Got some extra $, best charity?
March 16, 2018 5:49 AM   Subscribe

Can we somehow figure an objective way to determine the best charity to give to?

Yes, it's been asked previously (in 2005) and came up there also -- but I feel the site could be more helpful. At any rate I'm sure plenty of the early/original mefites have some $ to give as do I.

It would be in the 10-15K range.

Having trouble finding a charity with truly low admin costs, clearly justified need, and whether or not investing and giving the growth to something would be better. GoFundMe I get has options but I would desire something that helps more people perhaps longer.

It's a far more complex question than I thought it might be. Perhaps there really is no answer and that individual preference to a non-blatantly wasteful charity is enough. (I've given before -- usually to oxfam/international medical corps) but not in larger amounts).

Thanks for any suggestions -- would be curious how this community tackles this question.
posted by skepticallypleased to Grab Bag (27 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Can we somehow figure an objective way to determine the best charity to give to?

No, because charitable motivations are a personal matter and therefore not objectively evaluable, and because every person who is looking around for charities to support will come up with their own personal weightings for the various features of those charities that are objectively measurable, like the admin cost percentage you've identified, evidence that donations are actually achieving the charity's stated purposes, and so on.

Perhaps there really is no answer and that individual preference to a non-blatantly wasteful charity is enough.

I think that this is overwhelmingly likely to be correct. I also think that informing those individual preferences by performing diligent research on charities one supports and/or is considering supporting is a good use of time.

It's a far more complex question than I thought it might be.

posted by flabdablet at 5:57 AM on March 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

There's a whole movement about this called effective altruism.

They look for charities that have the most capacity to accept funds, and the greatest outcomes per additional dollar.

In the end, they basically think that GiveWell suggests the best charities.

In total, most EAs that I know give to the Against Malaria Foundation. Some people donate to groups about ethical AI research.
posted by bbqturtle at 5:58 AM on March 16, 2018 [4 favorites]

The danger in organizations such as GiveWell that stack-rank charities is that the range of human needs is extremely broad, and the existence of a charities league table shifts available donations preferentially toward those charities that GiveWell, rather than individual donors, happens to rate the highest via the particular weighting of metrics that GiveWell, rather than individual donors, judges to be appropriate.

A charity does not automatically fail to do good and worthwhile work simply because its admin costs are a few percentage points higher than another's. It could well be that the issue being addressed by the more expensive charity is simply more difficult to admin and inherently requires more money to be spent on it to keep the charity effective.

There is no substitute for thorough personal research. See also: The Tyranny of Metrics.
posted by flabdablet at 6:06 AM on March 16, 2018 [8 favorites]

Don't want to argue in askmefi, but I think it is a disservice to humanity to give money to charities where your money might cause less positive good, vs a charity that can cause more positive good.

Let's say GiveWells top charity saves 100 lives for every $100. Another charity with a slightly higher admin cost might save 98 lives for every $100. Let's say that saving people with late term testicular cancer is very expensive, and you only save 1 life for every $100.

I would say that, objectively, everyone should give money to the top charity until it stops being incrementally better. Eventually, the Against Malaria fund will not be able to save 100 lives for every $100. When it stops being as useful at saving lives, we would direct our funds elsewhere.

Last, I again disagree - charities are some of the worst at emotional manipulation and deceptive gathering of funds. There is a great substitute for personal research - and that is depending on experts and communities of people to find the best charities out there.
posted by bbqturtle at 6:47 AM on March 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

To add to flabdablet's absolutely true comment that different programs have different administrative needs, there's also the fact that each non-profit/foundation/whatever calculate their program vs admin costs differently, so using "low admin costs" as the sole factor, you could look at the same program implemented by two different organizations in exactly the same way with exactly the same results and think that one is being wasteful and the other isn't. It's not that there's no information in looking at those types of scores, just that it is, as you note, much more complex than most people appreciate. It's popular because it's easy to calculate, but it's only easy to calculate because all the hard parts of the calculation are done behind the scenes.

