The GiveWell Blog

More or less pie?

An objection to our project that I get occasionally goes something like this: sure, it would be great if people really understood the complexities involved in helping people and gave accordingly – but aren’t we worried that revealing these complexities will just make them want to give less? What happens when people learn that charity in Africa is more complicated than “5 cents saves a life,” that charity in the US is more complicated than “Check it out, an adorable child,” and finding a low Straw Ratio isn’t the same thing as finding the best use of your donation?

Well, let’s break it down. If we succeed in creating a public dialogue about how best to help people, and a website where any donor can get a picture of what charities do and whether it works, there will be some ways in which this might make the pie bigger (more total giving) and others in which it might make the pie smaller (less).

Pie bigger: some donors are too analytical for traditional fundraising to work on them; the only way they can have confidence in something is if they have real information. As I argued here, giving them that information is key to getting them to give.

Pie bigger: some donors simply do not know where to start. That’s the boat I was in when I started GiveWell, and it took seconds to find like-minded people. As I argued here, there’s a world of difference between a resource that gives a “checkup” on thousands of charities and one that gives them a fully thought out decision to start playing with.

Pie bigger: controversy and conflict aren’t always a bad thing. As I argued here, bringing out the complexity and difficulty of charity means turning it into something challenging and engaging, rather than sweet and boring.

Pie smaller: some donors honestly believe that the charities they donate to – unlike every organization in the world – have never made a debatable choice or (heavens forbid) a mistake. As soon as they get wind, it’s less charity and bigger houses for them.

Pie smaller: some donors don’t want to be bothered with the details. Giving them a lot of information will overwhelm them, and they’ll give up before they can ever get out their credit cards.

So it could go either way, in theory. A couple things, though.

First off, the balance is tilted quite a bit by the simple fact of life that people seek out what interests them. We all know how people behave when they don’t want to think too hard about their vote: they just vote, straight-ticket, and ignore all the debates and analysis going on around them. In the end, donors who either don’t recognize or don’t want to understand the complexity in charity will just ignore us, and listen to the fundraisers. That’s extremely easy to do – much easier than doing things our way. (If it ever isn’t, that means we must have gotten really big.) By the time someone reads our research, they’re already expressing (a) an active interest in giving (b) a willingness to put effort into understanding the whole story. It’s hard to do that while fitting the profile of someone who quits in the face of imperfection or complexity. Bottom line, it seems pretty farfetched to think that we’ll reach more people who don’t care about what we’re doing than people who do care.

Secondly, it doesn’t just matter how big the pie is, it matters what’s in it. The donors we’re in danger of “pushing out” (again, I find it hard to believe they will even be aware of us) are the least intelligent and/or least engaged ones. The donations we’re in danger of eliminating are the ones that are floating about almost at random, to whatever charity says “We’re perfect” first. Meanwhile, the donors we hope to bring in are the ones who care enough to want to put in some extra time and figure out how to do as much good as possible. They’re the ones who can contribute to the dialogue, and they’ll probably be contributing more money as well. Contrary to what you may have heard, there are worse things than a smaller pie. Like a half-baked one.

(To those of you who saw that ending coming 5 paragraphs ago, I apologize. The marketing dept made me do it.)


  • Sarah on June 27, 2007 at 9:00 am said:

    Great, now I’m hungry. Thanks a lot.

  • Dave Chakrabarti on June 29, 2007 at 11:47 pm said:

    Holden, you left out the most important thing about the pie: if we had more informed, discerning bakers, it would go to more deserving mouths.

    I’ll also add that I doubt you’re *even* in danger of eliminating the donors who are floating about at random; the transparency is entirely optional. A donor who simply wants a “donate now” button to click will find it and click it; the great majority I believe (or rather, hope) will be curious and, eventually, engaged if the ecology were more transparent.

    To succeed, however, the dialog that ensues must be as clearly organized (even structured) as possible…otherwise, the information will be too chaotic to be useful. I’m interested in how you will organize the discussion and the information that grows out of it; controversial issues will generate masses of conflicting viewpoints, as recently happened at Tactical Phil. At that point, comments on a blog post become inadequate as an information architecture model. A wiki might offer the right flexibility, but will scare off some (there are many more blog commenters than wiki users). Thoughts?

    I’ll watch this space often; I like what I’ve read so far.

  • Holden on June 30, 2007 at 3:19 pm said:

    Dave – welcome to the blog and thanks for the comments. I agree that it matters how the pie is divvied up, not just how big it is – that’s what the second-to-last paragraph was trying to express.

    I also agree that how information is summarized and organized is crucial, and that a blog isn’t going to cut it. The blog is not all there is to our project, it’s just our blog. Our project consists of making grants in a variety of broad humanitarian causes and publishing the information we find in the process on a public website that will be designed to help donors quickly get the picture of what charities we think are best and why. There will be a more full update on this within the next few days.

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