The Maximum Good: One Man's Quest To Master The Art Of Donating
A.J. Jacobs makes use of effective altruism to find out which charity he should and should not donate his USD1,000 to.
BY A.J. JACOBS | Apr 29, 2016 | Culture
My visits to Starbucks have lately become significantly less enjoyable.
This is partly because my shaky middle-aged body is more prone to caffeine jitters. But it's also because I recently read a book called The Most Good You Can Do, by Princeton University philosopher Peter Singer, which introduced me to some stark ethical math. If I spend three dollars a day on coffee, that's about USD1,000 a year. Here's what that same USD1,000 a year could do....
Protect nearly seven hundred people in countries like Malawi from malaria, a disease that kills about half a million people annually.
Fund two complete surgeries for women in countries like Nepal with a horrible condition that makes them outcasts. (They have a hole between their vagina and rectum or bladder.)
Provide ten children in countries like Nicaragua with surgery to restore their sight.
So enjoy your Frappuccino, asshole.
Because of this book and others like it, I've been experiencing extreme First World guilt. From this perspective, our hands are perpetually drenched in blood. Every day, Americans do the moral equivalent of walking by thousands of drowning children on the beach without stopping to extend a nearby tree branch.
It's a powerful way of looking at life—and also completely overwhelming. Debilitating. Even Singer, an advocate of radical giving, says you shouldn't become obsessed with guilt or you'll drive yourself insane. He says a more useful outlook is embracing the joy of saving lives. We can all be heroes. We can all be Schindlers.
Many would argue that this moral algebra is naive and simplistic. Lots of smart people, as well as Ayn Rand devotees, have rejected its premise. And yet it's got me rattled. I've come to the conclusion that I need to give more to charity. Probably a lot more. But to which causes among the millions to choose from? There are charities for preventing malaria and reducing avoidable blindness, but also those for the environment, cancer, even one devoted to free tattoo removals for the disadvantaged (which, after doing research, I decide actually has its merits, since it erases gang tattoos and gives teens a fresh start—so I shouldn't be so smugly dismissive).
I set out to discover how my USD1,000 donation can relieve the most suffering and create the most happiness. I'm on a mission to buy maximum goodness.
My first stop is a wipe call with Will MacAskill, an associate professor of philosophy at Oxford University and the author of the book Doing Good Better. He has rectangular glasses and creeping sideburns, and he looks even younger than his twenty-eight years.
MacAskill is one of the founders of a small but fast-growing movement called effective altruism (EA). The idea is to give to charity as rationally as possible. What would Spock do? Crunch the numbers, embrace the evidence, use your brain. Don't be led astray by your heart or the sight of Jennifer Lopez drenched by a bucket of freezing water.
Think of how sabermetrics revolutionised baseball by rejecting hunches and following the cold statistics. Same idea. This is Moneyball to save the world.
Not surprisingly, effective altruism has a big following among Silicon Valley types. Mix the engineering mind-set, the presumption that we can hack the world, and an influx of money, and you get EA.
For a man who has devoted his life to helping the needy, MacAskill gets some surprisingly unfriendly feedback. Like this e-mail that recently popped up in his in-box: "Will MacAskill should fuck himself up the ass with a chain saw."
The chainsaw suggestion was in response to an essay MacAskill wrote about the beloved Ice Bucket Challenge for ALS. He argued that it was actually a bad idea.
He said we shouldn't choose a charity based on a cute viral video. It's like choosing a heart surgeon because she looks hot in scrubs. (My analogy, not his.) ALS is a fine cause, in other words, but there are more widespread problems in the world—the lack of drinkable water in Africa, for instance. The Ice Bucket Challenge led to "funding cannibalism"—it ate up money that people might have donated to other, more cost-effective causes.
EA folks cite three criteria to consider when looking at a charity: scale (will it dramatically improve a huge number of lives?), tractability (how much of a change can you make, and can it be quantified?), and neglectedness (how much is the cause overlooked?).
During our Skype call, I ask MacAskill for some other examples of causes that don't meet the criteria. "Well, you probably shouldn't donate to disaster relief," he says.
