This is a guest post from Vipul Naik about how he decided what charity to support for his most recent donation. We requested this post along the lines of earlier posts by Eric Friedman, Jason Fehr, Ian Turner, and Dario Amodei. Note that this post was written before we published our most recent update on VillageReach.
Early giving: small amounts, based on whims
In September 2007, I joined the University of Chicago for graduate study in mathematics. For the first time, I was drawing a regular stipend that significantly exceeded my financial needs. I could now consider donating parts of my "own" money. Initially, I neither had a strong sense of what I should donate to, nor a burning desire to donate large parts of my savings, though I did have a vague feeling that donating money for worthwhile causes was a nice thing.
My initial "donations" made around December 2007 weren't really donations — they were more gratitude payments to non-profits and organizations that I think have made the world a better place — such as a $100 donation to the Wikimedia Foundation (the non-profit behind Wikipedia). I didn't consider myself a philanthropist trying to achieve specific large-scale change through my giving. Also, my savings weren't very high, and I hadn't mentally adjusted to the concept of making large donations.
Sponsor a kid!
I liked the idea of donating to organizations that serve poor people. However, I wasn't aware of any organization that I considered reliable, and finding one wasn't a priority. In June 2008, I was in downtown Chicago running some errands when I came across street fundraisers advertising for Children International (GiveWell review here), a Kansas-based international NGO that serves children across many developing countries through a one-on-one child sponsorship model. The idea appealed to me (my parents had participated in child sponsorship programs in India). I investigated Children International's website, and three weeks later (July 2008), I decided to sponsor a child for $22/month. A month later, I upped the number of children to two, for $44/month. I continued increasing the number of sponsored children until, around August 2009, the number had increased to 15 kids for $330/month.
Some neat — and life-changing — logic
I read a chapter in Steven Landsburg's book More Sex Is Safer Sex (an expansion of this Slate article) where Landsburg asserted that one should donate to only one charity rather than split one's donations across multiple charities. Landsburg argued that the size of a donation is usually too small to affect the relative merits of different charitable causes — and hence if you chose to give your first $1000 to Charity A rather than Charity B, the same reasoning should continue to apply to your next $1000. "Small" charities are somewhat different, if a donation has sufficient impact on the charity’s activities such that the donation, itself, alters the relative merits of different charities. However, for much of impersonal charitable giving to large causes/organizations, Landsburg's reasoning (and the accompanying mathematics) seemed valid, and I was convinced. (GiveWell has a similar philosophy — see this blog post on triage).
Landsburg's "one charity argument," on the surface, was more reason to keep donating to Children International and simply adjust the quantity donated rather than donating extra money to other charities. Or so I thought. But I gradually realized that the argument isn't merely about donating to one charity, rather, it is about donating to the best charity. I had no reason to suspect that Children International was bad, but I had no basis to conclude that they were the best (or anywhere near). Why did I continue donating to them?
Children International's sponsorship model (as opposed to simply making one-off grants/donations) made it psychologically hard for me to stop donating to them. At the time, I had no idea of candidates for substantially better charities. In hindsight, I should have stopped donating to Children International much earlier, even before I'd found a good charity.
Cutting the sponsorship cord
In late December 2009, I discovered a Bloggingheads diavlog (conversation) between William Easterly and Peter Singer. I'd already read Easterly's books The White Man's Burden and The Elusive Quest For Growth, and I also followed the Aid Watch blog to which he was a primary contributor. I was thus aware of Easterly's work and views on the shortcomings of official aid and development assistance. Peter Singer, a Princeton bioethicist and advocate of greater giving to meet the needs of the world's poorest, was new to me. In the diavlog, Singer mentioned GiveWell, and I followed the link to their website. GiveWell's research and philosophy impressed me. GiveWell did not recommend Children International, but recommended a handful of organizations based on extensive analysis. I wasn't sold on GiveWell's recommendations, but I now had some serious candidates that seemed substantially better than Children International.
