The GiveWell Blog

How personal should your giving be?

A commonplace among fundraisers is that “people take action and give for deeply personal reasons.” This can mean many different things, but one of the implications is that people give to extremely specific, personal causes: diseases that loved ones have suffered from, local charities in areas where they live or grew up, charities that serve their particular ethnicity or nationality.

There are obvious benefits to giving in this way, but I think the costs are underlooked. The fact is, odds are good that your money can do more for more people if you get less personal. Chances are, you and those you love have never been affected by malaria or (severe) diarrhea – but those who are affected suffer in ways that are both severe and cheap to fix. If you can look beyond “someone I love suffered from disease X, so I want to fight disease X” to “someone I love suffered, so I want to fight suffering” – you can make a bigger impact on more people’s lives.

To continue with the crazy analogies that all of you so enjoy: it’s possible to buy clothes that are 100% tailored to your specific body. But for the same money, you can get an entire wardrobe of mass-produced, standardized clothes that fit pretty well.

With clothing, there is a time and a place for each, and generally, people will opt for more personalization as they get wealthier, because the tradeoff between quality and quantity is less acute (i.e., an extremely wealthy person can afford a whole wardrobe of tailored clothes, so why bother with the mass-produced stuff?)

But when it comes to charity, this tradeoff is always acute. The world’s problems – indeed, even just one of the world’s major problems – easily swamp anyone’s and everyone’s ability to fund them away. There are always more suffering people than you can help. That’s why I think it’s a mistake for any donor – even the wealthiest – to default to maximum personalization, insisting on helping “their people” even though it means helping far fewer people. The world needs far more help than any of us can afford to give it; if you needed far more clothing than you could afford, you’d go shopping at K-Mart (or Goodwill) and forget about the tailoring.

There is still a lot of room for philosophy and personal values in what it really means to help a person. I’m certainly not saying we should all give to the same cause. But I’ve always approached my own giving ready to sacrifice personalization (the causes that “speak to me”) for impact (help as many people as possible, as much as possible), and I think others don’t do that sufficiently. That’s why, where others envision a world where donors increasingly have it their way and choose whom to fund in excruciating detail, I envision a world where better and better information allows donors to focus rather than spread out – with the result that we might actually make progress on these problems. The question is: are you willing to give up some “personal resonance” in order to do a better job helping people?


  • Katya on May 29, 2007 at 12:54 pm said:

    Thanks for this post, but I want you to say more. I’m not sure what you mean by sacrificing personalization, or why personal feeling automatically means your giving is unfocused or costly. Why is it “costly” to give with your heart, to what you care about personally? Usually, we’re better investors in things we know rather than in things we don’t know. By your logic, the money I give to the MS Society (because my sister-in-law has the disease) is “costly,” as is the money I give to Malaria No More (which I give to because I lived in developing countries and dealt with malaria myself), because I have personal ties to both. But both these organizations have great impact. I’ve seen it myself. I’m not sure I get the trade-off. What are the costs?

  • Holden on May 29, 2007 at 1:07 pm said:

    I’m not saying that “personal feeling *automatically* means your giving is unfocused or costly” (emphasis mine). And I’m not sure what part of my post seemed to be saying that.

    All I’m saying is that it can be. And if start your giving process by eliminating the causes that don’t “speak to you personally,” odds are very good (not guaranteed) that you’re not maximizing your impact.

    Therefore, I urge people to strike a balance from the beginning between personalization and impact (and I would even urge starting with/prioritizing the latter). That doesn’t mean it’s wrong to give to a cause that moves you – just that that shouldn’t be the only criterion for picking a cause, or an “initial filter” that eliminates others without investigation.

    I also agree that it’s good to give to causes you know better – but I’m skeptical of the connection between being personally affected and “knowing” a cause. Most people who have been affected by cancer give to gigantic cancer research organizations; they know how cancer makes them feel, but they have no idea how their dollar is being used to fight it, which means they don’t really know anything about the extent to which their donation is improving the world.

    Does that clarify things?

  • Samantha on May 30, 2007 at 10:05 am said:

    Yes, my $100 will help more people if I donate to the “Nothing but Nets” campaign to provide 10 children in Africa with insecticide-treated bed nets (the most cost-effective way to prevent malaria transmission). I get “more bang for my buck” so to speak. Using your analogy, I just bought my summer wardrobe at Goodwill. HOWEVER, my hypothetical choice to instead donate to cancer research because my loved one is battling leukemia is not comparable to skipping Goodwill and spending my $100 on a pair of custom fit lace underwear from Neiman Marcus. A donation to cancer research is not a “luxury” item simply because it is more expensive than a bed net. The individuals suffering from cancer are just as human and equally deserving of my help.