"You mean like the earthquakes in Haiti and Japan?" I ask.
He nods. Now I'm thinking of revving up the chain saw, but I hear him out.
Disasters get a lot of publicity and generate a flurry of money. For instance, for every death the earthquake in Japan caused, aid organisations received an estimated USD330,000 in donations, according to MacAskill's book. That USD330,000 could have helped—or outright saved—many, many more lives affected by what MacAskill calls "ongoing natural disasters," like deadly worm diseases in Africa.
The idea of ignoring earthquake victims makes me feel a little coldhearted, like a latter-day Robert McNamara. But I see the logic.
I ask MacAskill about other charities he might avoid. His list is long:
The Make-A-Wish Foundation. It gives donors a warm glow, but that USD7,500 to fulfil wishes like Batkid's would go a lot further in the Third World.
Dog shelters. Not that effective altruists ignore animal suffering; many consider it a high priority. But look at the numbers: In the U.S. alone, about three million dogs and cats are killed in shelters every year. About nine billion chickens—not to mention tens of millions of pigs and cows—are killed at factory farms. It's much more cost-effective to give to charities that reduce meat consumption.
Museums and the arts. Sorry, MoMA. The USD40 million you received to name a wing could have cured eight hundred thousand people of blindness. This reasoning doesn't endear EA to the crowd that likes its ballet benefits.
So where should we effective altruists send our money to stop the most suffering? Not all EA folks agree, but common causes emerge: endemic diseases in the developing world (malaria and AIDS), factory farming. criminal-justice reform, immigration reform, and catastrophic disasters (from global warming right on down to Philip K. Dick scenarios like rogue power-hungry robots).
Okay, but there are still thousands of charities dealing with these problems. How to choose among them? Enter a group called GiveWell.
GiveWell is a nonprofit founded in 2007 by two young former hedge funders, Holden Karnofsky and Elie Hassenfeld. Their idea is to apply MBA-like rigour to the task of evaluating charities. They research the hell out of them. They demand detailed numbers and evidence of change. They visit the charities in the field in Africa and Asia. Some charities are rattled by their aggressive approach, but others welcome it.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of GiveWell is its relative indifference to CEO salaries and high overhead. In the past, I'd check a Web site such as Charity Navigator to see if a charity I was considering was "wasting money." Charity Navigator tells us how much of the budget is going to overhead. Look, the Prostate Cancer Foundation's CEO earns more than USD1 million! No way I'm giving to them.
But GiveWell comes from the MBA mind-set. Maybe that CEO is worth it. "When we're deciding on what computer to buy, we don't look at the CEO salaries at Apple or Dell," says Princeton's Singer, a GiveWell supporter. "We look at how effective those computers are, how much they help our lives."
"It's about effectiveness, not efficiency," adds MacAskill.
In its most recent ranking of charities, GiveWell recommended that individuals donate their entire charity budget to the Against Malaria Foundation. This is a charity that provides insecticide-treated bed nets to people in Malawi and other developing countries. Each net costs about USD2.50 and cuts down on infant mortality in a significant way.
A couple weeks into my quest, I go to a party and meet a woman who works in nonprofits. I tell her I'm exploring effective altruism, expecting her to be impressed by my cutting-edge thinking.
"Wait," she says. "Is this the one that says we should never give to museums and instead give all our money to malaria nets in Africa?"
"That's the one!"
"I hate that so much.'
"It's so paternalistic and colonial. They're saying. 'We know what's good for these Africans,' and then they get to feel smug. They're treating Africans like they're fundamentally different kinds of people from Westerners. What about culture for Africans? Maybe Africans would like a cultural center that allows them to preserve their traditions, right? These guys are like. 'No, Africans just need these mosquito nets.”
Well, yes, there is a bit of an air of noblesse oblige surrounding effective altruism. Maybe I'm being a condescending douche. I put the question to MacAskill. He says, "That's an odd criticism. We want to empower Africans, but they can't be empowered if they're not healthy."
