The GiveWell Blog

I just bought a printer

Like most people who work in an office, I’ve never dealt with buying a printer before, so today I had to start from scratch. An hour ago, I knew nothing about ink vs. laser or HP vs. Lexmark; now, I’ve settled on a Samsung SCX-4200 and I’m feeling pretty good about it.

Why am I telling you this? Because that’s exactly how things should have gone the first time I decided to give to charity, years ago. Within an hour (or maybe a few, since it was a larger and more significant purchase than a printer), I should have gone from “What’s malaria?” to feeling pretty good about my choice of charity. If that had happened, of course, GiveWell wouldn’t exist and you wouldn’t have this awesome blog to read, so maybe everything happens for a reason.

But let’s break this down. Below is how I chose my printer, and how I failed to choose my charity.

1. Starting from nothing: the Google search. Printer: I typed “printer” into Google, scanned down through a few results, and recognized CNet, a big-name review site that I’ve had good experiences with the past. I clicked CNet. Charity: I typed “charity” into Google and clicked the first result, Charity Navigator. So far so good.

2. Broad overview of my options. Printer: Boom. Right on the front page, a link to a printer buying guide that gives me an overview of the pros and cons of different kinds of printers. I read it through and decided that I don’t need color and quality as much as I need speed and convenience – so I’m going with a budget laser. Charity: A bewildering list of mind-bogglingly broad categories; click one and you’ll get pages of results, even if you restrict yourself to the highest-rated ones. The equivalent for printers would be if CNet offered to let me search for the exact printer I wanted, or view its full list of hundreds of “CNet approved” printers. Yech. And keep in mind that the irrelevant criteria Charity Navigator uses are probably most equivalent to a “height of printer divided by smelliness of ink” metric.

I defy you to find anything on the web that does for malaria (for example) what CNet’s review does for printers: succinctly summarize the different approaches and their pros and cons. This doesn’t count.

3. Getting a short list of recommended options. I don’t have time to go through 400 different printer reviews, but I also don’t want the “one size fits all” option just dumped on me. Fortunately, CNet provides its Editors’ picks, with a few specs and a quick overview of each. I picked “personal laser”, scanned the options, and noticed that the Samsung SCX-4200 is cheap and includes a scanner. Sounds great. Charity: nothing (this doesn’t count). Every trusted reviewer or foundation is so committed to “neutrality” that it refuses to narrow the field subjectively – with the result that the consumer is left with hundreds of options, to grind through (not likely) or ignore and end up back where they started (quite likely).

4. Examining a single choice in depth. The Samsung caught my eye, so I checked out CNet’s review. It’s opinionated and honest, giving the pros and cons. It’s a couple pages, with the highlights right at the top. And most importantly, it includes comments from users. I wouldn’t use these comments exclusively – I want to read a systematic weighing of pros and cons from someone who’s taken the time, rather than rely on a few random vague impressions – but I also want a sanity check from people who’ve actually used the thing. Everything checks out, the people complaining about the Samsung seem crazy … so I’m ready to buy. Charity: this doesn’t count.

5. Growing increasingly frustrated with the difficulty of finding good information; asking friends to help me; realizing that there is a giant unmet need that I have to devote myself to attacking. Printer: I skipped this step. Charity: I imagine you know the story.

In the end, I’m not 100% confident that I’ve found the best printer. But I feel pretty confident that I’ve found one of the best ones. Not bad for an hour’s work. Imagine if an uninformed donor could do the same.

Is giving just like buying a printer? No. It’s higher-stakes, and it’s more complex. Creating a guide that’s both fair and usable would be harder than what CNet has done (and what CNet has done isn’t easy).

I would add that charity is more subjective, but that really isn’t true – 90% of what I was looking for in buying a printer was the subjective, unquantifiable stuff, like whether the thing is smooth or buggy and whether it’s easy to use or generally a pain in the neck. I used editors’ and users’ opinions, opinions that are highly general, unprovable, far from ironclad. These opinions aren’t perfect, they’re just helpful.

And, I would add that charity is more emotional … but, I think the opposite is more often true. I think the reason information on printers is so available is because the demand is there, and the demand is there because people really care about getting a good printer. They don’t just want to find one that’s “approved” or “four stars” and leave it at that – they want to get one of the best deals they can. They don’t just want to know that their printer means well – they need the thing to work, so they demand good information.

GiveWell isn’t just for hyper-active donors who need every bit of information; it’s also for time-strapped donors who want to quickly check out their options and come to a pretty good conclusion. That’s what I was, once upon a time. Really, within the causes we cover, the only donors GiveWell can’t help are the donors who don’t care as much about giving a good donation as they care about getting a good printer.

If we create a useful donor resource, and you choose to ignore it in favor of a whim or a compelling picture or a pet cause, don’t tell me it’s because you’re being “emotional.” I say it’s because you’re being lazy, and laziness comes from lack of passion. If you really care whether your printer works, you’re willing to put in some time and read some boring stuff before you buy, and that’s why there’s demand for what CNet supplies. If you really care about helping others, don’t demand any less.


  • Earl Mardle on May 23, 2007 at 1:13 am said:

    Hi folks,

    I came across your entry in Netsquared while looking for possible entrants in the Stockholm Challenge for which i work as project support.

    There is a lot in GiveWell that strikes me as making a potentially excellent entry in the Challenge.

    If you can crack the process of matching potential donors at a variety of levels, not just major corporates, and the people who need the funds, you will have done a great thing and we would like our jury to look at the model and to be able to give you some profile through our site and our programme.

    Plus, I’d be very glad of any help you can offer in making contact with organisations that use GiveWell as an IT based tool in meeting their own organisational objectives.

    Kind regards
    Earl Mardle
    Project Support
    The Stockholm Challenge

  • Gillian on May 23, 2007 at 3:39 pm said:

    Hey there,

    Wading your way through hundreds of charities is probably similar to wading through the diverse topics, information and opinions on climate science.

    Here’s a GREAT guide to the climate change terrain.

    Examples of excellence inspire us, and like your printer example, we can apply learnings from one domain to another.


  • phillip wei on June 21, 2007 at 5:13 pm said:

    nice post.

  • shelly on June 27, 2007 at 3:23 pm said:

    I appreciate the effort but there are a number of organizations that rate charities and I also believe the Attorney General (at least in NY State) has information. Consumer guide also rates charities. Is this a major duplication of effort? Thanks, shelly

  • Holden on June 27, 2007 at 3:31 pm said:

    Shelly – the post above explicitly contrasts the resources that do exist (of which Charity Navigator is an excellent representative) with the one I believe is essential to create.

    We have done a thorough listing of all the organizations we know of that attempt to help donors find charities, and explained why we think none of them is in the ballpark of providing what needs to be provided. This writeup is Appendix B of our business plan, available at If you know of a resource that looks not just at financial statements and accounting metrics, but at what charities do and whether it works, then please let me know immediately – that will certainly save us a lot of time.

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