How Greedy Bastards Have Saved More Lives Than Mother Theresa Ever Did

by waitingforgodel2 min read3rd Dec 201024 comments


Personal Blog

And how you can use the same techniques to save a stranger's life for under $600

It's a strange world we live in.

When I first heard of Optimal Philanthropy, it was in a news article about Bill Gates's plan for retirement. He'd decided to donate tens of billions of dollars to charity, but had decided that no existing charity was worth donating to.

Gates felt they weren't run properly.

You see, at the time most people thought that "efficient charities" were those that had little or no overhead. Everyone wanted as much money to go to the front lines as possible, with little or none for administration.

Gates didn't care about any of that.

No, what Gates wanted was measurable results... and if more administration would get better results, he was all for it.

In business, it all comes down to return on investment. How much money did you use (to rent buildings, buy supplies, hire employees), and how much money did you earn in return.

Gates felt that something similar was needed for charity.

If the charity saved lives, Gates reasoned, then it should be judged by how much money it used to save that life. If a charity could save twice as many lives on the same budget by using more administrators, they by all means they should do that.

As you may have heard, Bill Gates was appalled that he couldn't find a charity he could measure.

Here he was, trying to selflessly give away over ten billion dollars to any charity that could prove it would have the highest impact.... and finding a bunch of nonsense answers about how that's not the way charity works... or how little overhead there was.

And as you may have also heard, Mr. Gates turned that frustration into a revolution in the world of charity -- and inspired others to follow him. His foundation -- the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation -- is now the biggest in the world, and makes a difference everyday in the areas of world education, malaria, and sustainable energy.


But Enough About All That! This Isn't About Bill Gates, This Is About You

Although the billionaires of the world have gotten their heads screwed on right about charity (and saving hundreds of millions more lives as a result), us non-billionaires didn't seem to get the memo.

And that means, if you are the sort of person who donates, you're not doing nearly the amount of good you could.

Here are 3 simple steps you can use right away that will at least double the impact your donations have.

Pause a second to think about what that would mean.

Why do you donate?

How would it feel to know that those donations now to twice as much good in this world? To know that at least twice as many people were helped?

Ready to hear the steps? Great!


Step 1: Make your reason for donating CONCRETE!

This step requires being very honest with yourself. It means not donating to the Haiti relief fund just because it was tragic (or because Bill Clinton said you should), but instead thinking about what that donation to Haiti would accomplish.

Something along the lines of: save lives and put good people back into homes. Whatever you hope your donation will accomplish.

What we're doing is moving from causes and goals (global warming, world peace, freedom from dictators), to concrete outcomes (reducing or negating carbon emissions, preventing wars, saving solders lives, educating people about the benefits of democracy).

Once you've got a concrete outcome you'd like to see in the world, it's time to find out the best way to accomplish that goal.


Step 2: Use 3rd party charity evaluations that focus on outcomes, and donate where it will do the most good.

Go to and see if your current charity is listed, and what kinds of results they can get per donated dollar.

Also, don't forget to look at similar outcomes your donation money can accomplish. It's not uncommon to find out that, for example, the cost of giving a blind child a seeing eye dog is three times more than the cost of preventing childhood blindness in the first place.

Yes it might seem tragic to think of a little blind girl without a dog to guide her, but it's even worse to think that we'd give that girl a seeing eye dog at the expense of three other children going blind.

If nothing else, visit, it will change the way you think about donating for the rest of your life.


Step 3: Donate what you can, but don't donate time unless you earn less than $10 an hour.

The strange truth of the matter is that, unless you're donating your time as a professional (Doctor's Without Borders, Pro-Bono Legal Aid), it's often more cost effective to simply work an extra hour and donate the money.

If you make $25/hr, your cause can probably can get 150 minutes of work for every hour of income you donate.


Okay! If you do those three steps you will get more good from your donation money than 90% of all the donors out there.

If you felt that this letter helped you, please consider forwarding it to your friends and family, or at least talking about these important issues with them.

Together, we can make a difference.



24 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 6:48 PM
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There are charities where "lives saved" is probably the wrong metric. It's hard to tell how much good Amnesty International does, but Torture and Democracy argues that international monitoring is the reason democracies have moved to no-marks torture. This isn't much, but a world where governments feel free to cripple people's bodies as well as their brains is a worse world.

In general, limiting the arrogance of governments-- convincing people that there's an alternative to enduring very bad government-- is going to save live, but the statistics are a lot harder than measuring the effects of fighting an infectious disease.

Campaigns for women's education have had good effects which weren't predicable when the campaigns started. I don't know if this can be used to estimate which non-obvious projects are important.

Medical research is another area of unpredictability. Even mediocre longevity tech (getting the default to be good health till age 90) would be a huge win, but it's hard to tell what approach is worth attempting, or if it's better to work on current problems.

Likewise for X-risks, with the possible exception of asteroid defense. this doesn't mean that trying to create FAI is a bad idea, it's just that there isn't a statistical universe to work with.

Oh, right, back to the greedy bastards. Market economies in India and China have done a tremendous amount to lower the misery level (and, I assume, to increase life spans), but how would you measure the efficiency in lives saved of improving legal systems?

QALY (Quality-adjusted-life-years) goes some way to solving some of these problems, especially regarding torture.

