The GiveWell Blog

You can save a life

We ask you, as a donor, to turn down some great pitches – “Your interest-free loan will help this person escape poverty forever,” “You can give a cow to a poor family for Christmas,” etc. – and give instead to charities that aren’t terribly good at storytelling. Why?

It comes down to this. We think that most of those stories are just that – stories. (For more, see our summary of recent posts on “big-name” charities, which we feel are representative of the full set of charities we’ve reviewed.) But if you give to one of our top charities, you really can save (or dramatically change) a human life.

It hasn’t been easy to find charities that we can honestly say this about. That’s what our process is built around and where most of our energy goes. This week we’ve blogged about the best we’ve found, VillageReach and Stop Tuberculosis Partnership. There is plenty of room for doubt even with them, but overall we think there is a strong case – even for the skeptic – that your donation to them can save a life.

What do we mean when we say “save a life?”

By “you can save a life,” we don’t mean anything as simple, concrete, or easy to grasp as the stories charities usually tell.

  • Your gift can’t literally be linked to an individual. It will help an organization that, all things considered, is achieving a lot of impact for what it spends.
  • If you must know what “your” dollars are doing, it’s likely that they’ll be sitting in reserves to ensure financial stability, or enabling a slightly larger travel budget for evaluators, or something similarly unexciting.
  • It’s even highly possible that your donations will be wasted, and that the charity you give to – even the best you can find – will fail. We don’t think there are true guarantees in aid.
  • Even if these charities are succeeding, it’s very likely that your donation won’t ultimately result in the charity doing anything differently. It’s pretty hard to think about how $1000, by itself, could really change anything about Stop TB Partnership‘s plans for next year.
  • Yet donations add up. 50-100 of these donations could mean a significantly larger grant, more people getting tuberculosis treatment … and that could mean families staying intact instead of being struck by sudden death.

The truth is that it takes a lot of abstraction and analytical thinking to really think about how your donation saves a life. The life you can save is an “expected” life (“expected” in the sense of probabilistic expected value) – it isn’t a person we can point to or show you a picture of. More than with typical charities, you have to use your imagination. But more than with typical charities, your impact is real.

With opportunity comes responsibility

In The Life You Can Save (which prominently features GiveWell and which we have reviewed), Peter Singer writes:

By donating a relatively small amount of money, you could save a child’s life … we all spend money on things we don’t really need, whether on drinks, meals out, clothing, movies, concerts, vacations, new cars, or house renovation. Is it possible that by choosing to spend your money on such things rather than contributing to an aid agency, you are leaving a child to die, a child you could have saved? (pg 5)

Our corollary: is it possible that you are leaving a child to die when you choose to donate to a charity with a “feel-good” story rather than a charity with a great case for real impact?

It is true that, as our critics often point out, a charity can be impactful without being demonstrably impactful. But when one charity proves itself and another leaves you guessing, it seems clear to us which one offers the “better bet” – and more “expected lives saved” – given the information available. When you have the option of giving to an outstanding charity that demonstrably can save a life, how do you justify giving to a charity whose true impact is essentially a big question mark?

I’ll leave this blog’s last words for 2009 to Natalie, a relatively recent GiveWell hire (she has been working full-time on research since July).

Sometimes I’m almost tempted to give to a charity I know less about. I’ve been over VillageReach and I’ve seen how complex the situation is and how many questions there are. If I gave to some charity I know nothing about, I could just think about the story they tell and feel good and not have these nagging doubts. But I’m not going to do that – in the end it’s more important to me that I really make a difference.

GiveWell’s top-rated charities


  • Church Fund Raising Revival on February 5, 2010 at 4:07 am said:

    Yes, I strongly agree with you Holden. Giving or donating something really make sense, it can almost save life. So, continue spreading the goodness that God entitled us to have.

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