grant to run a study in order to find out whether a hypothetical future program is feasible. Or, more concretely, it can look like some grants GiveWell made in 2021: It directed $30 million to the Alliance for International Medical Action and International Rescue Committee to work on malnutrition, and $25 million to IRD Global to provide cash transfers in Pakistan to incentivize immunizations.
Last year, GiveWell found itself in the position of having more funding available than extremely cost-effective opportunities to spend it on. So it made the (somewhat controversial) announcement that it would roll $110 million in funds into 2022, instead of distributing those funds to charities right away, in hopes of finding more high-impact opportunities later.
The gambit paid off: Whereas a year ago GiveWell had found $450 million worth of cost-effective opportunities, this year it’s more like $900 million — meaning the size of the pool has roughly doubled. Now, instead of having too much money and too few great causes to spend it on, GiveWell has too many great causes and too little funding to support them all. Specifically, it finds itself around $300 million short.
“There’s this gap, and so we want to raise more, because there’s impact just being left on the table,” Elie Hassenfeld, GiveWell’s CEO, told Vox.
It’s worth noting that GiveWell takes disconfirming research seriously. In 2017, it recommended Evidence Action’s No Lean Season, which offered no-interest loans to farmers in Bangladesh during the “lean season” between planting rice and harvesting it; the loans are conditional on a family member temporarily moving to a city or other area for short-term work. But a subsequent randomized evaluation found that the program didn’t actually spur people to migrate or increase their incomes, and GiveWell and Evidence Action then agreed that it should no longer be a top charity. Evidence Action stopped soliciting funds for it and later shut it down — an unusually scrupulous move for a charity.
(Disclosure: Dylan has been donating to GiveWell since 2010. Because he writes about philanthropy frequently, outsourcing his giving to GiveWell prevents him from donating directly to specific top charities that he may cover in the future, not unlike investing in index funds to avoid conflicts of interest when writing about particular companies. GiveWell is also an advertiser on Vox podcasts.)
2) Pick charities with research-based strategies
GiveWell's recommendations rely heavily on both evaluations done by charitable organizations and existing research literature on the kind of intervention the charities are trying to conduct.
For example, research from the Poverty Action Lab at MIT suggests that giving away insecticidal bed nets — as the Against Malaria Foundation does — is vastly more effective than charging even small amounts for them.
Meanwhile, hundreds of studies have found largely positive effects for the kind of cash transfers that GiveDirectly, one of GiveWell’s grantees, distributes (even if cash has its limits).
3) If you want to maximize your donation’s impact, give to poorer countries
It's really hard to adequately express how much richer developed nations like the US are than developing ones like Kenya, Uganda, and other countries targeted by GiveWell's most effective charities.
The US still has extreme poverty, in the living-on-$2-a-day sense, but it's comparatively pretty rare and hard to target effectively. The poorest Americans also have access to health care and education systems that, while obviously inferior compared to those enjoyed by rich Americans, are still superior to those of developing countries.
Giving to charities domestically is a commendable thing to do, and many people feel it’s right to give first to the communities they live in. But if you want to get the most bang for your buck in terms of saving lives, reducing illness, or improving overall well-being, you're going to want to give to the places with the greatest need and where your additional dollar will do the most good. That means outside the US.
Years ago, GiveWell actually looked into a number of US charities, like the Nurse-Family Partnership program for infants, the KIPP chain of charter schools, and the HOPE job-training program. It found that all were highly effective, but were also far more cost-intensive than the best foreign charities. KIPP and the Nurse-Family Partnership cost more than $10,000 per child served, while a vaccination program like New Incentives in Nigeria costs around $17 per child served.
The Covid-19 pandemic has also taxed health systems in low-income countries, putting pressure on programs designed to fend off other diseases like malaria. Donations to anti-malaria, (non-Covid) vaccination, and vitamin A supplementation programs like the ones recommended by GiveWell can help cushion that blow.
