The GiveWell Blog

Guest post from Tom Rutledge

The following is a guest post from one of our Board members, Tom Rutledge, that he wrote to reflect on his personal experiences as a GiveWell supporter.

I was a Jerk for GiveWell

When I first learned about GiveWell, I was a real jerk about it.

I blame the preceding years. Before GiveWell, I had accumulated a lot of bad feelings related to giving. My charitable activities had consisted of the usual, in the usual categories: alumni funds, causes that friends solicited for, affinity groups I was somehow part of, and the odd fund drive related to an event.

Along the way, I didn’t really think I was doing much good. It gnawed at me that most causes were not transparent and didn’t deliver concrete information about results. You couldn’t compare one charity with another. My giving didn’t make sense. It was haphazard, reactive, and because of my network, probably biased away from the greatest needs and toward “charity for rich people.” And I knew it.

So when I met Holden and Elie, heard their story, and realized that GiveWell was doing philanthropy the way I wanted to do philanthropy, it was very exciting. They weren’t merely doing it my way–they were doing it in public, showing everyone how philanthropy should be done.

If I supported GiveWell, they would move my money—and other peoples’ money–to really effective causes. Moreover, by modeling evidence-based philanthropy for other organizations, they would indirectly route even more money to other effective causes. The very act of placing importance on effectiveness was radical and powerful. Words like “leverage,” ‘multiplier effect” and “market efficiency” danced gleefully in my little economist’s brain.

This was obviously the right way to do it. And if you were around me when this metaphysical axiom dawned on me, I probably explained this to you. Unfortunately, my recollection is that I was not very diplomatic about it. My memory is serving up some rather unflattering scenes. I may have subjected one victim to a high-volume, close-talking, garlic-breathy rant. Another may have been told she was effectively killing people by giving to her local PTA. For another, I might have gotten all intellectual, polishing my monocle and invoking Freud and Marx as I unpacked the relationship between slick corporate marketing and his Oedipal insecurities.

My mind may be exaggerating the specifics of those incidents. But I’m pretty sure I had a knack for turning cocktail party conversation into combat.

The only explanation I can offer is that I honestly didn’t understand why the GiveWell model, as I saw it, was not persuasive to absolutely everyone. How could you consider an opportunity to do more good with your donated dollar, in a repeatable and replicable way, and just say “pass”? It did not compute.

But eventually…and fortunately…something else dawned on me.

It’s your money. You can do what you want with it, because you have your own priorities. You can take time off from work to take care of a sick friend and live off your savings for a while. You can support a political cause. You can sponsor a park bench in the Hamptons and call it charity. You can buy yourself a sweet car.

There are a lot of perfectly good ways to live. I see that, and I promise you, I’m less of a jerk now.

For starters, I’ve accepted that the GiveWell story just doesn’t work for some people. It’s not an emotional or visceral appeal. GiveWell is often recommending causes that are far away and seem abstract. You have to overcome the fact that you can’t see the results with your own eyes. You have to put weight on how dire the needs are that are being addressed, and you have to derive confidence from the depth and quality of GiveWell’s research.

In addition, the needs addressed by GiveWell’s recommendations probably don’t involve your community or your pet projects. GiveWell doesn’t have a punchy or plaintive marketing pitch. Compared to other giving opportunities, there are a lot fewer stories.

For many, this is just not what charity is all about, period. I once had a dream of persuading these people. But having now gone through all the Kübler-Ross stages – anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance – I have let that dream die.

My own evolution has paralleled GiveWell’s in its efforts to enlist supporters. In GiveWell’s early strategy discussions, the board and Elie and Holden argued a lot how to market the product. Do GiveWell prospects work on Wall Street, Silicon Valley, academia…where are they? Will they respond to personal appeals, convincing analyses of top charities, endorsements of experts…what? I held out hope that GiveWell’s mission was just one clever marketing insight from spreading like a cat video.

But as of now, and with the board’s assent, Holden and Elie have prioritized research over outreach. The evidence suggests that GiveWell’s story has a niche appeal, and it’s the quality of the research that appeals to that niche. So that’s where we are.

I have voted in favor of that approach, but I’m not sitting quietly with my hands folded. The GiveWell idea is a big idea with the potential for a big audience. We can stick to our niche for now, but I believe that niche will expand over time and eventually stop looking so much like a niche.

On a day-to-day basis, I haven’t completely given up on my evangelism. There are still people like me who have been waiting to hear the GiveWell message, and there are others who will find the arguments compelling once they do.

I have gotten more civilized about courting these people. I recall one particular conversation where I was persuasive without resorting to jerk-ery.

Because my mother died of a particular disease, I am often approached to support organizations involved with that disease. Despite my very painful personal experience, I don’t feel any particular allegiance to those organizations. As I told one supporter, I don’t really care as much about moms with that disease as I care about moms in general. If I can save ten moms’ lives for the cost of saving one mom with the disease in question, I’d rather save ten.

It worked. The supporter agreed.

Maybe it had something to do with brushing my teeth and ditching the monocle.


  • Tom, your experience mirrors mine.

    Deep, deep down, I can’t help but feel people who aren’t receptive to the idea of doing the most good with their donations are stupid or selfish or some combination of the two. I despise people who only donate to local causes. They strike me as especially dumb and unrigorous. I have never met a smart person who believes donating to local charities is the most efficient way to do good.

