I was going to write about myself and transition into why I chose the charity I chose, but instead I thought it interesting to talk about giving more generally, some of the reasons we may give and where we give, and what effect that has on the world.
Figuring out how to have an impact
I'm no expert in charitable contributions and varied experts in business, economy, public health and policy, and even psychology are more suited to answering questions in their respective fields. However, as I was trying to search for a charity of my own choosing for proceeds to be donated, I had to look at some basic questions:
What did I care about? What's important to me? Despite my personal biases, what projects actually deserve funding? How will I know the money will be put to good use? Am I biased in other ways I might not be aware of?
First I think it's important to realize while there are many needs out there, charities do not have equal need.
A true hierarchy would be foolish, but it's evident some charitable contributions are less impactful than others, such as donating to an art museum or concert hall over curing vitamin deficiency that causes blindness. Some causes are more dire, some needs greater. There are questions of how broad of an impact your donation is likely to make.
Direct giving is a somewhat new, though well-researched form of giving whereby you simply cut a cheque directly to a person or persons to use at their discretion. "Strong evidence suggests cash transfers lead recipients to spend more on their basic needs (such as food) and may allow recipients to make investments with high returns, with no evidence of large increases in spending on items like alcohol or tobacco," says the charity review site GiveWell.org.
The issue is donations of this kind, while large in impact on a family's life, can be relatively small in scope. It's using a spear to single out a specific fish rather than casting a wide net.
What's important to you? Would you rather change the life of one family?
A sizeable donation can make a massive difference in the lives of a poor family in Africa or Asia, improving their quality of life and giving them chances to invest and improve the lives of future generations. Alternatively, you could opt to give to a charity that provides just a little help to a large group, or directly to research, and so on.
It's important to remember the attention a charity or a cause receives does not equate to them being more needy either. Some disasters tend to get lots of new coverage while other receive far less, and that just isn't the same as the need of the charity or the underlying cause.
Take a look at how widely Haiti, the recent tropical storm Harvey, or tsunamis were covered and see they are covered largely for a few reasons:
- They are short-lived and life-threatening
- They are viscerally engaging, tugging at our heart strings.
Less immediate causes of suffering aren't as glamorous to cover on the news...things like malnutrition, depression and risk of suicide, dementia, and so on. Not that these cases are the ones you should focus on either, but chose slower, longer affecting maladies.
"News coverage doesn't relate directly to need."
Finding the "right" balance
I think we have a tendency to give priority to national needs, those within our country, even if the need may be greater elsewhere. We are tribal in nature, and while it can be helped with conscious effort, it's true we give more openly to national or local interests rather than internationally, disassociated from the size of the need.
If we were perfectly rational, we'd look at size of the need and impact of the donation as primary causes, but instead we consider the things we care about, the charities we find out about or those who advertise to us, and we give more to the in-group we most associate with versus perceived out-groups.
It's an unfortunate consequence that in 2016, 32% of charitable donations went to the religious sector, and while there are philanthropic efforts at work, it often comes on the backbone of proselytization. Charities want you to give to them and choose their cause. To that end, they employ marketing strategies to best find ways of getting your dollar in the same way businesses market to consumers.
Being wary of emotionally charged pictures of poor health or catastrophe can be ways to think clearer about the impact you want to create. Not that these images aren't important, but we respond far more to image than to word, to feeling than to logical calculation.
"Is it better to give to treatment, to on-the-ground prevention, or to research?"
In the case of malaria, treatment could mean aiding those who have already been infected with the disease. On-the-ground prevention could mean ridding an area of mosquitos or controlling mosquito populations, and research can mean genetically engineering sterile mosquitos to prevent the disease-carrying insect altogether.
I haven't checked the research to confirm what's more impactful, but my intuition tells me giving to research (the right research) is more likely to make the biggest impact in the long run.
The kind of impact that changes the course of humanity by finding a new treatment or cure or even new branch of treatment options. And there is need as national and university funding is constantly under attack.
Science is messy, and in fact the fruits of the research you directly contributed can turn up nothing. In fact most of research is negative results, adding to the growing body of scientific evidence. However, it is important that good science is allowed to move forward, and to employ people who are hard at work changing our future.
You might not feel that your charitable donations are making a difference at all because:
- There is no clear mental image of suffering attached to the giving
- The process is slow.
But it's worthwhile.
It also happens to be a large passion of mine, and maybe I'm just an optimist about how good the future can be. I feel more comfortable donating for tomorrow instead of today, for gene therapies and artificial intelligences and problem-solving of the coming generations.
Join me in viewing science as it sees humanity, as a singular species to protect, advance, and grow, and in giving to that cause.
Grab yours here!