4) If you do give locally, you can still consider impact
Although this guide is mostly meant to offer suggestions if you don’t have existing philanthropic interests and are curious for the most efficient ways to help, many people already do have specific causes: They want to give to their own communities, or to causes they’re passionate about for personal reasons (like curing a disease that killed a loved one, for instance). And they often want to use charity as a way to connect with broader trends in the news — by, say, donating to help refugees coming from Ukraine, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
It is, of course, admirable to give to your own community and personal causes, and a lot has happened in recent years to make it easier to find effective ways to give domestically. The group Charity Navigator acquired a nonprofit called ImpactMatters in 2020 and began incorporating its estimates of the bang-for-the-buck provided by charities in several different sectors.
So you can specify that your goal is, say, to provide a night of shelter for a person experiencing homelessness, and Charity Navigator will provide you with a menu of nonprofits and their cost per night of housing. Fellowship Deliverance Ministries in Georgia, for instance, is estimated to provide a night of shelter for $2 per person. You can also narrow it down by where you want to give: Here’s a list of Washington, DC-based charities with impact evaluations, for instance.
5) Saving lives isn't everything
If you care mainly about reducing early mortality and giving people more years to live, then you should give all your donations to the Malaria Consortium, Helen Keller Intl, or the Against Malaria Foundation. Malaria is a frequently fatal disease, and cost-effective interventions to reduce malaria infection are a great way to save lives. Similarly, vitamin A supplementation, like Helen Keller does, is an effective way of reducing child mortality, as is vaccination (as promoted by New Incentives).
But extending life isn’t the only thing that matters; improving quality of life matters, too.
It’s extremely hard to weigh these interests against each other: Is it better to make a donation that can save one child’s life, or, with the same amount of money, to lift multiple families out of extreme poverty? There’s no one right answer to that question. How you answer it depends on your philosophical assumptions.
“Philosophical factors can radically alter the cost-effectiveness of life-extending interventions,” writes the Happier Lives Institute, a research center that aims to find evidence-based ways to improve wellbeing worldwide, in a new report. To show this, the researchers crunched the numbers to compare the cost-effectiveness of three different charities in terms of how much they boost subjective wellbeing. Two were life-improving charities: GiveDirectly, which gives cash to poor people in countries like Kenya and Uganda to spend as they see fit, and StrongMinds, which treats depression in African women using group psychotherapy. The third charity, the Against Malaria Foundation, is mainly life-saving.
Their findings? “On the assumptions most favorable to extending lives, AMF is about 30 percent more cost-effective than StrongMinds. On the assumptions least favorable to extending lives, StrongMinds is around 12 times more cost-effective than AMF.”
So when you’re making your donations, it’s worth thinking not only about quantity of life, but also about quality of life. GiveWell asked recipients themselves how they weight each of these, and you can read about the results here.
6) Maybe just give money directly to poor people
For years, one of our primary charities has been GiveDirectly, which gives unconditional cash transfers. (Sigal donated to them in 2022.) We’ve given to them partly because there's a large body of research on the benefits of cash transfers, which we find quite compelling.
But we’ve donated to GiveDirectly mostly because we didn’t trust ourselves to know what the world's poorest people need most. We've been profoundly lucky to never experience the kind of extreme poverty that billions of people worldwide have to endure. We have no idea what we would spend a cash transfer from GiveDirectly on if we were living on less than $2 a day in Uganda. Would we buy a bednet? Maybe! Or maybe we'd buy an iron roof. Or school tuition for loved ones. Or cattle.
But you know who does have a good sense of the needs of poor people in Uganda? Poor people in Uganda. They have a very good idea of what they need. Do they sometimes misjudge their spending priorities? Certainly; as do all of us. And bednets appear to be underpurchased relative to the actual need for them. But generally, you should only give something other than cash if you are confident you know the recipients’ needs better than they do. We weren’t confident of that, so we gave cash.
As the World Bank's Jishnu Das once put it, “‘Does giving cash work well?’ is a well-defined question only if you are willing to say that ‘well’ is something that WE, the donors, want to define for families whom we have never met and whose living circumstances we have probably never spent a day, let alone a lifetime, in.” If you're not willing to say that, then you should strongly consider giving cash.
7) Don’t give to big charities ...
You’ll notice that all of the charities GiveWell recommends are reasonably small, and some big names are absent. That’s not an accident. In general, charity effectiveness evaluators are skeptical of large relief organizations, for a number of reasons.
