Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
Just$1.99
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to globeandmail.com
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(select.open)}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](select.open),dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

Peter Singer is professor of bioethics at Princeton University and the founder of the charity The Life You Can Save. His books include Animal Liberation, Practical Ethics, The Life You Can Save and, most recently, Why Vegan?

Lucius Caviola is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University.

Worldwide, people donate hundreds of billions of dollars to charity. In the United States alone, charitable donations amounted to about US$450-billion last year. As 2020 draws to a close, perhaps you or members of your family are considering giving to charity. But there are, literally, millions of charities. Which should you choose?

Story continues below advertisement

If you are like most people, you want to support charities that mean something to you – that speak to your heart. Perhaps it is a charity that helps children in your community, or a local homeless shelter where you have volunteered, or maybe a museum you’re passionate about, or a place of worship for which you want to show support. In the U.S., 94 per cent of donations go to charities focusing on local or national issues.

Donating to a charity that pulls on your heartstrings is likely to be better than not donating at all. Very few charities are outright frauds. The bigger issue is that following your heart ignores research on which charities are the most effective. Some charities will do hundreds of times as much good with your donation – saving or improving many more lives – than typical charities do.

Usually, the most effective charities help the poorest people in the world’s least-developed countries. For example, the charity evaluator GiveWell estimates that the Malaria Consortium, one of its top charities working in malaria-prone low-income countries, can provide four months of preventive medicine to children 3-59 months old for less than US$7 a child. On average, this saves a life for each US$3,000 to US$5,000 spent.

In contrast, one of the charities working in the U.S. that GiveWell regards as promising, the Knowledge is Power Program, spends US$9,000 to US$20,000 to improve the academic performance of one student for one year. Improving academic performance for a year can be important, but when doing that costs three or four times as much as saving a life, it’s obviously not giving comparable value for your donation.

Given the big differences in effectiveness, which charity you support matters a great deal. Experts estimate that even within the field of helping the world’s poorest people, the most effective charities do 100 times more good for a given sum than charities of average cost-effectiveness. If they are right, giving US$100 to the most effective charities helping people in extreme poverty can achieve more good than giving US$9,000 to a typical charity trying to do the same thing.

This way of thinking is a form of effective altruism. Effective altruists argue that when we give, we should try to get the best value for our money, as we do when we shop for ourselves.

It would make a huge difference and solve many global problems if everyone gave to charity based on effectiveness. But it is unrealistic to expect this to happen any time soon, because for most people, giving is something deeply emotional. And, unfortunately, our emotions don’t scale proportionately to the number of individuals we can help.

Story continues below advertisement

Helping 100 individuals doesn’t feel 100 times better than helping one person. And helping someone on the other side of the world doesn’t feel as good as helping someone close by – especially when we can identify the person we are helping, like a sick child shown to us in a photo. Given these obstacles, what can we do to make effective giving more appealing?

A new donation platform offers a solution. GivingMultiplier.org encourages you to divide your donations. One part goes to your favourite charity – the one you personally care most about. The other part goes to a highly effective charity recommended by experts. And to multiply your impact, Giving Multiplier tops up both of your donations. The extra funds are provided by philanthropists who want to encourage more people to give effectively.

Why does this simple strategy work? One of us, Lucius Caviola – working with Joshua Greene, a professor of psychology at Harvard University – noticed that people feel almost as good about their donation when they give US$50 instead of US$100 to their favourite charity. Therefore, donors should not lose much by giving only half to their favourite charity, which allows them to give the other half to a highly effective charity – something people find meaningful.

So, Mr. Caviola and Prof. Greene devised Giving Multiplier as a means of enabling donors to experience the positive feeling for supporting the charity they most care about, while also donating to a highly effective charity. If, in addition, someone tops up their donations to increase their impact, they feel even better.

We should not expect everyone to become an effective altruist who gives exclusively on the basis of evidence about how much good a charity does with the donations it receives. For most people, giving remains primarily an emotional act. But it is realistic to expect many people to become part-time effective altruists, giving partly on the basis of their feelings and partly on the basis of what is most effective. If even just a quarter of all donors applied this strategy, millions of lives would be saved and improved – without donors having to forsake the charities closest to their hearts.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020. www.project-syndicate.org

Story continues below advertisement

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies