Is the best charity (excluding SIAI)?

by syllogism2 min read26th Feb 201161 comments


Effective AltruismCause PrioritizationGiveWell

Update: I should've said "non-existential risk charity", rather than specifically exclude SIAI. I'm having trouble articulating why I don't want to give to an existential risk charity, so I'm going to think more deeply about it. This post is close to my source of discomfort, which is about the many highly uncertain assumptions necessary to motivate existential risk reduction. However, I couldn't articulate this argument properly before, so it might not be the true source of my discomfort. I'll keep thinking.

I received my first pay-cheque from my first job after getting my degree, so it's time to start tithing. So I've been evalating which charity to donate to. I'd like to support the SIAI but I'm not currently convinced it's the best-value charity in a dollars-per-life sense, once time-value of money discounting is applied. I'd like to discuss the best non-SIAI charity available.

By far the best source of information I've found is It was started by two hedge fund managers who were struck by the absence of rational charity evaluations, so decided that this was the most pressing problem they could work on.

Perhaps the clearest, deepest finding from the studies they pull together and discuss is that charity is hard. Spending money doesn't automatically translate to doing good. It's not even enough to have smart people who care and know a lot about the problem think of ideas, and then spend money doing them. There's still a good chance the idea won't work. So we need to be evaluating programs rigorously before we scale them up, and keep evaluating as we scale.

The bad news is that this isn't how charity is usually done. Very few charities make convincing evaluations of their activities public, if they carry them out at all. The good news is that some of the programs that have been evaluated are very, very effective. So choosing a charity rationally is absolutely critical.

Let's say you're interested specifically in HIV/AIDS relief.[1] You could fund a program that mainly distributes Anti-Retroviral Therapy to HIV/AIDS patients, which has been estimated conservatively to cost $1494 per disability adjusted life-year (DALY). Alternatively, you could fund a condom distribution program, which has been estimated conservatively to cost $112 per DALY. Or, you could fund a program to prevent mother-to-child transmission, which has been estimated conservatively to cost $12 per DALY. So even within HIV/AIDS, funding the right program can make your donation two orders of magnitude more effective. By tithing 10% of my income every year for the next thirty years, I could have a bigger impact than a $25 million donation, if the person who placed that donation only did an okay job of choosing a charity. 

GiveWell currently gives its top recommendation to VillageReach, a charity that seeks to improve logistics for vaccine delivery to remote communities. The evidence is less cut-and-dried than you'd ideally want, but it's still compelling. They took vaccine rates up to 95%, and had very low stock-out rates for vaccines during the 4 year pilot project in Mozambique. They're estimated to have spent about $200usd per life saved. Even if future projects are two or three times less efficient, you're still saving a life for $600. Think about how little money that is. If you tithe, you can probably expect to save 10 lives a year. That's massive.

Instead of donating directly to VillageReach, I'm going to just donate to GiveWell. They pool the funds they get and distribute them to their top charities, and I trust their analytic, evidence-based, largely utilitarian approach. Mostly, however, I think the work they're doing gathering and distributing information about charities is critically important. If more charities actually competed on evidence of efficacy, the whole endeavour might be a lot different. Does anyone have any better suggestions?



[1] I don't understand why people would want to help sufferers of one disease or condition specifically, instead of picking the lowest-hanging fruit, but apparently they do.