Here is a deeply non-exhaustive list of some other things to look at, though of course you can't just pull an organization's 990 to get them:
  • Money spent per beneficiary: a smaller amount may mean that they are reaching more people, a higher amount may mean they are reaching less people. Of course, the smaller amount might also mean they are achieving less impact per person, the higher amount may mean they are achieving more impact per person.
  • Money spent per result: probably the most useful efficiency score when comparing similar programs, though even here the vagaries of data collection and analysis means it could be less straightforward than it seems at first blush. And, of course, it is an entirely useless metric when comparing programs with different outputs.
  • Median results: again, very program specific, and not a standardized measure across organizations, but much more informative than a mean that might be thrown off by a few great success stories* while the rest of the beneficiaries saw little gain.
On preview, while I absolutely agree with bbqturtle that in theory giving to charities that do more good per dollar is better, there is an underlying assumption in their post beyond what I've already addressed, which is that there is always an easy metric like "lives saved." There almost always isn't, it's more like 'kids whose absence rate in schools went down a small but statistically significant amount'**. And even when there is, program attribution is HARD; some organizations will err on the side of counting any kids who had any interaction with the program and also showed a positive development***, others will err on the side of reporting only on kids who told them it was the program that got them back to school, yet others will not rely on self-reporting but will bring in external evaluators in the interests of highest transparency - which means they are spending more per result/per beneficiary, so that might look like they are less efficient! But if they are really discovering which programs work and which don't, isn't that valuable too?

I work in international aid, currently in an administrative role at a non-profit, so I have a particular view of what admin costs mean and what they don't mean. I'm a big fan of OxFam, FWIW. But if I were looking to give this kind of money, I'd probably stay very local, start by finding three to five organizations whose mission I really believed in, and then I would research in depth and visit, and move from there.

It's a hard question. Good luck!

*But then again, maybe you are so inspired by those few great successes that you think it was all worth it!
**In case that sounds equally straightforward, here are some immediate questions: How did they measure absences, by average class, by individual, by school? Was the data disaggregated by beneficiary type, and did that have an impact on the power of their evaluation? Do they mean it went down against baseline, or down against what they project it would have been without the program, or down against a control group? What is statistically significant? How did they make that determination?
***Some may even measure any kids who had any interaction with the program period end of sentence, even the kids whose personal result were negative, because the overall average result was positive, but let's leave my cynicism out of this.
posted by solotoro at 7:09 AM on March 16, 2018 [4 favorites]

Let's say that saving people with late term testicular cancer is very expensive, and you only save 1 life for every $100.

But what if that life was your brother's, or your father's? A missing part in your question is: what do you care about?

I can tell you the best breast cancer organizations to give to, because I've had it and I'm friends with lots of other people who have had it, too, some of whom have died. I can tell you the best animal rescue organizations in my community to give to, because that's another thing I really care about. There's a historical society in my hometown that does amazing work, too, preserving the history of what was once a remarkable city and now needs every penny it can get to save what's left of its gorgeous buildings.

If you can narrow this question down by deciding what kinds of causes are important to you, it will be much easier to then do targeted research and figure out what to do with your money.
posted by something something at 7:12 AM on March 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

Also, think about whether you want to give to support the widget model of charitable help (which organizations can most effectively e.g. feed the most kids per dollar) or whether you want to support groups that are working toward changing the economic and cultural systems that allow kids to go hungry in the first place (these have higher admin costs since they're effectively think tanks/policy advocacy groups/media organizations that tend not to do as much direct service work, so you're funding their staff to do policy work). Neither one is inherently superior to the other--we need both given the state of the world right now--but the huge emphasis on metrics in the nonprofit world means that the first sort of organizations tends to get the most publicity and support even when the second sort are arguably more effective in helping people in the long run.
posted by snaw at 7:26 AM on March 16, 2018 [4 favorites]

I now give the bulk of my donations through Givewell.

