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How to give a meaningful holiday gift this year

Your gift can cheer up one person. Or it can cheer up many — for the same price.

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Sigal Samuel is a senior reporter for Vox’s Future Perfect and co-host of the Future Perfect podcast. She writes primarily about the future of consciousness, tracking advances in artificial intelligence and neuroscience and their staggering ethical implications. Before joining Vox, Sigal was the religion editor at the Atlantic.

The winter holidays are upon us, and in a typical year, that means a flurry of gift-buying and gift-giving. I’m sure that’ll be the case for many of us this year, too. But 2020 has been so far from typical — and so full of suffering — that it’s upended many of our preexisting habits.

When I asked Vox readers which new habits they’ve acquired during the pandemic that they want to hang on to, reducing consumerism was by far the most popular response. Many told me they want to spend less money shopping for new material goods, which bring instant gratification but not lasting happiness.

The holidays are a perfect time to put this commitment into practice. Instead of buying our loved ones heaps and heaps of objects, many of which will (let’s be real) end up gathering dust on a shelf or in a drawer, we can get them a really meaningful holiday gift — a gift that will reduce some of the suffering, for somebody, somewhere, that this hellish year has wrought.

An awesome way to do that is to donate to a charity on your friend’s or family member’s behalf, and then maybe get them a certificate specifying the good that was done in their name. (Some great charities like the Against Malaria Foundation and Rainforest Foundation US offer to send these notes.) If you’re uncomfortable skipping physical gifts, you can always get them a small physical gift paired with a donation to a charity.

But there are millions of charities out there to choose from. How do you know which to pick?

Your gut instinct might be to pick a local charity that you know your loved one has an attachment to — like their favorite community theater, or the food bank where they used to volunteer. That’s a perfectly nice thing to do.

But something to bear in mind is that that local charity is probably not the most effective way to do good. The most effective charities are typically those targeting the poorest people in developing countries, where a dollar goes much further. And even among charities that target those people, the most effective charities produce a whopping 100 times more benefit than average charities, according to expert estimates.

For that reason, an entire movement has grown around the idea of getting the most bang for your buck by donating to super-effective charities. Charity evaluators like GiveWell specialize in rigorously assessing evidence to find out which organizations save or improve the most lives per dollar. Future Perfect has also laid out evidence-based recommendations for the best charities working on specific causes, from climate change to criminal justice to animal welfare.

How to give in a way that does good and feels good

For many of us, it’s tough to feel like we have to choose between giving from the heart and giving from the head. Our heads might know that we can save the most lives by donating to a charity fighting malaria in developing countries, but our hearts might still want to give to that local community theater.

It’s precisely that dilemma that a new online donation platform seeks to address. Giving Multiplier allows you to engage both impulses — and make some extra free money for your favorite charity and for a super-effective charity while you’re at it.

On the Giving Multiplier website, you’re invited to select your favorite charity along with one of nine charities that experts have identified as incredibly high-impact and cost-effective (like the Against Malaria Foundation, GiveDirectly, or the Clean Air Task Force). You say how much money you want to donate and what percentage you want to direct to your favorite charity versus the super-effective charity. Then Giving Multiplier adds money to your donations to both charities.

The more you give to the super-effective charity, the more Giving Multiplier will top up your donations. You can easily adjust how you allocate the money by dragging a slider up and down until you land on a ratio that feels right to you. Here’s an example.

Giving Multiplier

Let’s say you’ve got $1,000 to donate. You might select Against Malaria Foundation as your hyper-effective charity; Giving Multiplier recommends it because of the strong evidence that it saves kids’ lives by distributing insecticide-treated nets, which cost less than $5 a pop. Then you might select, say, StrongMinds as your favorite charity; it treats women experiencing depression in places where there’s a serious shortage of mental health professionals. Researchers estimate that StrongMinds prevents the equivalent of one year of severe major depressive disorder for a woman at a cost of around $248.

If you decide to give $248 to StrongMinds (20 percent of your donation) and allocate the rest to Against Malaria Foundation, Giving Multiplier gives you a matching rate of 24 percent — which means you’ve earned an extra $240 for the two charities.

This site was created by two Harvard psychology researchers, Lucius Caviola and Joshua Greene, who found that we tend to feel almost as happy about our donations when we give $50 to a favorite charity as we do $100. They figured we wouldn’t lose out on much of that warm fuzzy feeling if we give a portion to the favorite charity and a portion to a super-effective charity.

They also realized that if they could get philanthropists to top up our donations, we’d feel even better about giving. It basically means we’re getting free money, and who doesn’t like that?

I appreciate Giving Multiplier’s incrementalist approach to helping people make more effective charitable giving decisions. It’s realistic about the fact that most of us tend to give from the heart, not just the head, and it accords value to the former even as it nudges us toward the latter.

I recommend checking it out this month. Knowing that your holiday gift will reduce some of the suffering the world endured this year will probably make both you and the person you’re donating in honor of feel great.

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