Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Rational Giving

A few days ago I donated what was, for me, a hefty sum of money to three different charities. 70% of my donation went to the Against Malaria Foundation, which provides insecticide-treated mosquito nets to prevent malaria deaths in sub-Saharan Africa. 20% went to GiveDirectly, which distributes cash straight to needy individuals in Kenya. 10% went to the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, which treats children in sub-Saharan Africa for parasite infections.

And the entire sum was donated via GiveWell, an organization that researches charities to determine which are the most efficient at saving and improving lives.

Here's why I chose this particular donation strategy—and why you should, too.

As it turns out, a lot of charities suck. Maybe even most. They're either inefficient, ineffective, lack transparency or have unintended consequences like damaging the local economy. (See examples here and here.) Some are actually worse than doing nothing at all. For instance, the "Scared Straight" program, which takes kids on tours of prisons to discourage criminal behavior, was found to increase delinquency compared to doing nothing. Even the practices of big-name charities like Kiva, Smile Train and UNICEF have raised concerns.

Furthermore, many charities (intentionally or not) post misleading information about their own effectiveness. For instance, since malaria nets from Nothing But Nets cost $10 each to make and deliver, they claim an astounding rate of one child's life saved for every $10 given. But roughly 95% of kids would have survived even without nets, and it's not known what proportion of delivered nets are actually used. It's all too common for charities to exaggerate their impact and ignore hidden costs like this. And since most have never been independently evaluated, so we have no real way of knowing how effective they are.

But for most people, none of that's really on the radar. They pick a charity based purely on how it resonates with them emotionally. They may see an ad featuring a starving child with sad puppy-dog eyes, skim a few anecdotal endorsements and start reaching for their pocketbook. All without doing any research. Sure, their hearts are in the right place, but isn't it more important to ensure that we're actually helping people? It's okay to let our emotions drive our generosity, but we need to let reason steer us toward options that will do the most good.

That's where GiveWell comes in. This group looks for charities that:
  • Offer strong evidence of positive impact
  • Are extremely cost-effective
  • Will use added funding productively, without diminishing returns
  • Are highly transparent and accountable
So why trust GiveWell? Well, they've been endorsed both by major media outlets and by experts in the field. They're fully transparent: their research is publicly available, they record their board meetings for donor scrutiny, and much more. They've subjected themselves to intense external evaluation. And their three top-recommended charities have been thoroughly vetted, and are monitored via written reports as well as photo and video evidence.

GiveWell's top-rated charities have the most positive impact of any they've evaluated thus far. Through AMF, it costs about $1.36 per year to protect someone with a malaria net. Through SCI, it costs about $0.51 to treat someone for parasites. And through GiveDirectly, it costs about $4.50 per year to keep a metal roof over someone's head. There are still some unknowns, as there would be for any charity. But right now, these three have the most powerful balance of efficiency and credibility.

Lastly, why did I choose to give via GiveWell rather than to the charities directly? Because it helps GiveWell. Not because they take any of the money—they don't—but for other important reasons. First, giving through GiveWell means they'll have more sway among charities. If their recommendations are shown to substantially impact people's giving habits, charities are more likely to cooperate with their investigations. And second, it gives more publicity both to GiveWell and to the effective altruism movement as a whole, thereby influencing even more people to give effectively. You help the charities, and you help the meta-charity. It's essentially like making your donation count twice.

You don't have to take my word for all this. I encourage you to do your own research. On the other hand, it's easy to get so overwhelmed with ideas and options that you succumb to analysis paralysis and end up doing nothing. So if I've convinced you that this approach to giving is worthwhile, please consider making a donation here. Thank you.

Monday, April 15, 2013

My Evolution on Gay Marriage

Now that the Supreme Court has heard arguments on two gay marriage cases, that the number of senators publicly supporting it has jumped to more than half, and that public opinion has now shifted decisively in its favor, I thought it might be a good time to chronicle how my own views of gay marriage have changed.

For most of my life as a Christian, homosexuality wasn't even really on my radar. The concept was largely foreign to me. When it did finally trickle into my consciousness, I felt no animosity toward gay people; I just considered it a strange and sinful way of thinking and behaving.

I never held very strong opinions on gay marriage, but the issue came to a head in 2008 with the introduction of Prop 8 in my home state of California. I remember that it was something I went back and forth on, but sadly I ultimately voted in favor. My rationale at the time was that gay people could still have civil unions and get the same benefits without taking on the title of marriage.

At the time, I thought that was enough. My vote on this issue was probably the last truly harmful action I took as a result of my religious beliefs. Though I no longer think that civil rights issues should be put to a majority vote, a small part of me wishes this one would be, just so I and others like me could redeem ourselves.

I didn't think much about the issue again until what was probably late 2010—after I had started questioning my faith, but before I became an atheist. I came across this video by prominent atheist and LGBT blogger Zinnia Jones.

In the first half of the video she rattles off a number of potential disadvantages associated with civil unions, but the second half (starting at 1:30) was what really struck me. If civil unions are identical to marriage in every way but in name, why is there a need to make a distinction at all? What does marriage offer straight couples that they need and gay couples can't have?

My views on gay marriage were already tenuously held, but that video was what solidified them decisively in its favor. At this point, I think it's clear that there are no decent arguments against gay marriage, and that most secular arguments have been propped up in order to disguise religiously-motivated concerns. I'm glad to see public opinion changing so rapidly, and look forward to seeing how each sect and denomination will respond to gay marriage's inevitable acceptance.