Large organizations tend to be less transparent about where their money goes and also likelier to direct money to disaster relief efforts, which are usually less cost-effective, in general, than public health programs. “Overall, our impression is that your donation to these organizations is very hard to trace, but will likely supplement an agenda of extremely diverse programming, driven largely by governments and other very large funders,” wrote GiveWell co-founder Holden Karnofsky in a 2011 blog post.
Our colleague Kelsey Piper has explained that by the time a disaster has struck, it’s mostly too late to improve disaster relief work — the immediate response, which includes search-and-rescue and emergency medicine. Investments in improving those capabilities are most effective either before a crisis or well after, during the recovery phase.
8) ... But maybe consider meta-charities
A different option is giving to groups like GiveWell, Innovations for Poverty Action, The Life You Can Save, and Giving What We Can that evaluate development approaches and charities, and encourage effective giving. Suppose that every dollar given to Giving What We Can — which encourages people to pledge to donate at least 10 percent of their income until retirement — results in $1.20 in donations to the Against Malaria Foundation. If that’s the case, then you should give to Giving What We Can until the marginal effect on donations to Against Malaria hits $1 or lower.
“If they can turn a dollar of donations into substantially more than a dollar of increased donations to effective charities, isn’t that the best use of my money?” asks Jeff Kaufman, a software developer who, with his wife Julia Wise, gives about half his income to effective charities and meta-charities.
9) Consider giving to animals
Alternatively, you could consider giving to non-humans. Animal charities, especially those engaged in corporate pressure campaigns to better the treatment of farm animals, chickens in particular, can be effective in improving animal welfare. The charity evaluations in this area are much younger and less methodologically rigorous than GiveWell’s, but Animal Charity Evaluators has named four animal groups that may be effective causes for donations:
- Faunalytics is a research organization that provides reports on animal-related issues like corporate commitments to animal welfare improvements, public opinion regarding farmed animals, issues around animal testing in science, and animals kept as pets, etc.
- The Humane League specializes in corporate campaigns to improve farm standards. It has achieved big victories in eliminating the culling of baby chicks and getting food service companies like Kroger and Sodexo to only use cage-free eggs, and is now pushing for better standards for chickens raised for their meat.
- The Good Food Institute works to reduce the impact of animal agriculture by supporting the development of plant-based and cell-cultured alternatives to animal products.
- Wild Animal Initiative studies the lived experience of animals in the wild and researches ways to ease their suffering, which may be intense and widespread.
10) Give what you can (though if you can spare it, pledging to give 10 percent of your income would be fantastic)
One of the hardest problems in philanthropy is deciding how much to donate.
There are some people who argue the correct answer, unless you’re near the end of your life, is nothing. You should, in this view, not give to charity during your career, and instead save and invest your money, increasing it as much as possible over time. That way you can give more when you die than you would have if giving continuously over the course of your life.
Another approach is to “earn to give”: take a high-paying job, typically in finance or tech, and give away a huge share of your earnings, like 40 to 50 percent. But frankly it’s not the best option for most people, especially if the “earn to give” job is in a morally dubious field. And there are a lot of amazing jobs — in scientific research, in the private sector, in direct charity or nonprofit or government employment — where the typical person can do more good through their work than they could by solely using their career as a mechanism through which to generate donation money.
So we suggest a more moderate course: You can sign the Giving What We Can pledge, which commits members to donating 10 percent of their annual income to highly effective charities, or take a Trial Pledge, which commits members to donating a percentage of their choice — at least 1 percent — to such charities.
Ten percent is a totally reasonable number, comparable to alms in many religions, that requires relatively minimal sacrifice. (Here’s an interview with Toby Ord, who started that pledge.) But even if 10 percent is too much for you, don’t despair. Giving 5 percent or 1 percent is better than giving 0 percent.
Perhaps the most important thing is to just get into the groove of donating, to make it a habit. We use direct deposit on our paychecks to make the most of our charitable contributions, just so it’s extremely automatic and hard for us to avoid doing. Going from not giving to giving a little, regularly, is a huge positive step.
Update, November 29, 2022: This story, originally published in 2020 and updated in 2021, has been updated throughout for 2022.