Can I be very sure that the money will do a lot of good? Yes.
Is there an option that I expect to be more effective? No.
Is that a guarantee that there isn't a better way to give? No.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 7:26 AM on March 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

You might also look at your local community foundation. They often support the most grassroots organizing efforts, so your money would go to help people in your community work together to address the issues they've identified as most pressing. There are likely few metrics, but if you value self-determination and community-led projects, it could be a good option to look into.
posted by snaw at 7:29 AM on March 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

My spouse leans like you in charity giving, wishing there were some kind of reliable utilitarian stack-rank system for determining our giving. I used to, too. But I’m skeptical of Givewell for the reasons outlined by other posters here, for their history on this site, and because “charity that has the resources to go through this external audit process” is, in itself, a filter that may exclude organizations laser focused on their mission of serving needs. We’ve modified our giving to try to contribute to a mix of organizations: large organizations that deliver aid to efficiently save lives (like MercyCorps and the IRC) and large organizations that invest in technologies that wouldn’t be developed by the private sector but that could make saving lives easier (like PATH). Also national organizations that directly provide services to those in need (like Planned Parenthood) and advocacy organizations that fight to make our country more equitable (like Lambda Legal and the NAACP legal defense fund). And then lastly, I argued hard for the inclusion of local charities, in part because you can leverage your own knowledge about local needs to make those decisions. For local giving, I accept there may be less transparency, but at the same time, my small gift may make a WAY bigger difference. I look for organizations that fit my values and am more likely to give if they’re the only one serving a particular need. For instance, there’s a shelter for women and kids in my neighborhood that is the ONLY family shelter in my county.

Charity giving is inherently messy; you can’t take your values out of it. For me, there has to be a some consideration of urgent vs important. The most pressing needs are the most efficient by lives saved, but funding humanitarian triage over organizations working to change fucked up systems that prompted humanitarian crises is a real dilemma, and those two missions can have very different costs, overheads, activities, and outputs of success.

Finally, I acknowledge that there’s definitely some ego in thinking I’m doing a way better job at at charitable giving than others because I read some charity’s tax filings. At a certain point, the apples vs oranges of this decision is purely for my own feelings. If I spend three hours deciding on my modest giving when I could have gotten 95% of the impact in a third that time and also gone and volunteered for two hours at the local shelter, or done something to make some more money I could also have donated, that’s also an ethical decision. So I try not to let he perfect be he enemy of the good, because this is a space where picking the best thing is literally impossible.
posted by deludingmyself at 8:03 AM on March 16, 2018 [6 favorites]

Keep in mind that Givewell assesses charities that participate in its application process; non-profits that don't have the capacity for yet another grant application process (but which may be as effective as ones that do) will not be in their pool.

Look to local organizations first. You can get to know them much more intimately by, for example, volunteering. At some point, maybe you can join the board (board members are generally expected to raise and donate money). You don't have to be in a rush (do you?) to donate this money, and hands-on experience can give you way different information than just reading someone else's assessment of how "effective" a particular organization is.
posted by rtha at 8:52 AM on March 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

When you're giving money, you want it to go to a person or a need directly. Or you want to support a political cause, help fight a disease, support an educational or cultural endeavor. But it takes a lot of overhead to get aid to people, so it's okay that organizations have overhead. Pick a problem that is meaningful to you. Or check out your local United Way; mine is pretty good and helps local organizations do good work. Here are some places I can recommend:

- I learned about the Fistula Foundation on MeFi. You can directly help a woman with a miserable problem.
- The story of Safe Passage/ Camino Seguro is wonderful, and they do a great job of helping people in the deeply poor and dangerous slums of Guatemala City. I visited; amazing work and people.
- Read about Partners in Health, Read Mountains Beyond Mountains. They work to treat TB, to care for people in Haiti, where poverty is dire.
posted by theora55 at 9:54 AM on March 16, 2018

I guess if you want to help a personal friend or relative, that's fine. It's kind of selfish to say "well, I have diabetes, so I'm going to donate my $100 to diabetes charities to save 2 lives" even if there are charities out there where that same $100 would save 100 lives.

