Unquestionably my favorite winter activity is recapping my charitable donations for the year. Finance nerd that I am (attested by my daily practice of logging into Mint and categorizing each transaction), and a perfectionist to boot, I have made it my mission for the last five years not only to give generously of my income, but also to do it in the very best way possible. Inspired by ethicist Peter Singer and the Effective Altruism movement, I first read The Life You Can Save in 2013, and it literally changed my life. Check out what I gave in 2015, 2016, and 2017 to see how.
I ended 2017 with a short and attainable to-do list for myself:
In the first quarter of the year, I contacted each of my five favorite charities and increased my monthly donation, and in February, my partner and I founded the Hanson-Maley Charitable Fund with $5,000 in seed capital.
MYTHS OF CHARITABLE GIVING
When I first started taking altruism seriously, the most important thing I did was focus my efforts on organizations that work outside the United States. Our sentimentality is quick to say, "I want to help people in my own community!", but if we truly believe that all human lives are equal, we must focus on saving as many lives as possible, which means investing where interventions are cheaper and more effective. After all, why do we need to see the effects of our work in our own backyard? I'd rather know that my $100 provided medical treatment to an entire family across the world than pick out the two or three winter coats it buys for my local shelter.
Effective altruism asks us to think outside our immediate circle and say: how much does it cost to save a life? How can I save the most lives with a small amount of money?
To get into the details of these important questions, I suggest you grab Peter Singer's The Life You Can Save or The Most Good You Can Do from your local library. (It doesn't have a copy? Let me know and I'll purchase one.) I'm planning to reread both these books this year, but I'll share a few takeaways for now:
Give to charities that measurably and sustainably save lives (as opposed to temporarily improve quality of life).
Give to charities with a low cost-per-life-saved. GiveWell has great literature on this number and the particulars of calculating it.
Give outside the United States. It costs way less to save a human life in Asia or Africa than it does to save one in the U.S.
WHAT I GAVE
Just as in previous years, a majority of my money went to medical services, moving $1605 to Possible, Population Services International, and Fistula Foundation. (By the way, one of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winners is a fistula surgeon.) GiveDirectly provides direct aid and began a very exciting basic income trial in 2017, and Village Enterprise is doing incredible work in empowering entrepreneurs with the potential to lift entire communities out of poverty.
The remaining $1850, I admit, went to two organizations in the United States: a $500 memorial gift to the Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra (in honor of a patron whose generosity allowed me to study in the orchestra back in high school), and $1350 to Planned Parenthood, providing medical care here in the United States for those who need it most. Nearly 75% of their clients live at or below 150% of the federal poverty line, and many of their 600 clinics are located in communities that have been federally designated as medical deserts of sorts: areas with little to no access to care. If you're giving to medical providers in the U.S., I highly recommend a clinic like Planned Parenthood, which specifically serves low-access and low-education communities. (By the way, donations are TRIPLED through December 31.)
MY COMMITMENT TO ALTRUISM
The most exciting part of this year's accounting was tallying up exactly how much I've contributed to effective charities since I first began giving. Since 2013, I've tracked how much money I've moved to those charities recommended by the nonprofit organization The Life You Can Save, which was inspired by Singer’s book. TLYCS currently endorses 22 charities working in a variety of sectors around the world, and though I've committed to longterm support of the same five charities in the last several years, I have given to many of those on TLYCS' list. Here are the numbers:
Seeing that I’ve given more than $10,000 in total was truly inspiring. When I first began giving effectively, I thought, "This is the thing I can do to make a difference. And if this is the only good thing I can ever accomplish, I hope it will be enough." I've felt that way every year, from when I could only chip in $20 here and there to when I proudly open a thank-you letter or impact story. I don't regret a single gift, and even as I enter the next year after quitting a job, uncertain for my income and new direction, I am still searching for ways to give more and better.
IMPROVE YOUR GIVING
No matter what cause you give to, whether you go the effective altruism route or keep it simple by contributing to your local shelter, cash is king. For instance, food banks can do a lot more with $5 than they can with cans of soup: because of their relationships with major food suppliers, they have access to deals that average people could never imagine. (Feeding America currently says that a single dollar allows them to provide ten meals to food-insecure Americans.)
Thinking of volunteering? Consider donating your hourly rate instead. Unrestricted funds allow charities not only to provide services, but also to do the boring stuff like pay for heat, electricity, and office supplies. The truth is, they probably need stamps more than they need another person to help for three hours, once per year. With the money you donate, they can hire and pay someone much more qualified than you or me to execute those tasks. Speaking of which...
Even if you never donate a cent in your life, you'd do a huge service to the charitable sector by educating any person who starts talking to you about money going to "overhead" vs. programs. First of all, there wouldn't BE any programs if there weren't administrative staff, office space, postage, marketing, or fundraising. Do you think your favorite charity would even exist if it didn't have someone to file the taxes and schedule volunteers? I don't think so.
The "overhead" myth also extends to salaries. Most people outside of the charitable sector have no idea how difficult the work is, and they believe that everything can be run by volunteers. Well I doubt that GiveDirectly could have revolutionized basic income trials without the help of a few lawyers and MBAs, and Possible couldn't have built Nepal's first rural teaching hospital without some highly-trained and highly-educated doctors on hand. Effective charities have effective staff, and if you really want to make an impact, if you won't settle for just handing out food/animals/clothing in the traditional, inconsequential manner, then you need some of the very best minds on the planet to work with you -- from CEOs to fundraisers to administrative assistants. And those people deserve to be compensated for the immense good they accomplish.
Regardless of how much you give, just start giving. It's easy to look around us and feel hopeless for the social and political tragedies happening on a daily basis. But take heart: according to the World Health Organization, over 7,500 children under five years of age are dying every day "due to conditions that could be prevented or treated with access to simple, affordable interventions." This is still a dramatic number that we need to—and can—address, but it's a huge improvement from just 10 or 20 years ago. Overall, 58% fewer children now die before their 5th birthday than in 1990. These numbers are going in the right direction, and I am immensely proud to help sustain this incredible progress.