    Your clarification in responding to Katya seems to hint at the more important issue: “Most people who have been affected by cancer give to gigantic cancer research organizations; they know how cancer makes them feel, but they have no idea how their dollar is being used to fight it, which means they don’t really know anything about the extent to which their donation is improving the world.

    The real issue isn’t that people are too emotional in selecting a cause to support. (In fact, I think that emotional giving is a beautiful and worthwhile practice.) Perhaps the greater issue is that once people select their cause, they don’t necessarily allocate their donation to the most effective organization. In other words, the problem isn’t that individuals donate to disease X for personal reasons rather than disease Y because it is more cost effective. Rather, the issue is that there are many organizations that address disease X, and donors do not always choose wisely.

  • Holden on May 30, 2007 at 10:56 am said:

    Samantha – I think that both are issues. GiveWell is focused on the issue that you describe: our goal is to help donors find the best charities within their causes of choice. As an organization, we aren’t actively trying to change the causes people give to.

    That said, the choice of cause is important. When you say “the humans suffering from cancer are equally deserving of my help,” I agree – but if they’re equally deserving, why not help as many as possible, which in this hypothetical example means fighting malaria (of course none of us know for sure whether that’s really the case)? If you believe you’ll help fewer people by fighting cancer, yet you choose it anyway, that implies a belief that the people struggling with cancer are significantly more deserving of your help.

    (Of course, your loved one is more deserving of your help. But the research you’re funding likely isn’t relevant to your loved one’s situation – it’s for the benefit of others, and the question is whether and why you value those others over the people suffering from malaria.)

  • Jeremy Gregg on May 31, 2007 at 1:22 am said:

    I think that you make a great point about how donors “should” feel and act. But how can fundraisers/organizations help them to get there?

  • Holden on May 31, 2007 at 4:12 pm said:

    Jeremy – I think your question is a good one and an important one, but it’s not one I have strong or probably very useful opinions about. I’m not passionate about raising money; I’m passionate about using it well. We’re raising money as well as we can, but it isn’t the core of what we do.

    I do think this, though: a fundraiser should always check their message to see if it reflects the truth. There are ways to present the truth more or less compellingly; presenting truth compellingly is the challenge of great marketing. Changing the subject, and getting people to give to the right cause for the wrong reasons, is what a lot of fundraisers do instead. That should be avoided unless absolutely necessary.

    So, the most I can answer to your question is: start with this value, and figure out how to express it compellingly. It could involve photos and stories to humanize the people who can be saved “for cheap,” to remind the donor they’re just as valuable. It could involve contrasts: “X children [include pictures] die every year from problems that would cost $Y to fix – yet 10x that is being spent chasing a cure for cancer that never comes.” I’m really rambling here – the point is just to start with the truth and figure out how to make it connect, rather than starting with what people already want to hear.

  • Samantha on May 31, 2007 at 7:04 pm said:

    Holden – My guess is that we’ll have to agree to disagree on this topic.

    That said, I wanted to respond to your most recent comment, in which you proposed the following “contrast” message:
    “X children [include pictures] die every year from problems that would cost $Y to fix – yet 10x that is being spent chasing a cure for cancer that never comes.”

    I don’t have a marketing background, but I see an inherent problem with that message. The word “chasing” implies that cancer research is futile, and the statement overlooks the fact that medical research does more than just search for cures. Through research we are able to create more effective treatment modalities, develop less invasive treatment options, and identify important preventative measures. In the end, that message is likely to offend and alienate potential donors.

  • Holden on May 31, 2007 at 7:15 pm said:

    Fair enough. I don’t have a marketing background either, nor am I an expert on cancer research – as I said, I was taking a quick and very amateur stab at getting something that makes intellectual sense to click with more emotional immediacy.

    I still think the message that you can save more lives by switching causes – lives that are as valuable as any others – is worth communicating. Probably best to leave it at that, rather than get into a discussion of exactly how to do this. This blog has some common interests with marketing blogs, but ultimately it is about morality, not marketing.

  • Still a great post 5 years later. And as someone who does have a background in marketing, I would disagree with Samantha’s assertion that you’ll turn people off by talking about the huge amount of money spent chasing a cure for cancer that never comes. The first rule of marketing is to segment the marketplace and select your target. In the marketplace for charitable donations, there are a huge number of people who will only donate to the causes that impact them personally and nothing anybody says or does will change that. These people may be put off by your comment about cancer research being a much poorer ROI on reducing suffering than malaria net distribution. So what! These people aren’t in your target. The people who are open to the idea that there may be a better way to donate by depersonalizing the process is your target, and these are people that need to be shaken a little bit with the facts and figures about the kind of suffering a $1,000 donation to distribution malaria nets is likely to eliminate vs a similar donation to cancer research. If anything, I would argue that Givewell does not go far enough in dramatizing the difference.

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