The GiveWell Blog

Charity vs. philanthropy

It’s slowly dawned on me that I almost never see the word “charity” on the other blogs in this space, and I rarely see it in foundation literature either. Meanwhile, you’ll almost never see the word “philanthropy” on this blog. For a while, the reason for this was simply that I think “philanthropy” is one of the ugliest words that it’s possible to construct. But I’ve picked up another reason to prefer “charity,” as I’ve discovered why others avoid it. In Sean’s words, “philanthropy [is] the practice of dealing with root causes rather than the derisively referred to ‘charity’ which is ‘just about managing symptoms.'” Put me down for managing symptoms, thanks.

Severe diarrhea kills millions of children a year. When are we going to find a cure?? Um, actually, we have one – in fact, we have several reliable, simple, cheap methods of both treating it (with a packet of nutrients that costs pennies) and preventing it (with water purification tablets, among other things). So may I ask why the Gates Foundation is determined to attack this problem by developing and researching new drugs and treatments?

The blog reports that polio is nearly eradicated, with under 2000 reported cases. I don’t know anything about polio, but I have to wonder why Google feels that its funds are best spent making a movie to raise awareness about this issue rather than just attacking it head-on. Making a movie isn’t cheap, and competing with Knocked Up for attention isn’t easy; using treatments and methods that have already worked thousands of times is both.

It’s hard for me to say much about what foundations do, what they’re thinking, and whether they’re reasonable, for the usual reason: it’s incredibly hard to get information from them on why they make the choices they make. But my general impression is that they place too much emphasis on “eliminating problems,” rather than on improving human beings’ lives.

When you’re trying to accomplish as much good as possible with your dollar, as in everything else, you have to factor in certainty (the same reason that people buy stocks and CDs instead of just lottery tickets). Of course I’d love to cure cancer or save Darfur, and I’d rather eliminate a disease than save 100 people from it. But as a strategy gets longer-term and gets more moving parts, my confidence in it falls exponentially. And my confidence falls even faster when all I know about a strategy is that it involves “research” (competing with thousands of other causes for the best scientists), “advocacy” (competing for political airtime), or “raising awareness” (good luck if you don’t have Al Gore or Michael Moore in your corner). The burden of proof should be high for a direct-service charity, but it should be 1000x higher for strategies along these lines – no matter how wonderful the goal.

That – not any philosophical opposition to government intervention or anything else – is why I generally prefer my donations to work one person at a time. (That distinguishes me from this fellow, whose argument against “root causes” appears to actually be an argument against large-scale charity.) The chance to truly change the world is, of course, incredibly tempting, and there are times when it’s the right thing to aim for. But it’s also important to remember that the dichotomy between “getting results” and “treating symptoms” is a false one, if improving humans’ lives – not promoting abstractions – is your ultimate goal. Saving a person from starvation – even if makes no dent in the causes of world hunger – is itself a result, and wonderful one.


  • tom belford on July 8, 2007 at 4:18 pm said:

    I agree that alleviating the “symptoms” (of poverty, of lack of rudimentary sanitation & drinkable water, of ignorance, of outright government ineptitude and corruption, of historic injustices) goes directly to the heart of lessening day-to-day human suffering … and therefore deserves all the donor support we can muster.

    That said, this piece goes a bit too far, IMHO, in devaluing the efforts that must be made, simultaneously, to attempt to deal with root causes, especially when the root causes are so painfully obvious.

    And often the strategies for dealing with root causes are necessarily more complicated, indirect, time-consuming, more easily thwarted because they involve “messy” things like politics, persuasion, overcoming eons-old practices and predjuices.

    Arguably, it takes more courage and fortitude to put money behind these strategies (which of course must be evaluated as best we can for their relative efficacy) than to give money to nurture an individual child.

    It might be an interesting question to ask someone in the “business” of feeding starving African children daily: Would you rather see another few million dollars used to feed more kids, or to enable families to grow more food, or to build political resistance to the despot who is ripping off (or worse) his own nation?

  • Holden on July 8, 2007 at 5:52 pm said:

    “especially when the root causes are so painfully obvious.”

    If you can give me an example of a problem whose solution is painfully obvious, I’m much more likely to agree with you that it’s worth attacking. If you can further show me that a reasonable plan exists for implementing the solution (even if it involves a lot of uncertainty), I’m even more likely to support it.

    I’m not against advocacy/publicity campaigns as a matter of principle, and there are some that I’m in support of. I just have a much higher burden of proof for them. These sorts of strategies really are 100% useless without a definite, documented, concrete plan that explains why what we’re aiming for is the best solution, how we’re going to get there, and how we’re going to outcompete all of the other causes competing for the hearts and minds we need on our side. Given how little documentation I’ve seen on any nonprofit’s activities, I’m inclined to start with charity.

  • Randy on July 11, 2007 at 9:22 am said:

    I raise funds for an NGO’s health branch. Programs are categorized three different ways.

    Eradication campaigns are few and far between. Eradication efforts want to kill every last instance of the disease. This is not possible if the vectors are very efficient or if there are animal reservoirs of the disease. As near as this admittedly green individual can tell, only polio and guinea worm disease are really capable of being called ‘eradication’ campaigns. As long as progress is being shown, this is relatively easy to get funds for.

    Elimination denotes complete removal of a disease in a specific location. The Onchocerciasis Elimination Program of the Americas is an example of a true elimination program. It’s worth it to note that this term is -very- overused by the NGO community at large, especially the fund raising parts. Elimination is seen as more desirable than the final classification, Control.

    A Control program is analogous to your ‘charity’. There is no way with current technology that we can eliminate malaria (which kills 80,000 people a month), but it would be silly to ignore this disease in favor of an eradication or elimination effort that had an infinitely smaller impact on the human population. Control programs seek to knock the prevalence of infection down to a certain percentage, and then move on to more endemic areas. Despite the previously mentioned statistic, malaria is still significantly more difficult to raise funds for in comparison to an eradication, elimination or emergency cause.

    I’d like to send you a .pdf of a study on why sudden emergencies attract more funding than long term problems, and what non-profits can do to change this. While I am relatively sure you wont agree with Epstein’s conclusions (especially on how and why people donate), I think it still would be useful for you.


  • Albert on July 11, 2007 at 9:22 pm said:

    Here’s one post on the charity vs. philanthropy thing.

    There’s wisdom, I think, not in breaking for charity or for something that addresses underlying causes, but rather in learning to balance the demands that each places on conscience. Being human, what other choice do we have?

  • Robert Daoust on September 29, 2007 at 12:02 pm said:

    “But it’s also important to remember that the dichotomy between “getting results” and “treating symptoms” is a false one, if improving humans’ lives – not promoting abstractions – is your ultimate goal.”

    I believe that each and everyone of us has to be saved either right now or preventively from excessive suffering. We will succeed only by considering each and every individual as an indispensable unit for attaining our ultimate goal: in other words let’s count each of our successfully helped individual as one step toward our aim. The problem until now is that we have not yet stated such a global goal in relation to each individual: for this we need what I call an ‘algonomy’, a frame of work for the knowledge and management of suffering.

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