Effective Altruism

Almost every time I walk on the streets of Toronto I encounter a charity recruiter. Plan Canada seems to be the most common organization represented, but I often see the Red Cross and others. By being so ever-present, their goal is to remind us that by giving to charity we can make a significant difference with only minimal sacrifice on our part. There is a charity for every ill one can think of, and with monthly plans donating is incredibly easy.

But if we're going to spend our money, it makes sense to do as much good as possible with it. In fact, it's reasonable to think that we are morally obligated to give effectively: we should want the charity to which we give to stretch each dollar as far as possible. This belief—that charitable giving ought to be maximally efficient—is called effective altruism, and in the past decade organizations have arisen with the aim of pointing us toward the most effective charities.

Such groups work on the premise that it's the amount by which lives are improved that matters, and not geographical location, popular attention, or a particular social issue. For instance, the amount of good done by donating to other Canadians is orders of magnitude lower than giving to the world's worst off. Similarly, some diseases are much more cheaply treated or prevented than others, so the amount of good done by, e.g., buying nets to protect children from mosquitos carrying malaria, is much higher than donating to other causes.

Two well known effective altruism organizations are Giving What We Can and GiveWell. Each has methods for determining which charities are most effective, and each makes recommendations for the most effective method of giving. Some charities are thousands of times more effective than others, making it vitally important that we choose the best ones.

As it turns out, none of the organizations represented on the streets of Toronto are recommended by Giving What We Can or GiveWell. I'm not making this point as an excuse to avoid any charity. On the contrary, giving in amounts much greater than we presently are is a moral obligation. Canadians are abysmal donators. According to Statistics Canada, on average we gave only $446 in 2010. The average for those making more than $120,000 annually was only $744, and one is considered a top donor in Canada if one donates more than $358 a year. This is shameful.

Check out one of the websites. Donating is easy and will save lives.

Give Well

Giving What We Can