The GiveWell Blog

It’s for charity – but is it for a good cause?

People can get away with some incredible things as soon as they say that what they’re doing is “for charity.” First among these, of course, are the tax advantages that subsidize everything from helping the needy to fighting gun control, convincing people to eat beef, and stockpiling giant piles of cash for eternity. But it isn’t just the IRS that loses all ability to tell right from wrong as soon as the word “charity” comes up. It’s all of us. Except me.

You may not attend a rock concert to benefit beef, but what about cancer research? How about humane societies? Of course, these two causes are in direct conflict over the question of animal testing – many humane societies put significant amounts of their resources directly into trying to illegalize the testing that other “charities” are busy funding.

Charities oppose each other in more subtle ways as well. Going through all these 990s, I’ve really become aware of the huge presence among charities of political advocacy. It’s natural that charities find themselves wanting to address the “root causes” of the problems they address; but as soon as they do this, it’s no longer safe to say that their funds are “going to a good cause” without at least thinking twice. After all, if the legal changes they want to make were completely noncontroversial, you’d think they’d already be made. If you go to a concert to “fight global warming” or “save the environment,” your dollars aren’t going to feed cuddly bunnies; chances are, they’re going to lobbyists, advocates, even demonstrators, with the aim of putting laws in place that might be pro-environment or anti-business, depending on your point of view. And even if you’re on the pro-environment side, it’s worth considering that one of the biggest struggles in politics is not just for position, but for attention and prioritization. When it comes down to it, Greenpeace (saving the environment) and Oxfam (fighting poverty) are largely working against each other – trying to get legislators to pay attention to their issue rather than others.

And at least as big as political advocacy, at least judging by charities’ mission statements, is “raising awareness.” Well, awareness is a zero-sum game too. People only have so much attention span available for things that aren’t sports and diets. You want to raise awareness for Darfur, for global warming, or for Lou Gehrig’s disease? “All of the above” isn’t necessarily an option.

Tooling around through my recent Google alerts (“Charity”), I see a mind-boggling silence on these questions. Indeed, I see Barry Bonds being praised for “giv[ing] some of his own things to charity,” with no mention of what causes he’s supported. I see a whole article on celebrities’ support of charities for Mother’s Day, without the mention of a single charity beyond Eva Longoria’s personal foundation (not a word on that foundation’s priorities). I see plenty of debate on the recent “Idol Gives Back” campaign in terms of whether its “devotion to charity” makes up for its cheesiness … but my question is, what does the ONE campaign (one of its beneficiaries) mean when it talks about “call[ing] for debt cancellation, trade reform and anti–corruption measures”? That sounds like legal change – what does the campaign want and is it a good idea? Nobody else wants to know?

It’s the same old problem: as soon as people hear the word “charity,” their critical faculties turn off. Of course, celebrities and athletes would love it to stay this way – the last thing they need is more questions, just when they’re trying to clean up their image by throwing a few bucks at 501c3’s. But the rest of us would do well to wake up. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if you want to know if someone is doing good things, the best way is to look at what they’re doing.


  • Gillian on May 30, 2007 at 5:03 pm said:

    Are you saying that advocacy is not worthwhile charity, or are you saying that only some advocacy should count as worthwhile charity? If the latter, what sort of advocacy would you consider to be worthwhile charity?

  • Holden on May 30, 2007 at 6:01 pm said:

    I think worthwhile advocacy is advocacy for issues that are worth changing the laws (and diverting legislative priorities) for. I have personal opinions on this (for example, I think advocating intervention in Darfur is worthwhile, while I find most environmental and animal-rights advocacy questionable and would not want to support organizations that engage in them). But opinions on those matters will vary widely – this post was more to stress that even things that appear at first blush to be “good causes” could be working against what you value most, and you need to think hard about a cause before signing off because it’s a “charity.”

  • Brandon on January 30, 2009 at 7:03 am said:

    Your points about the critical faculty turning off are well-taken. I’ve known far too many activists who would swallow anything if it was against Bush.

    I’m not sure I agree on the point about raising awareness. It *is* a zero sum game for each individual person who can only pay attention to a select few issues, but as the one doing the raising of awareness you are putting the info out there and those who have the time and interest will find you, while others may rightly pass you by.

    And on a less serious note: I’m dying to know where you got those images, and if I can snag them! (would gladly use with author attributions, if you tell me who to credit) thanks

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