    These are not good or healthy thoughts, of course, and detrimental to the cause. So I keep my mouth shut and refer people to GiveWell in appropriate situations.

  • Telofy on October 2, 2014 at 5:05 am said:

    Now I don’t think ownership can be an overriding argument when lives are at stake, but I know the conflict you describe well and have come to similar conclusions as you and Sam.

    I don’t tend to be aggressive, so the question was more whether I should be than whether I shouldn’t be. The benefits I see in more confrontational discourse tactics may show when the aim is not so much to convince the interlocutor but to rouse those in the audience who are already in agreement out of lethargy, so a form of movement-building. Another reason may be to impress, whether positively or negatively, and thereby cause the audience to share, say, a video with friends and remember it years later. Both presuppose an audience, and I don’t feel too comfortable on stages anyway, so I don’t feel that I would gain much from training this approach. (At the same time this can serve to make my positionality explicit in case I’m critically biased against confrontation.)

    In one-on-one conversations, as Sam suggested, it is greatly more strategically viable to be nice. You can build and maintain rapport and talk of great giving opportunities instead of leaving people to die. There is usually a wide spectrum of different ways to say the same thing. Most of us are excellent at defensive rationalization and suppression, so we should never awake those forces in our interlocutor in the first place. Plus, most people I talk to are smart enough to arrive at the forcible moral considerations by themselves given a little nudge (or even without), and they are much better equipped to deal with their own cognitive body guards than we are.

  • Morgan on October 3, 2014 at 7:31 am said:

    I, too, am a recovering jerk-vangelist for GiveWell. When I first learned about GiveWell, it seemed so obviously better than other strategies of charitable giving, I thought as soon as anyone came in contact with this idea, they’d be instantly persuaded. The only thing high-leverage about my attempts at conversations was how quickly I was able to offend people.

    One helpful strategy I’ve since found for talking about GiveWell is donating on my birthday. Then if someone asks, “What are you doing today?”, I can share my enthusiasm for Effective Altruism in a way that doesn’t feel like I’m beating up their favorite charity.

    Instead, I talk about how I feel like a superhero for the day, and that striving to give my money to the most effective organizations I can possibly discern adds a lot of meaning to my life for the rest of the year. I don’t know how effective this strategy is for conversion, but at minimum it doesn’t seem to offend others.

  • Thanks for sharing Tom! I’ve definitely fallen into this trap too.

    I’ve found that my outreach conversations always go a lot better with younger audiences, ideally people who haven’t really started giving yet (e.g. college students). People who are thinking about how to give for the first time seem a lot more receptive to GiveWell’s arguments than donors with established giving habits. The Life You Can Save has been having a lot of success reaching out to students about effective giving. Has anyone noticed other demographics that seem promising for growing GiveWell’s niche?

  • Tom Rutledge on October 5, 2014 at 11:41 am said:

    Sam, Telofy, Morgan and Jon,

    Many thanks for your comments and commiserations. Clearly, a lot of the world has never thought to consider effectiveness as a criterion for donating. In the typical social situation, you probably won’t ever have the chance to make the full Peter Singer-style case. Polemic will seem out of place amid the small talk and get you labeled a wild-eyed bolshevik, or something. So, a small nudge to go outside social convention is probably the best conversational gambit.

    Then, it’s back to “How ’bout those Giants?”

    Good to look for additional opportunities to speak up, however. I like Morgan’s tactic of using the birthday “invitation” to talk about his effective altruism. Jon described The Life You Save’s “Giving Games” to me, and that also seems like a thoughtful way to bring analysis into giving decisions.

    About thirty minutes ago, I bought a box of overpriced microwave popcorn from the Cub Scouts in my affluent Boston suburb. Please don’t hate me.


  • Thanks for the humorous way of making the point to not be a zealot about GiveWell.

    My impression from the “evidence” of who comments to the blog posts is that intellectuals, credentialed or not, are GW’s niche. Being one of the uncredentialed, I find the typical GW blog post to be daunting. Could part of GiveWell’s possible future outreach be an online presence written with the skill and style of a good science writer who efficiently makes difficult concepts and data accessible?

    Belatedly or prematurely, Morgan, Happy Birthday and many more.

  • Tom Rutledge on October 6, 2014 at 8:14 am said:

    It’s a good idea, and it’s something we’ve discussed. As I mention in my post, the current strategy is to focus on the research rather than the outreach. But I believe there is a concentric circle around the core niche of intellectuals that might take a deeper interest in GiveWell’s work if provided more accessible reports of its activities.
    Frankly, I’m probably in that circle myself and just happen to have stumbled into the core.
    I’ll keep the idea on the agenda. Thanks Chuck.

  • Thanks for sharing Tom! I’ve definitely fallen into this trap too.

    I’ve found that my outreach conversations always go a lot better with younger audiences, ideally people who haven’t really started giving yet (e.g. college students). People who are thinking about how to give for the first time seem a lot more receptive to GiveWell’s arguments than donors with established giving habits. The Life You Can Save has been having a lot of success reaching out to students about effective giving. Has anyone noticed other demographics that seem promising for growing GiveWell’s niche?

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