I feel the same about donating locally. Most local foundations give money to things like the boy scouts - organizations which are good, but probably aren't measurably good in terms of helping humanity.

Everyone has clued me in to one thing - I am assuming that everyone would consider the "years of healthy life saved" as a valuable metric. I suppose there are other metrics out there - "less income inequality", "less discrimination", "better social mobility". But I highly recommend you find what metric means the most to you, and find organizations (probably not local, probably not related to your personal health issues) that help that metric the MOST for the least amount of money.

I never really understood the allure of "buy local" or "keeping your money local" - does jimmy in seattle not deserve care just as much as jimmy in your town? Especially if the seattle branch has 50% less overhead?
posted by bbqturtle at 10:11 AM on March 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

In a universe of uncertainty, the idea that you can determine what donation will lead to "maximum good" is an artifact of ego, rather than the hard-headed realistic thinking it masquerades as. Look for charities that can satisfy you that they are doing the best they can towards meaningful good. And be realistic about psychology: if it's something local, if it's something you care about personally, it will be easier for you (most people) to remain engaged over the years.

(When it comes to admin costs, keep also in mind that while high costs will probably be a sign of wastefulness, you do want grown-up competent people running the charity. When you're talking about more complex organizations undertaking more complex missions, that does not come cheap. There is not a magical group of people who both have high-level management skills and are willing to live for the rest of their lives in the lower middle class. Clearly there has been too much erring in the other direction in the past, but unless you think your own workplace is best evaluated by how little it pays its people, including you, relative to its revenues, think twice about getting fanatical over percentage points.)
posted by praemunire at 10:15 AM on March 16, 2018 [8 favorites]

does jimmy in seattle not deserve care just as much as jimmy in your town? Especially if the seattle branch has 50% less overhead?

I think this question illustrates nicely how confused the moral thinking around this gets when people carelessly mix in business-management approaches. Unless either Jimmy is running his local branch, surely the question of which Jimmy "deserves" treatment, if it must be answered, has nothing to do with the overhead of the local charity.
posted by praemunire at 10:19 AM on March 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

> Most local foundations give money to things like the boy scouts

I don't know where you are, but by "the local organizations" I referenced earlier I was meaning non-profits that do some sort of direct service, e.g. provide medical and social services to underserved populations. These organizations are not grant-funding organizations and do not give money to things like the boy scouts. Chances are there are a lot of orgs like that local to the OP, and the OP getting involved is one way for them to learn what "effective" means to them. Overhead isn't nearly everything.
posted by rtha at 10:54 AM on March 16, 2018

I've worked at nonprofits my entire career and there is no objective way to evaluate them. That's why foundations pay people to work full time developing evaluation measures, learning about a field, and following the work of various groups. You have to consider what matter to you and study what works in that field.
posted by salvia at 11:32 AM on March 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

> Most local foundations give money to things like the boy scouts

I don't mean local foundations like the local branch of the United Way, but community foundations (like Northstar Fund in NYC, Bread & Roses in Philly, etc) that fund truly local, grassroots work. They don't give money groups like the boy scouts.
posted by snaw at 1:04 PM on March 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

You could outsource the decision to Carter Center or Gates Foundation.

What matters to you? What do you think the world needs?
posted by Baeria at 1:43 PM on March 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

I have a friend who got into tech a couple years ago. She grew up dirt poor and is now making nearly six figures for the first time in her life.

