The following is a guest post from one of our Board members, Tom Rutledge, that he wrote to reflect on his personal experiences as a GiveWell supporter.
I was a Jerk for GiveWell
When I first learned about GiveWell, I was a real jerk about it.
I blame the preceding years. Before GiveWell, I had accumulated a lot of bad feelings related to giving. My charitable activities had consisted of the usual, in the usual categories: alumni funds, causes that friends solicited for, affinity groups I was somehow part of, and the odd fund drive related to an event.
Along the way, I didn’t really think I was doing much good. It gnawed at me that most causes were not transparent and didn’t deliver concrete information about results. You couldn’t compare one charity with another. My giving didn’t make sense. It was haphazard, reactive, and because of my network, probably biased away from the greatest needs and toward “charity for rich people.” And I knew it.
So when I met Holden and Elie, heard their story, and realized that GiveWell was doing philanthropy the way I wanted to do philanthropy, it was very exciting. They weren’t merely doing it my way–they were doing it in public, showing everyone how philanthropy should be done.
If I supported GiveWell, they would move my money—and other peoples’ money–to really effective causes. Moreover, by modeling evidence-based philanthropy for other organizations, they would indirectly route even more money to other effective causes. The very act of placing importance on effectiveness was radical and powerful. Words like “leverage,” ‘multiplier effect” and “market efficiency” danced gleefully in my little economist’s brain.
This was obviously the right way to do it. And if you were around me when this metaphysical axiom dawned on me, I probably explained this to you. Unfortunately, my recollection is that I was not very diplomatic about it. My memory is serving up some rather unflattering scenes. I may have subjected one victim to a high-volume, close-talking, garlic-breathy rant. Another may have been told she was effectively killing people by giving to her local PTA. For another, I might have gotten all intellectual, polishing my monocle and invoking Freud and Marx as I unpacked the relationship between slick corporate marketing and his Oedipal insecurities.
My mind may be exaggerating the specifics of those incidents. But I’m pretty sure I had a knack for turning cocktail party conversation into combat.
The only explanation I can offer is that I honestly didn’t understand why the GiveWell model, as I saw it, was not persuasive to absolutely everyone. How could you consider an opportunity to do more good with your donated dollar, in a repeatable and replicable way, and just say “pass”? It did not compute.
But eventually…and fortunately…something else dawned on me.
It’s your money. You can do what you want with it, because you have your own priorities. You can take time off from work to take care of a sick friend and live off your savings for a while. You can support a political cause. You can sponsor a park bench in the Hamptons and call it charity. You can buy yourself a sweet car.
There are a lot of perfectly good ways to live. I see that, and I promise you, I’m less of a jerk now.
For starters, I’ve accepted that the GiveWell story just doesn’t work for some people. It’s not an emotional or visceral appeal. GiveWell is often recommending causes that are far away and seem abstract. You have to overcome the fact that you can’t see the results with your own eyes. You have to put weight on how dire the needs are that are being addressed, and you have to derive confidence from the depth and quality of GiveWell’s research.
In addition, the needs addressed by GiveWell’s recommendations probably don’t involve your community or your pet projects. GiveWell doesn’t have a punchy or plaintive marketing pitch. Compared to other giving opportunities, there are a lot fewer stories.
For many, this is just not what charity is all about, period. I once had a dream of persuading these people. But having now gone through all the Kübler-Ross stages – anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance – I have let that dream die.
My own evolution has paralleled GiveWell’s in its efforts to enlist supporters. In GiveWell’s early strategy discussions, the board and Elie and Holden argued a lot how to market the product. Do GiveWell prospects work on Wall Street, Silicon Valley, academia…where are they? Will they respond to personal appeals, convincing analyses of top charities, endorsements of experts…what? I held out hope that GiveWell’s mission was just one clever marketing insight from spreading like a cat video.
But as of now, and with the board’s assent, Holden and Elie have prioritized research over outreach. The evidence suggests that GiveWell’s story has a niche appeal, and it’s the quality of the research that appeals to that niche. So that’s where we are.
I have voted in favor of that approach, but I’m not sitting quietly with my hands folded. The GiveWell idea is a big idea with the potential for a big audience. We can stick to our niche for now, but I believe that niche will expand over time and eventually stop looking so much like a niche.
On a day-to-day basis, I haven’t completely given up on my evangelism. There are still people like me who have been waiting to hear the GiveWell message, and there are others who will find the arguments compelling once they do.
I have gotten more civilized about courting these people. I recall one particular conversation where I was persuasive without resorting to jerk-ery.
Because my mother died of a particular disease, I am often approached to support organizations involved with that disease. Despite my very painful personal experience, I don’t feel any particular allegiance to those organizations. As I told one supporter, I don’t really care as much about moms with that disease as I care about moms in general. If I can save ten moms’ lives for the cost of saving one mom with the disease in question, I’d rather save ten.
It worked. The supporter agreed.
Maybe it had something to do with brushing my teeth and ditching the monocle.