what I gave in 2016

Village Enterprise

Village Enterprise

In February of 2016, I sat down with my record of charitable donations and figured out how my giving had aligned with my priorities in the previous year.  I learned a lot, and I made a lot of decisions.  Primarily: 

  1.  To stop giving to organizations that serve the U.S.
  2.  To stop giving to the arts. 
  3.  To focus my giving on a select few highly-effective organizations to which I'd give a recurring monthly donation.

Mission accomplished.  

What was most apparent to me while analyzing my 2015 giving was a lack of priorities.  By my own categorization, I gave in five different sectors: 

  • Medical (U.S. and abroad)
  • Direct aid (abroad) 
  • Social service (U.S.) 
  • Arts (U.S.) 
  • Research & Policy (abroad) 

While more than half of my donations (by dollar amount) were supporting medical services, it's clear from this list that I hadn't spent much time deciding a) what I found important, and b) what could do the most good. 

So in 2016, I applied some discipline and executed points 1 and 2 above: stop giving to organizations that serve the U.S. and stop giving to the arts.  Why?  Because these enterprises are simply less effective when measured in how much money it takes to save a life.  Saving a life in the U.S. costs exponentially more than saving one in impoverished Africa or Asia because of the exorbitant cost of medical procedures and medicines in the U.S.  As for supporting the arts, it is nearly impossible to calculate dollars-per-life-saved, since while there are many people who have found the will to live, work, and thrive because of their involvement in the arts, it's quite impossible to calculate how many healthy years of life a person has gained solely because of the arts.

In 2017, I gave only to organizations working outside the U.S., primarily in Africa and Asia, and gave three quarters of my donations (by dollar amount) to medical services.  To understand why, read about psychologist Angie Vredeveld's experiences working for an NGO in Uganda.  

Aside from medical services, I supported direct aid and business development, because it's been proven time and time again that poor people know best how to lift themselves out of poverty.  Given cash grants (not loans), basic income, or entrepreneurship training, communities and individuals work for themselves, implementing the best social innovations that are appropriate to their own environments.  (Ernesto Sirolli explains it here.)  

For direct aid, nothing beats GiveDirectly.  A top pick from both GiveWell and The Life You Can Save for many years, GiveDirectly not only changes lives, but does so at an incredibly high standard of ethics, conduct, and transparency. 

I just began learning about international business development in December, when I read about The Life You Can Save's recommended charities for 2017.  New to the list was Village Enterprise, a truly inspiring organization that disrupts the cycle of poverty by offering entrepreneurship training, a cash grant, business mentoring, and a savings group.  81% of their business owners are women, and after just a year in the program, food consumption and security is enhanced by an average of 178%.  Truly thrilling stuff. 

Why give?  I've shared a lot about the decision to give, but now that I've been at this for a few years, my reasoning has gotten simpler: why not give? 

It may feel like your charitable dollars just disappear, never to make a difference in cancer research or environmental protection or social justice, and that might be true -- depending on whom you trust with your money.  But 16,000 children under age 5 are dying every day from preventable diseases, and it costs less than a U.S. dollar to give fortified salt to 100 individuals with iodine deficiency, or protect a child from intestinal worms and parasites for a year.  We truly have the power to save lives, so why not do it?