The GiveWell Blog

Busting charities vs. donating

Would you rather hear about a good charity or a bad one?

When I’m explaining GiveWell to someone, there often comes a moment where his/her eyes suddenly light up, and s/he says something like, “So you bust the bad guys, eh? Can you tell me about a really bad one you’ve nailed?” (Paraphrased.)

This sort of person is usually pretty disappointed if and when they look at our actual reviews. “I don’t get it – you said you didn’t grant this organization because you didn’t have enough evidence to assess them. So you don’t KNOW that they’re bad …”

Finding bad charities is a fundamentally different endeavor from finding good ones. In some ways, it’s more fun and more exciting to find bad ones. Scandals are juicy; qualified statements that an organization appears to be improving lives, though many factors remain unexplored, are less so. “Good vs. evil” makes headlines and produces adrenaline in a way that “Proven vs. unproven” doesn’t.

But if you’re looking to accomplish as much good as possible with your donation, and you’re looking for an organization that you can be confident is changing lives for the better, I submit that you’re much better off focusing your energies on the few charities that might be able to convincingly document their effectiveness. Evaluating well-documented charities is more than enough work. Trying to nail down the effects of charities that don’t have strong self-documentation is an enormous undertaking, one that I think is worth your time only if you have a personal connection or other strong reason to believe you’re already dealing with an exceptional organization. Spending any time on organizations that don’t stand out in any way – and bothering to make distinctions between “bad” and “worst” – doesn’t seem like a good use of time at all. The question is, are you trying to make a good story or make a donation?


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