Over the next week, I get a surprising number of other semi-hostile reactions to effective altruism. Among them:
My brother-in-law argues that it's trying to quantify things that are unquantifiable. Who says one charity does more good than another? It's a weird sort of "charitable imperialism," as one opponent puts it. Consider the arts: What if a painting at a museum elevates the human spirit and inspires a kid to become a doctor who eventually cures bladder cancer? You can't predict. (EA advocates say you can make judgments, even if they're not perfect. And as for the art-loving kid who may cure bladder cancer, what about all the kids who survived because of malaria nets? One of them may cure cancer, too.)
A friend mocks me for trying to detach emotion from charitable giving. "Why not give to causes that move me personally, like leukaemia in honour of my late aunt?" she says. (The EA response: We combine empathy and rationality. It's a higher form of compassion.)
My wife objects to EA's emphasis on giving to just one or two charities. Why not spread the wealth and give a small amount to a whole bunch of charities? (The EA response: For one thing, small donations are less efficient for the charities—more paperwork and overhead.)
Others tell me charity works best when it's close to home. You can monitor the results—plus, shouldn't you take care of your own backyard before meddling with ones across the world? (The EA response: Just because someone is geographically distant doesn't mean he deserves less compassion.)
Then there's the self-righteous-prick problem. I got an e-mail from a colleague asking me to buy Girl Scout cookies. The rational response might be "Is this Girl Scout troop based in Sierra Leone without access to clean water?" But that's not going to make me popular. (The EA response: You can allot a small amount of your budget for social-lubricant causes, like this one.)
Another issue continues to bother me: How do you choose between short-term and long-term solutions to a problem?
Malaria nets may save thousands of lives now, but wouldn't an inexpensive one-dose malaria cure eventually save millions? Why not donate to medical research? Or to the University of California, Irvine professor who is genetically altering mosquitoes so that they can't spread diseases like malaria and the Zika virus?
I ask the GiveWell founders these questions. They say that your average schmo doesn't have the time or expertise to figure out which scientists are on the right track. There are people in Big Charity working on it, like those at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. So maybe I should make out a check to Bill Gates? This is getting complicated.
It's been several weeks since I began Project Maximum Good. For the past few days. I've been strongly considering a preventable-blindness charity that works in Rwanda and Bangladesh. It's mentioned on several EA Web sites.
But now I'm wavering. I think I'm leaning toward blindness for emotional, not logical, reasons. The GiveWell guys seem smart, and they have devoted their working livesto the question of the best charities. Why should a dabbler like me know better? I'll just go with their malaria suggestion.
But then I remember something MacAskill told me in our first chat. When I asked where my USD1,000 would have the most impact, he threw me a curveball. He asked if I'd considered giving to his charity. Because it's not a normal charity. It's a meta-charity: a charity that encourages people to donate to charity.
MacAskill is one of the founders of Giving What We Can, which, among other things, encourages people to take a pledge to donate at least 10 percent of their income to charity for the rest of their lives.
The argument is that MacAskill's group will use it to persuade other potential donors to give to charity. According to MacAskill's data, which he sent me in a sharp PowerPoint presentation, every dollar given to Giving What We Can will result in at least six dollars in donations to causes like malaria prevention. It's charity multiplied.
But wait—if I give to a meta-charity, isn't that a little abstract? Part of me hopes this article will trigger a cascade of donations. Will readers be inspired if I'm helping to pay for Web designers? Won't there be more copycat donations if I give to malaria?
Then again, if I really want to start a donation flood, perhaps I should pay a publicist USD1,000 to get me on Good Morning America to talk about my effective-altruism article.
"Uh, that might seem a tad self-serving," my wife says when I tell her my idea.
It's clear I could spend the next year ditheringaround. I have to make a decision. So here, on a Friday, in my living room, I do: USD500 to the Against Malaria Foundation and the other USD500 split between MacAskill's meta-charity and Singer's meta-charity, the Life You Can Save.
I also click on the Giving What We Can Web site and take the pledge to donate 10 percent of my income in the future. Will I stick to it? Hell if I know. Maybe it should be 20 percent. Maybe I need to give more than money. Maybe I should focus on a single cause. I don't know.
But this is a start.
From: Esquire US.