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John Maxwell

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How can we get philanthropists to try harder to optimize the effectiveness of their giving?

You can see described in this article

http://lesswrong.com/lw/3gj/efficient_charity_do_unto_others/

an argument for "efficient" charitable giving--that is, charitable giving that attempts to optimize the effectiveness per dollar donated in terms of metrics like number of lives saved. But if you look at "largest charity" lists, you can see that much of charitable giving is directed towards organizations like the YMCA that don't directly work to save anyone's lives. I don't mean to dis the YMCA--I'm sure they're doing important and useful work, and anyone who volunteers there or donates to them is surely more virtuous than average. However, I don't quite understand why someone might give a thousand dollars to the YMCA when a thousand dollars has been shown by external observers to predictably save one West African life:

http://www.givewell.org/international/top-charities/villagereach

(And that's not even mentioning other charities, like http://singinst.org/, which are working to solve problems that could potentially lead to the extinction of the entire species.)

So what's going on here? How can we get philanthropists to realize that their giving is inefficient, and that they could get a better return on their dollar if they thought about it?

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  • Nov 3 2011: I asked a very similar question myself. I'm looking at it from another perspective. I've got money to give, but I want to make sure that the money I give has an actual impact on the people to whom I give it. Frankly, I have a harder time tracking that the larger the charitable organization I support. I also have to weigh the value of doing something globally versus doing something locally. I can give $20 to a guy on the street in my hometown, or I can give $100 to a charity that would spend most of it on their own infrastructure and end up with $20 going to someone in Africa. Which was the better use of my money? Right now, I'm paying to put a kid through nursing school. Not through some charity, but actually writing a check to the school every semester, because I'm convinced that it's the best use for my charitable dollars. It'll change his life and the lives of his kids. But it's really, really hard to know the tradeoffs you're making when you donate.

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