I asked Children International to end my sponsorship in February 2010. I decided to not use a regular monthly donation model any more (with its implicit feeling of lock-in) but rather make periodic donation decisions, with due diligence done each time. I wasn't sure of the period: a long period has the advantage that the donation amount is sufficiently large to undertake a more thorough investigation, but this is also a disadvantage. Shorter periods between donations and smaller donation quantities reduce the risk of making a large donation to an organization that shuts down, or closes its room for more funding gap, shortly after I donate.
I continued to follow GiveWell as well as other blogs on philanthropy, aid, poverty, and development. I was reasonably convinced that low-income country health systems was low-hanging fruit for donor money. The approach of GiveWell's top charity VillageReach (GiveWell review here) impressed me. I made donations of $1250 in March 2010 and $2000 in June 2010 to VillageReach through GiveWell's website.
Around this time, I started feeling that the one charity argument had exceptions. In some cases, I thought, making a donation tied to specific single projects can actually get those single projects done. Around August 2010, I got in touch with a researcher and talked about partially funding some research related to low-cost private education in the developing world. We had extensive correspondence and phone conversations and in September 2010, I made a donation covering part of the costs of a new research project, with the understanding that any cost overruns would be covered by him. The project was successful (albeit with cost overruns) though the research report is not yet published, so I cannot share details right now. I think this was a case where my willingness to come forward with initial money helped accelerate a project that may otherwise either not have happened or happened a year later.
However, such opportunities are rare and inherently risky. In October 2010, I returned to considering VillageReach for my next donation. I talked over the phone with Holden of GiveWell. I shared some concerns:
Did GiveWell have a sufficient incentive to critically re-evaluate their own top-rated charities in light of new data?
Why was there very little other information or news coverage about VillageReach other than their own website and GiveWell's evaluation of them?
Why hadn't any major donor or foundation agreed to cover VillageReach's funding gap?
Holden addressed my questions, and, shortly thereafter, GiveWell elaborated further in the blog posts Health system strengthening + sustainability + accountability and After "Extraordinary and Unorthodox" comes the Valley of Death.
In December 2010, I made a donation of $5100 to VillageReach, my largest to the organization, bringing my total to-date donations to VillageReach at $8350. After donating, I talked over the phone with VillageReach employee John Beale about VillageReach's activities, to help me in future donation decisions.
A new year
I planned to make my next donation around April 2011. GiveWell published an update on VillageReach in March 2011. The good news: GiveWell found no reason, based on VillageReach's latest activities, to modify its analysis of VillageReach's cost-effectiveness. However, the evidence at this stage wasn't sufficiently clear to conclude definitively that VillageReach's current programs would be as successful as (or more successful than) the pilot programs on which GiveWell had based its analysis.
GiveWell's recommendation was responsible for about $1.1 million of roughly $2 million that VillageReach raised in 2010. VillageReach had originally projected a need for slightly under $6 million for their Mozambique project that was to continue till 2014. They seemed to be on track to meet their funding needs. I was now unsure of the value of my marginal donation. I would still have reason to donate to VillageReach if either:
They could deliver demonstrably greater benefits by rolling out their program much more quickly, and they could do so by getting funding more quickly.
GiveWell could identify other top charities so that, once VillageReach's funding gap was closed, other donors could donate instead to these other top charities.
I talked again with VillageReach's John Beale in March 2011, and although I continued to be convinced about VillageReach's effectiveness, I was unconvinced about (1). The key hope was now (2) — could GiveWell identify more top charities soon? GiveWell had already identified finding top charities as their top priority for 2011 (see here and here). However, by end April 2011, I wasn't convinced that they'd be successful. Thus, I decided to hold off my donation.
Independently, I started investigating other forms of philanthropy (such as those covered at the Breakthrough Philanthropy conference). I find some of them promising but don't yet feel confident to make a large donation to any of those organizations. In the mean time, I continue to check out GiveWell's updates on VillageReach and on their search for new top charities.