The GiveWell Blog

My favorite cause

This is a response to the Giving Carnival topic I posted a couple days ago.

I’m passionate about all of the 2007 Clear Fund causes, and about many others as well, but the one that revs me up the most is inner-city education in wealthy societies. The reasons for this are complicated and tough to unravel, but here goes. This cause appeals to my:

  • Universal-humanitarian values. Although the Clear Fund is focusing for now on NYC, I have never felt anything more for the people who share my geography or religion or ethnicity than for the people who don’t. (And if someone I care about suffers from a particular disease, it makes me want to fight suffering, not fight the disease.)
  • View of the good life. Gotta be brief about this one. I don’t value happiness, or even the absence of pain, as much as most people do. What I really value is giving someone the opportunity to reach their full potential as a world-shaper, not just -citizen; I want people to experience, learn from, compete with, or even be the best in the world at what they care most about. I see value in things like hospice care and the Make-a-Wish foundation, but they excite me way less than enabling a life with no ceiling. And even though you can save an African life for much less than a U.S. one, I think a true shot at all the opportunities the world has to offer is easier and even cheaper to provide in the U.S.
  • Desire to make a real, short-term, definite difference. I’d love to help invent a great cure or technology, or a new version of capitalism where everything is perfect. But no matter what the “expected value,” I can’t stomach the idea of pouring everything I have into one giant losing bet, and failing to impact a single person’s life for the better. We might not have the formula for helping kids succeed, but at a minimum, giving them more supportive adults to interact with is going to make a difference in someone’s life, statistically significant or not.
  • Desire to work on a large-scale problem. Despite the smack I’ve talked about “root causes,” I also can’t be 100% satisfied just exchanging dollars for lives. I believe that well-spent charity in this area will support organizations that are trying new things and documenting them; we may never get “the answer,” but we’ll be learning from our mistakes and creating more knowledge about programs that can be replicated at other charities and even possibly by the government. To me it’s a great compromise between tackling a grand problem and helping individuals, because unlike a purely political endeavor, you’re building evidence as you go – and the evidence is real people really helped.
  • Wish to fight bad guys. Sure, malaria and diarrhea are bad guys, but this cause, for me, has a much more human and tangible (and thus detestable, and thus motivating) bad guy as well. It’s the people who believe that economics is justice, that our current society is perfectly fair, and that – by implication – the hordes of poor/unproductive/criminal people in the inner city must be that way because they were born that way. People who think this aren’t just being hypercapitalist; they’re logically committed to racism too, since the achievement gap persists as a racial phenomenon even when you control for economics.

    My hatred for these people goes back to childhood, when I loved Les MisĂ©rables and couldn’t believe that the smug suburban sheep around me thought they actually deserved to be better off than Jean Valjean. I desperately want to see them be wrong, and I don’t need a worldwide revolution for this to come about. Every poor minority student who grows up to be a successful businessman/politician/writer is one more slap in the face of people who think the world as of 2007 is a reflection of justice.

  • Beliefs about race issues. Some feel that racism is the true “root cause” of the achievement gap, and that may be true, but I think it also works the other way around. As long as certain communities (particularly black ones) are held back from the start, they’re going to end up less successful and more criminal than the rest of us, and that just encourages the people (the same jerks from above) who look for reasons to write them off as inferior. Again, every person helped is another salvo in this battle.

A lot of the above isn’t in our criteria, because it isn’t strictly in line with our declared values, and it isn’t strictly rational. I shouldn’t care about proving jerks wrong, for example; I should just care about helping people. But I’m human, and what motivates me isn’t quite that simple, and I can be honest about that and still do my job well. I hope others will participate in similar fashion.


  • Phil on July 30, 2007 at 6:42 pm said:

    Excellent post. Blogged it at gifthub.

  • Holden:

    As someone who blogs on employee motivation, performance and rewards – and does a lot of work in the nonprofit world – I am a big fan of your blog. There is a game of “8 random facts” going around the blogosphere and, having been tagged myself, I named you as a tag-ee in the hopes that you will be willing to reveal a few facts about yourself for your (and my) readers!

    Thanks for considering!

  • Holden on July 31, 2007 at 9:13 pm said:

    Hi Ann,

    Thanks for tagging me. I’m going to have to pass on “full participation” – this is a blog devoted to a specific set of topics and content types, and staying focused on them has advantages for us and our readers. But, I’m happy to share 8 random facts about myself:

    1. I was named after Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye.

    2. I have a cat who has appeared on this blog.

    3. I have never played professional football.

    4. I have an abnormally high energy level. I was diagnosed with ADD as a child, but my parents correctly ignored the diagnosis.

    5. I am a proud member of the Barry Bonds Fan Club. I think trying to make athletes be “moral” is a tremendous waste of time; we should let them take whatever drugs they want, not discuss this in the media, enjoy the games, and save our moral righteousness for things that matter.

    6. I was 5′ tall entering my sophomore year in high school, and was convinced I would never grow. Now I’m a solid 6′, and I swear I have never gotten over it. It’s like a good dream that doesn’t end.

    7. I gave a graduation speech at Harvard without a serious word in it. (See 1:20)

    8. I am the least likable person in the nonprofit sector.

  • Holden:

    Thanks for the facts!

    Perhaps #8 is why I find your blog so on-target on many topics that touch the work I do (which is helping nonprofits measure, manage and reward employee performance). If complete candor and transparency are indeed unlikeable, then more of us should aspire to be so.

    Keep doing what you do – it is making a difference out here in ways that you probably haven’t even considered!

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