Hey Nancy,

I think what you're saying here is that there are some great causes that can be genuinely hard to quantify, and that the majority of those are essentially R&D where profit isn't the motive.

Those are great points, no doubt about it. Obviously we'd want to quantify as much as possible, but in the end, especially for R&D type situations, it ain't gonna happen.

(Though you can at least estimate what can be gained in the government case -- start with available statistics for people in that country, and compare for those in a roughly similar country with a different political structure -- that's probably your best-case improvement)

Estimating the efficacy of an overthrow plot, or the long term benefit of pro-?archy education would still be difficult... but with the above you'd still be closer to calculating EV :p

That said, for most people looking into those causes, donating isn't a good idea -- they'd probably mis-allocate the funds. My grandma doesn't know how to rank life-extending therapies by promise, let alone correct for the population size of those who could be treated.

Much better to simply donate to the low hanging fruit, causing the cost of saving a human life to rise... and thereby causing more educated/R&D-competent philanthropists to investigate the causes you discussed.

Cheers, -wfg

My only point of disagreement is that I don't think the majority of charities whose good effects are hard to quantify (HtQ) in terms of lives saved are R&D, unless you count something like education for women before the effects on reproduction were observed as R&D.

I think HtQ projects might fall into two categories, R&D and improving qualia.

It's R&D until we have a known, repeatable way to get the result we want :p

Improving qualia strikes me as giving up too soon -- sure we can't perfectly quantify quality of life, happiness, social adjustment, music appreciation, and well-roundedness -- but it's still useful to use what we can when deciding to improve the world on these axis.

Quite good. The title is misleading, though - I was all braced for some silly objectivism.

A better title might be "Charity That Gets Results" or "Trying to do good first and feel good second" or "Thoughts that will let you help people the most."

The title is misleading, though - I was all braced for some silly objectivism.

That was my first thought too, followed by "Isn't Mother Teresa kind of a low bar?".

Yes, it is a low bar. Mother Theresa should not be used as an example of good-doing. She wanted people to suffer so that the others in their confortable lives (us) would have something to pray about, and find peace and redemption in the suffering of others. There are accounts of this by nuns who left the holy mother order,


Christopher Hitchens' book on Mother theresa could enlighten you.

The Penn and Teller episode is also a pretty good source.

She's a poor choice for a waterline, but she's a great choice for a headline :p


And I wonder what you think about perpetuating the false image. Personally I have trouble with that. Not sure why.

p.s. (BS is a great show.)

The BS "fancy food" episode has got to be my favorite -- there's something about fancy people paying $25 to eat off-brand cool-whip from a whine glass that cracks me up.

Perpetuating the false image isn't desirable, but I think minimal in this case....

I'd hardly call "greedy bastards save more lives than mother theresa" a shining endorsement :p

The idea behind the title is to look interesting enough to read, to a large number of people.

The article's intended readership isn't lesswrong -- see the $100/essay threads for more :)

The article's intended readership isn't lesswrong -- see the $100/essay threads for more :)

I don't think LessWrongers are the only ones who'll expect Yet Another Rant About How Selfish Entrepreneurial Sprit Does More Good In The World Than Good Intentions ... your post is a bit more original than that.

(I'm a third data point for "expected silly objectivism from the title")

"expected silly objectivism from the title" isn't good or bad -- the question is was there a title that would have made more prospects read this....

As long as objectivists also open it... non-objectivists opening it to mock what appears at first glance to be written by a dumb-objectivist is good :p

Some people might not even read it (because they assume they already know it's full of ideological drivel saying nothing they haven't heard a dozen times before), or argue against it based on the title and not the contents (which is unfotunately common on the internet).

That being said, I don't mind the essay title that much, I was just chiming in saying "I got that impression too", and somehow found myself arguing for a point I didn't necessarily support in the first place. How did that happen?

A: your title gives impression X!
B: yep, I got impression X too.
C: giving impression X isn't necessarily bad.
B: (has to say something) um, yes it is!

Damn faulty brain. Couldn't it use better criteria for choosing which position to support?

Some people might not even read it (because they assume they already know it's full of ideological drivel saying nothing they haven't heard a dozen times before), or argue against it based on the title and not the contents (which is unfotunately common on the internet).

I don't dispute that. The real question here is, will the title attract more readers than a more descriptive, less Objectivist-sounding title? I suspect that it will; titles like this are called "linkbait" for a reason.

The idea behind the title is to look interesting enough to read, to a large number of people.

It does do this but it also primes a lot of people (bleeding heart liberals, in particular) to disagree with what you're about to say.

Fair enough. That's what the subhead/lead story was for (assuming the bleeding heart liberals get unprimed by the saving a life for $600 /// lead-in story).

Better headline & subhead solicited, on the condition it has the same draw

No, what Gates wanted was measurable results

The problem with demanding "measurable results", is that you'll get precisely what you measure, quite possibly by doing more damage in some other way that you didn't think to measure.

Possibly, but all else being equal, the expected utility should still be higher if you measure something than if you measure nothing.

Agree. It's true that optimizing too hard for one variable can lead to unexpected sadness, but it's also true that if you don't measure progress you don't get anywhere :p

But if you don't measure anything, all you'll get is things you didn't measure.

Which means you're not even guaranteed to be helping along the axis you're trying to help.

This problem exists in businesses as well. Bill Gates has dealt with it before.