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Washing machines and charitable giving

simple complexity

Picture this: one day, you’re doing the laundry, and your washing machine breaks beyond repair. Since washing clothes is important to you, you immediately go to the department store and scope out your options. Being a rational consumer, you want to pick out a good one. You want a machine that is reasonably priced, uses low power, washes clothes well, and is likely to last. After researching your options with sources like Consumer Reports or other industry experts, you settle on a great choice. This was the rational thing to do.

But if this approach is so reasonable in the context of shopping for goods, could we apply this reasoned approach to how we donate our money?

Now imagine that one day, you’re walking down the street and you see someone choking on a piece of lettuce. It just so happens that you were recently trained in first-aid, and you know how to perform the Heimlich maneuver. What do you do? Of course you rush to the scene and save the person! This moment might go down as one of the best, most exhilarating moments of your life. Your action just saved a real person.

Here’s some more good news: this opportunity to “save the choking person” is available to people with just a little bit of surplus every single day. By donating to effective and efficient charities that put up malaria nets, deworm people in developing countries, or even give money directly to those who need it, you can literally save people’s lives. And you can save people’s lives in very, very cost-effective ways. Some great examples can be found courtesy of Peter Singer’s "The Life You Can Save."

Considering effectiveness is no easy task, especially when the stakes are so high. The two main areas to consider are the quality of the organization, and the quality of the outcomes, outcomes being the generally weightier consideration. There are plenty of organizations filled with passionate, well-meaning people, focusing on a type of intervention whose outcomes might be questionable or even counterproductive.

The organization Excellence in Giving put together some useful factors to consider. When evaluating the organizations themselves, we should consider how realistic and measurable the vision is, their process for tracking outcomes, and how they react to new information and data. When considering quality of outcomes, some things we should consider include the staying power of the results, whether or not independent evaluations have taken place, and what the beneficiaries of the program think about its quality and effectiveness.

A recent poll found that 35 percent of Americans have “little or no faith in charities.” To be sure, that lack of faith is often rational skepticism. Many charities mishandle money or engage in work that is simply ineffective, or even harmful.

However, this does not negate the fact that there are plenty of excellent, often under-reported organizations that work to alleviate extreme poverty, improve global health, mitigate existential risk, and “make a difference” in efficient, high-impact, low-cost ways.

Americans’ total giving in 2015 was $373.25 billion, amounting to 2.1 percent of GDP. But consider how Americans allocate funds to different types of interventions—only a minuscule 4 percent go to explicitly international organizations.

Why could this be a problem? For one thing, it has been found that effective international organizations are able to do incredible amounts of good per dollar, far more than some others. For example, according to GiveWell, “It costs the Against Malaria Foundation approximately $3,500 (including transportation, administration, etc.) to save a human life. Compare that with even the best U.S. programs: the Nurse-Family Partnership and KIPP both cost over $10,000 per child served.”

If we truly want to improve or maximize our impact, then we need to seriously reconsider where we give our money.

In contrast to the conventional wisdom, measuring “good” is more possible than you might expect; in an interesting overlap of philosophy, ethics, science, and statistics, experts have devised a few robust methods of “measuring good.” The most popular of these, the DALY, is “one lost year of ‘healthy’ life. The sum of these DALYs across the population, or the burden of disease, can be thought of as a measurement of the gap between current health status and an ideal health situation where the entire population lives to an advanced age, free of disease and disability.”

Though imperfect, DALY can at least primitively measure the cost-effectiveness of different interventions.

One study found the number of estimated saved DALYs per $1,000 spent in 108 different health interventions. The most effective interventions are about 1,400 times more effective than the least effective interventions. In other words, donating $1 to the best organization examined would be the equivalent of donating $1,400 to the worst one.

This reality has profound ethical implications. If more effective charities do exist, and we truly value saving people’s lives, then we should prioritize giving to those charities over less effective ones. By donating to more effective nonprofits, we would be not only maximizing our impact for good, but also placing pressure on less effective nonprofits to reevaluate their methods.

One acclaimed meta-charity (a charity that works to improve or research other charities) called GiveWell conducts rigorous research on different types of interventions from nonprofits. Their current top recommendations include the Against Malaria Foundation, the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, the Deworm the World Initiative and GiveDirectly.

In conclusion, I recognize that choosing where to donate is a personal decision. However, I would simply encourage you to consider these ideas, and ponder what you value in a charity. If there truly is a “moral imperative towards cost-effectiveness,” then we must take into account the numbers. Only then could we begin to do the most good we can do.

David Wohlever Sánchez is a Trinity sophomore. His column, “simple complexity,” runs on alternate Wednesdays. This is adapted from his forthcoming article in Encompass Magazine.

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