The GiveWell Blog

Chocolate-covered broccoli

All right! Some of those Christmas bonuses Elie talked about are going to charity, after all! This is awesome–not only are those Wall Street dudes super rich, but they’re super smart too, right? I bet they’re all thinking really carefully about how to accomplish the most good, and focusing on evidence and accountability, like these guys and this guy.

Or, they’re giving to whoever invites them to the coolest parties. One of the two.

I’m not trying to hate on the United Jewish Federation of New York. I know practically nothing about them (their website didn’t help … but I digress). But what percentage of the $21.5 million this party raised from Wall Street–accounting for about 1/7 their annual budget–would have come in if they hadn’t held an awesome casino party? And does this make any sense?

When it comes to evaluating charities, there is a common obsession with making sure your money goes “directly” to the cause, as opposed to overhead and administration costs. I think this is silly and I’ll discuss it more sometime soon … but hey … if you begrudge a charity every penny that it spends on salaries and infrastructure, how do you feel about their throwing an enormous gala to get you in the giving mood? Wouldn’t it be better to save them a little cash by sitting down yourself and figuring out where to give?

The issue, it seems to me, is that many people think of giving the same way they think of eating broccoli: they feel obligated to, they know they should, but they’d rather not. So charities, smartly, treat them like 5-year-olds: they try to trick them into it. If there were millions of dollars riding on getting some kid to eat his broccoli, the wisest move would probably be to get one of those chocolate-covering machines and douse the stuff until it’s unrecognizable.

This phenomenon isn’t the charities’ fault, it’s the donors. And it means that where the money goes has way less to do with who’s accomplishing the most good than with who does the best fundraising and party-throwing.

But a funny thing happens as you grow up. You realize broccoli isn’t half bad. With a little garlic, it can be flat delicious. Seriously, try it if you don’t believe me. And it’s especially good when you’ve had more than enough chocolate for the moment and you’re feeling just a little sick.

You also start to appreciate the fact that chocolate-covered broccoli is, by any measure, pretty gross.

(Just realized that talking about medicine and sugar would have made more sense as a metaphor here. Screw it, “broccoli” is a funny word and I’m sticking with it.)