Every month she sets aside $400 for our local community. She gives directly to people who need it. We're all queer and trans folks, mostly broke and under the boot of hate legacies and various spiteful bureaucracies, so she's the rare bird who's risen above her station here. Sometimes she helps out a friend in need – "Hey pal, I know you got fired and haven't been able to find a job yet. Here's some money for rent." She carries dollar bills to give to our neighbors who are houseless. She gives to GoFundMes so people can get top surgery and fly to see dying relatives in other states. She writes checks to the new art gallery down the block that supports black, brown and queer artists. She pays for trans folk to change their identity markers on passports and state IDs.

If we're talking net global impact, saving or extending life... go for dead simple, unsexy aid. Your dollars mean more in developing areas. Say, pay for oral rehydration solutions to treat diarrhea.

If we're talking local impact, give cash. The whole idea of wealth redistribution (and reparations) is to take money from the rich (and unfairly advantaged) and give it to the poor (and stomped on). So cut out the middleman. Pay your neighbors.
posted by fritillary at 2:12 PM on March 16, 2018 [4 favorites]

I think GiveWell does a great job at ranking charities based on "net global impact," as fritillary puts it. That is a great priority to care about, but maybe it's not your priority.

Personally I *wish* it was my priority, but if I'm honest with myself, I will give more and more frequently to a cause that helps the people I know (women in a homeless shelter) vs. the people I don't know (starving children in Africa). I also direct money to GiveWell's top charities every year, but I don't donate to them exclusively. If I did, following the "net global impact" logic through, no one should ever fund a college scholarship because the impact of that money is so much greater when spent on food/shelter/medicine in the developing world. No one should ever donate money to an arts foundation.

As someone who got an amazing college education because of generous scholarship funds, who cares about the continued existence of contemporary art, etc.--I choose to be selfish and help fund those priorities, along with other local organizations. I would rather help as many different causes as I can than help the single most "efficient" cause while harming all of the others (because assuming your budget is finite, this is indeed a zero-sum game).
posted by serelliya at 3:43 PM on March 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

There are some great responses here, and the variations show the complexity of this issue. I think there's room for different kinds of giving - choosing a cause that you feel passionate about, trying to maximize the utilitarian “good” that your donation does, donating to local things, and giving to people who are trying to fix bad systems rather than just addressing the symptoms. All of these are valuable and it's difficult or impossible to choose one that is best. I'm glad that people are giving in all of these ways.

It's also impossible to know what the most effective action is except in retrospect. If you save lives directly (e.g., malaria), you can put a number on that. If you change a system so the oppressed are empowered, it might save lives for generations. But if you give to an organization that is fighting against entrenched powers to change a bad system, you can't know if it will succeed until it does. So not only is it difficult to weigh the utility of different donations, in some cases it's unknowable beforehand.

I also don't restrict my giving to tax-deductible causes, and it sounds like others in the thread don't either. If I give to an organization that is doing political lobbying for justice, that's not “charitable” in the tax deduction sense but it's damn well a form of charity in any meaningful sense of the word. So don't let others determine what charity means to you.

I do a mix of these types of donations - local & global, directly helping & fighting to change systems. You might find one more compelling or choose a few types.
posted by Tehhund at 6:58 PM on March 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

Keep in mind that Givewell assesses charities that participate in its application process; non-profits that don't have the capacity for yet another grant application process (but which may be as effective as ones that do) will not be in their pool.

This is important. Also they astroturfed MeFi once so I ignore them.

When we needed to make a similar decision with my mother's estate we went for all hyperlocal groups that did direct service for groups that we care about and/or were meaningful to my mother. We gave ten gifts of $1000 to tiny organizations within a few hundred miles of us that focused on food insecurity/GLBTQ rights/animal shelters/immigrant rights/anti-racist work/nature conservation and the library. I am 100% sure that none of our money is being spent on anything I would consider wasteful. I reserved some money so I can chip in $20 to anyone who is doing a "Help support my marathon for $GOODCAUSE" stuff over the year.

