Photo by Clay Banks.

When You’re Ready, This Is How You Give

A four-step strategy for leaving the world a better place than you found it.

I think I figured it out.

Not the answer to life, the universe and everything, no. That one’s easy. I figured out how to give.

Use hard evidence to evaluate options

I’m a numbers person. I prefer causation to correlation. I would vote for a double-blind experiment any day. My favourite way of getting answers to important questions is a randomised controlled trial with a good dose of statistical significance sprinkled all over the results.

That’s exactly the approach that GiveWell, the best-known charity evaluator in the effective altruism movement, applies to giving. Take a charity, analyse the crap out of it, make a recommendation.

Knowing which charities are highly effective is a game-changer. Instead of using hunches and maybe doing good (and, in some cases, ending up doing harm), you can now definitely do good. So by all means, use hard evidence to make giving decisions.

But also recognise that it’s not enough. To truly leave the world a better place than you found it, you need a strategy. Drawing on hard evidence to evaluate and identify the most effective giving options is important, but also significantly limiting, unless used in conjunction with three other principles.

Don’t confuse measurability with importance

Sometimes it’s just the question of running a randomised controlled trial. Is it better to sell anti-malaria nets, or give them out freely? Opinions abound, yet results are clear: free distribution of nets is more efficient and more cost-effective at reducing malaria rates.

But in many situations data is impossible to obtain by principle. Françoise Girard, the president of the International Women’s Health Coalition, recently published a passionate defence of long-term support for women’s empowerment movements. Changing the long-standing power structures that are deeply ingrained in societies takes years. Each society is unique, each cause requires a tailor-made approach. Hundreds of factors are continually changing the political landscape and affecting the set of possible outcomes. There is no way we can experiment with all this.

The same is true for countless other situations where sample sizes are small, and observations differ drastically. Say you’d like to know if investing in rural infrastructure reduces income inequality in low-income economies. Well, you’re out of luck. If you designed an experiment and enrolled all low-income countries in it, your sample size would be 31. Randomly assign the countries to control and experimental groups, and you’ll end up with two highly heterogeneous observation sets where the differences in non-experimental factors (e.g., culture, geography, wealth) play a much larger role in determining income inequality than your independent variable. In other words, statistically sound results are conceptually impossible in such cases.

And yet not being able to use statistics to evaluate a policy is not the same as that policy being ineffective. Effective altruism has been leaning towards supporting causes that can be rigorously evaluated. We should absolutely do that. But doing only that can lead to losing sight of the long term, and abandoning causes that are important, yet inherently unmeasurable.

Recognise a variety of good outcomes

Saving human lives is absolutely key. But it’s not the only important thing. I’d have trouble assigning numeric values to life, well-being, or health. Yet I deeply believe that happiness (long-term happiness, not the emotion you feel for a couple of hours after buying another pair of sneakers) is a core human need. Happiness might arise from satisfying one’s basic physical needs or improving health, but also from meaningful work, personal achievements, and human connection.

Similarly, you might believe that preventing animal suffering is a good outcome, and that’s perfectly fine. It’s up to you to decide how much importance to assign to animal welfare.

Find happiness in giving

Last week I shared a story of my internal struggle. In my mind, donating to the Against Malaria Foundation was a no-brainer. Recommended by GiveWell, it is without a doubt effectively saving lives. Yet my heart was pulling me towards the old and the lonely in Lithuania.

Here’s what I realised: choosing the Against Malaria Foundation simply because GiveWell said so would be counterproductive. I want to do good. But I also want to feel good about doing good. I want to be deeply involved in my giving decisions. I want my giving decisions to be aligned with my values, to be something I am proud of, and to be so rewarding I’d keep giving until I’m old and wrinkled and have nothing more to give.

A practical approach to giving

So here you go, a practical approach to the kindness ethics, if you will.

My goal is to leave the world a better place than I found it, and giving is one way of achieving that.

To do so:

  1. Save lives
  2. Invest in the long term
  3. Spread happiness
  4. Be happy

And here’s my approach:

I will donate 10% of my net income. 60% of that sum will go towards saving lives and improving health outcomes of the world’s poorest. 20% will go towards addressing important, long-term problems. The remaining 20% will go towards spreading happiness. I don’t know if that’s the best approach, but doing something is clearly better than doing nothing, so I’ll start here and see how it goes. I’ll report back at the end of the year.

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Bookworm (but I sometimes go on real adventures) · Obsessive thinker · Inconsistent writer · “You live and learn. At any rate, you live.” — Douglas Adams

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Ernesta Orlovaitė

Ernesta Orlovaitė

Bookworm (but I sometimes go on real adventures) · Obsessive thinker · Inconsistent writer · “You live and learn. At any rate, you live.” — Douglas Adams

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