The GiveWell Blog

The most important problem may not be the best charitable cause

I recently ran across a charity called Project AK-47 that declares:

Over 100,000 kids are carrying machine guns in the armies of Southeast Asia. Instead of walking to school, they march to war. Instead of playing, they train to kill. If we don’t intervene, most of these children will be soldiers for at least 7 more years…assuming they survive.

We have been rescuing as many of these child soldiers as possible. But right now, without more help, we have to turn many child soldiers away. Your $7 can make the difference between life and death for a child soldier.

A kid or a killer…you decide.

It’s a powerful emotional appeal, and if I could make the purchase they advertise, I would (many times over). There’s just one problem: after carefully examining the entire website, I cannot determine what this organization does.

It mentions paying for “7 days of food,” “7 days of quality education,” “play clothes to replace a child’s army uniform,” and “supplies for a child’s initial urgent medical care and hygiene” … but what is the plan to prevent them from becoming soldiers? Is this nonprofit hiring mercenaries to conduct armed rescues? Coming into peaceful communities and hoping that its help will discourage children from turning to the military? Or something else? And whatever it is, is it doable and does it work? I couldn’t find the answer.

It’s an extreme example of a style of argument common to nonprofits: point to a problem so large and severe (and the world has many such problems) that donors immediately focus on that problem – feeling compelled to give to the organization working on addressing it – without giving equal attention to the proposed solution, how much it costs, and how likely it is to work. Another example is the massive support for organizations such as the Save Darfur movement, despite serious questions about what exactly Save Darfur is trying to do (questions that I doubt most of its supporters have looked into).

Many of the donors we hear from are passionately committed to fighting global warming because it’s the “most pressing problem,” or to a particular disease because it affected them personally – even while freely admitting that they know nothing about the most promising potential solutions. I ask these donors to consider the experience related by William Easterly:

I am among the many who have tried hard to find the answer to the question of what the end of poverty requires of foreign aid. I realized only belatedly that I was asking the question backward … the right way around [is]: What can foreign aid do for poor people? (White Man’s Burden pg 11)

As a single human being, your powers are limited. As a donor, you’re even more limited – you’re not giving your talent or your creativity, just your money. This creates a fundamentally different challenge from identifying the problem you care most about, and can lead to a completely different answer.

In my case: I would rather close the achievement gap than fight developing-world disease, but my giving goes to the latter because it’s a problem that I can do much more to address.

The truth is that you may not be able to do anything to help address the root causes of poverty or cure cancer or solve the global energy crisis.* But you probably can save a life, and insisting on giving to the “biggest problem” could be passing up that chance.

*I haven’t looked into the latter two, and it’s possible that they are more tractable. If you know something about their tractability, I encourage you to share it.


  • jsalvati on April 20, 2009 at 1:51 pm said:

    OK, I am shocked that you think of “the achievement gap” as the biggest problem in the world. What sort of calculation led you to that conclusion? Your discussion of this seems to mostly be about the Warm Fuzzies you get from charity. Have you reflected on the recent OB discussion about purchasing utilons and Warm Fuzzies separately (giving a small amount to the “save cute kittens fund” and a large amount to saving a million people)?

    Also, I would like to see some discussion of SIAI in the context of where your charity best value is.

  • This is an interesting perspective but it misses the importance of uncertainty and probability.

    There’s a good poker analogy of pot odds. Sometimes the pot is just so huge that the optimal strategy is to make that last bet, even if you have a very small chance of winning. So long as the ratio of potential winnings to cost is greater than your odds of not winning. Suppose a bookmaker who was offering you 10-1 on a bet that you will lose 7 times out of 8. You would be mad not to take that bet.

    So even if there is a small chance that my donation will have any impact, it can still be worth giving if I value the potential impact sufficiently (relative to the cost).

  • Ingvild Bjornvold on April 22, 2009 at 11:00 am said:

    It’s refreshing to see these questions raised. A donor’s first consideration may be what cause s/he feels most strongly about, but good answers to the next questions should be equally important: What does the organization do? How does it do it? Can it show positive outcomes? In other words, is it – at least – likely to achieve positive outcomes?

    I wouldn’t want to limit donations to only those organizations that have been experimentally evaluated, but let’s not donate to organizations unable to answer the most basic questions. Most donors would be suprised at how many that weeds out.

  • Holden on April 22, 2009 at 11:34 am said:

    jsalvati: I don’t think of the achievement gap as the world’s biggest problem – a better way of putting it might be that I would prefer (all else equal) (a) enabling an underachieving person to rise to the top of American society to (b) saving the life of someone in Africa who will remain in extreme poverty. But what I’ve learned about the relative costs and feasibility have led me to prefer (b) as a goal for my donations.

    I am speaking purely about giving with altruistic aims, not about giving with the aim of “warm fuzzies” (and I agree it makes sense to separate the two). However, I am not committed to philosophical utilitarianism, and I’m not sure there is any way to compare (a) and (b) above without making some emotion- and/or intuition-driven judgment calls.

    Regarding GiveWell vs. SIAI, I know I told you a while ago that I intended to write about this, and I apologize for not having done so. After some reflection, I realized I had less to say on this topic than I had thought, and I’ve continued to think about (and discuss) it off and on. Expected-value calculations aren’t very helpful because the main argument for SIAI is that it has an extremely small probability of an extremely large benefit. I believe SIAI’s probability of success is lower than what we can reasonably conceptualize; this does not rule it out as a good investment (since the hoped-for benefit is so large), but neither does the math support it as an investment (donating simply because the hoped-for benefit multiplied by the smallest conceivable probability is large would, in my view, be a form of falling prey to “Pascal’s Mugging”). I do have more thoughts on the matter, but not at the stage where I feel they belong on this blog (yet). It might be best to discuss offline sometime.

  • Holden on April 22, 2009 at 11:35 am said:

    Lee – I agree that high upside can compensate for small odds. But it’s essential to have a good feel for both the potential upside and the odds. The argument of this post is that decisions are too often made by looking only for the biggest problem, without enough attention to the second part of the question (what are the possible solutions, how much of the problem would they address, and what are their odds of success?)

  • Ian Turner on April 23, 2009 at 10:42 pm said:

    I understand that your remarks about Project AK47 was simply an illustration of a larger problem. But I was so fascinated on the lack of information that I decided to do a little digging. The financial statements are here: and tell a great story: Basically the organization takes half its income and pays it to directors as cash, benefits, travel, etc. The other half goes to an unnamed grant recipient(s) performing “teaching and training of local pastors among wa tribe in Thailand and operator of orphanage in Thailand”. Since the grantee is unnamed, it seems extremely possible that this money is also embezzeled.

    Based on this, I’d say there is a great chance that the entire organization is a fraud.

  • Ian Turner on April 23, 2009 at 10:48 pm said:

    More detail: The 2005 form 990 lists the grant recipients as “Mae Sai Missions” and “North Thailand Christian Ministry”, which appear to be Christian missionary operations.

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