A lot of it really depends on your values. Any money you spend is better than money you think about spending but don't spend.
posted by jessamyn at 9:09 PM on March 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

Wow. Like I said, I was actively on metafilter pre-kids and pre-career getting intense but this thread rocks. The quality of thought here still astounds. Age offers both more $ and also has I guess unfortunately only hardened my skepticism as to what good an entity could do and what the real gain. It's only natural to desire a large small of money to be used properly.

And, really, in terms of the Bill Gates/Warren Buffets what we are doing is chump change. But, collectively perhaps if we got smarter about giving it would be useful. Just wish that cause "x" would be like -- listen this amount is what we need. We won't ask for more. But, if we get to "x" we can really help a lot of people.

It's just that so many causes seem open ended -- Like the hurricanes in Puerto Rico or Harvey, your alumni association, disease X, your local school district, your local cops, your NPR station, environmental clean ups, your local fire dept. -- the list can be endless.

It's just if I'm giving away up to 15K a year I'd want it to be useful. I could care less about personal recognition.

The above points are rambling but this thread was just very useful for me and I hope for others. Givewell seems like a promising start (and note "best charity to give to" on google -- Givewell is like deep on the first page -- and well, as google knows, it's rare people look that far especially when other charity monitoring forums of varying complexity and promise are listed above it).

Again, thanks for the responses.
posted by skepticallypleased at 9:23 PM on March 16, 2018

solotoro and snaw have it.

It's just that so many causes seem open ended -- Like the hurricanes in Puerto Rico or Harvey, your alumni association, disease X, your local school district, your local cops, your NPR station, environmental clean ups, your local fire dept. -- the list can be endless.

I will note that this is because most problems that these non-profits, including all the ones I've ever worked at, aim to ameliorate are open-ended. Like, people will be suffering in Puerto Rico for decades -- they're still suffering in Haiti, and that earthquake was seven years ago. Malaria's not going away anytime soon, no matter how many goals we set or bed nets we buy. One non-profit, or even 100 non-profits, can't fix the world's ills when the world's ills are all interrelated and very often the root cause is, like, "capitalism" or "imperialism" or "poverty" (also all interrelated). Very often, we're just trying to stop the bleeding as best we can, and we're all working on different parts of the body because the femoral artery is just as important as the head wound, but the real problem is that the patient was in a car crash, y'know?
posted by Ragini at 2:16 AM on March 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

If you're likely to give away $15k per year, you might be able to establish an ongoing relationship with one or three small- to middle-size groups in your area -- go out to lunch with a senior staff member, hear about the importance of the work, their successes and how they're effective and who they help. I'd pick an issue, read a bunch of annual reports, and then try to meet with the three I liked best.

I just want to put in my opinion on the whole minimal overhead thing... To me, it sometimes sounds like "I want my money to be targeted to the most efficacious possible countries and uses -- but I don't want to contribute to the staff salary to figure out the country or the distribution method, to audit to prevent graft, to negotiate the low-cost contracts, to pay the suppliers, to file taxes, or to get the word out to me and the next donor like me. No, ideally I only want to pay the marginal cost for the 50 cents per dose of medicine." I mean sure, that's understandable and all, but it's shortsighted, like not wanting the companies you invest in to do marketing, R&D, or have managers, HR, or finance divisions -- just wanting to invest in distribution and profit collecting on some profitable product that magically came to market. Of course, it's reasonable to want R&D and management to be effectively leading the way to the next breakthrough or market -- that's reasonable and strategic. But wanting spending on those issues simply to be as low as possible, that doesn't make sense.
posted by salvia at 10:49 AM on March 17, 2018 [7 favorites]

(... Continuing my comment above without abusing the edit window.)

That's basically the reason why I recommend working with local groups and building a relationship. You get to know the people and strategy, and directly see the impacts of the work. It builds trust and removes that "is my money going into a blackhole?" feeling.
posted by salvia at 10:55 AM on March 17, 2018

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