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Friday 20 March 2020


Who gives… what next?

How to give with compassion and reason

By David Taylor

Who doesn’t want value for money, and who doesn’t want to do the right thing?

We wrote this week about effective altruism and the state of philanthropy.

Philosopher Will MacAskill wants us to stop making decisions with our hearts and use our heads. Money in, lives saved out. That’s the brutal calculation.

Here’s how the argument goes: we all have a moral obligation to do as much good as we can with our time and money. That means you have to make your money go as far as possible. It is our duty not just to give as much as we can, but also to give well.

Instead of relying on our feelings, our own life experiences and personal connections to decide which causes to support, we should use cost-benefit analysis to determine how much bang we might get for our charitable buck.

No more falling for pictures of sad dogs.

According to the effective altruism logic, all lives are viewed as equal: those on the other side of the world; those who haven’t been born yet; and animals too (although they favour doing something about the welfare of farm animals over neglected domestic animals). Maximise the benefit for all individuals, wherever they are, in space, time or species.

Of course, just because Will MacAskill is clever and can frame a smart argument, doesn’t mean he’s unchallengeable.

Thoughtful people, like Giles Fraser, Rector of St Mary’s, Newington, say “there’s nothing wrong with trying to work out if you should give your money to one charity or another based on their performance”, but, he reasonably (and irrationally) asks, what about love?

And Leslie Lenkowsky a philanthropy expert at the University of Indiana, told us obsession with metrics can obscure the pursuit of noble causes. “How do we measure the value of a smile? Not everything worth measuring can be measured.”

Let’s suppose we can try to do both. Give with compassion and to causes that mean something to us personally, but also give rationally. We’ve had a look at how we can all give more thought to how we offer our time and where we donate our money.

Let’s start where we live…

As the coronavirus sweeps the planet, many of us are thinking about how to help in our own community.

You might feel you want to give to a local food bank to help provide for people who are in poverty or uncertain about their income. The Trussell Trust, which supports more than 1,200 food banks around the UK is a good place to start. You can donate your time, money or food.

Or you may wish to volunteer in your community: a lot of locally-organised efforts are springing up to try to support people who may not be able to shop for essentials themselves.

Many are organising on social media, or through What’sApp groups offering to pick up shopping, walk a dog, pick up a prescription or just make a friendly phone call.

A new organisation – Covid-19 Mutual Aid UK is steering the network, but each group is independent and more than 700 have sprung up within a week. As The Guardian reports: “The groups can cover a single street or ward as well as whole towns and follow a simple template. People who feel capable of helping those in need register as volunteers, normally on a Facebook page. Homes are then leafletted with information about what help is on offer as well as contact details including a telephone number and a message of hope and support. Those in self-isolation can then request the help.”

If you want to think globally about the coronavirus Covid-19 crisis, the World Health Organisation has launched a major appeal aimed at funding their coordination of efforts to track and understand the spread of the virus, to accelerate the search for a vaccine and help frontline workers get essential supplies. The money would be funneled to vulnerable and at risk countries with poor health systems to help provide intensive care units and testing. Find out more here.

Choose your passion – and verify 

Most commonly, we give to health, animal and children’s charities, but if you have a passion, there is certain to be a cause.

Once you have decided upon the area you care about, you can find out who is doing work you admire in that area, and find out more about how they spend.

First, the UK Government’s charity register will confirm that an organisation is real and registered.

Charity Choice is a website that carries out an overview of 10,000 UK charities, looking at how much of the money they spend goes on charitable activities and how much is spent on costs.

You can search according to sectors – like health, children, animals, environment, human rights or the arts. Then go deeper to see a report on their record.

So for example, we can see for every £1 spent, the NSPCC children’s charity is shown to put 78.5 pence into charitable activities. It also spends 15.4p in every £1 on fundraising. But it’s fundraising efforts are fruitful: every £1 spent fundraising leads to donations of £5.26.

It’s worth noting that money spent on running costs can lead to better performance and shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a negative.

But how effective is charity spending?

That is where Give Well comes in. They focus on helping the global poor. If your criteria is ‘save the most lives’ then they have done the work for you. When followed to its logical endpoint their methodology is harsh. The US non-profit organisation really does put a price on a life – calculating that it costs $2-3,000 to save a life. And they are dispassionate – spend only where you can save the most lives.

So rather than back disaster appeals for victims of earthquakes or tsunamis (where a few million may be displaced) Give Well opts to save the most lives and suggests two anti-malaria programmes and four organisations that bring de-worming measures against parasites.

HIV and Aids prevention, a meningitis vaccine programme and a measles and rubella charity have also been endorsed in the past, although in some cases endorsements are removed because they are considered to be already well-funded.

Here is their current list of top charities.

The Open Philanthropy Project, which practices effective altruism, narrows its focus by establishing an importance threshold – how many individuals are affected by an issue; is it neglected; how much impact can you have? That can lead them down a path of getting behind research into quite obscure potential future threats like malevolent AI, where artificial intelligence might in the future turn against humanity in an oppressive way. It might be good to have researched a solution.

Can we take their lessons and adapt them for ourselves?

It is a methodology we could all apply when weighing up causes: how many people are affected; is it a neglected issue; could my donation have an impact?

One might add other criteria – hard-nosed analysis isn’t everything: does it matter to me deeply on a personal level; would I see visible impact in my world?

Remember too, that Open Phil likes to talk about philanthropic ‘risk’ – they would rather back something that could be spectacular but might very well fail than make a safe bet on modest progress. Suppose you had two choices: a guarantee that you would save 500 lives; or the chance to save 5,000 lives with a 90% chance of failure and an expected value of saving 500 lives? The Open Phil team would bet on the bigger risk.

How to give regularly

If you prefer slow and steady, but definitely want to give more regularly, in the UK, the Charities Aid Foundation helps you set up an account to organise your giving. You can pay in, then set up regular, or one-off payments – so you can back a favourite cause or sponsor a friend’s one-off charity effort.

The CAF’s World Giving Index gives an excellent overview of the state of giving… and has advice for governments too. They should:

  • make sure not-for-profit organisations are regulated in a fair, consistent and open way:
  • make it easy for people to give and offer incentives for giving where possible;
  • ensure not-for-profit organisations are transparent and inform the public about their work;
  • encourage charitable giving as nations develop their economies, taking advantage of the world’s growing middle classes.

Whatever you decide, be kind.

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