what I gave in 2015

If we're going to live an ethical life, it's not enough just to follow the thou-shalt-nots and not cheat, steal, maim, kill, but if we have enough, we have to share some of that with people who have so little.

Peter Singer

Since finding effective altruism in the fall of 2013, I have oriented much of my financial planning and money-making efforts toward giving away as much as I can.  It is true that I contribute more to my savings and retirement funds than I do to charities, and I enjoy shopping and eating at restaurants as well.  Nevertheless, I consider altruism to be of paramount importance in my life, and something which gives me nothing but joy.  

In 2015, I gave away a total of $2,239.93, including an in-kind donation valued at $35.  Where did that money go? 


More than half of my contributions, a total of $799.93, went to medical interventions such as fistula surgeries, health education, and general operating support for clinics and hospitals.  

36% of the total dollar amount of donations for medical services went abroad to Africa and Asia, where they are much more effective (in dollars per life saved) than in the United States. 


I am a proud supporter of GiveDirectly, which puts cash right in the hands of the extreme poor in Kenya and Uganda.  Numerous studies have shown that poor households, given unconditional cash transfers, show a huge increase in earnings and assets as well as a decrease in hunger.  

The last 24% went to social service, the arts, and poverty-related research and policy making (enumerated below). 

If you're serious about looking at the effectiveness of charitable contributions, you must look further than the cause to which you donate.  Medical and social service interventions are literally lifesaving and more effective alleviators of global suffering than the arts.  Medical services abroad cost less and reach communities of abject poverty: people surviving on much less than is considered a minimum standard of life in the U.S.  But even in this targeted sector, medical charities working abroad, which are the most effective? 

A majority of my medical donations were given to charities recommended by The Life You Can Save: Fistula Foundation, Population Services International, and Possible.  Each of these does incredible work, from building Nepal's first rural teaching hospital to giving women their lives back through obstetric fistula surgeries, all while maintaining incredibly high standards for corporate conduct and culture. 

All my arts donations went to local organizations with whom I have a personal relationship: companies with whom I have performed and who mean something to me.  Nevertheless, this is my least effective area of giving, and something I would rather direct toward more critical, lifesaving services. 

Planned Parenthood and Youth Outlook raise different questions though: these medical and social service interventions are of course more important and lifesaving than arts and culture work.  Yet would these $720 been better spent abroad, where they could have educated or cured more people? 

It's a question that many effective altruists will answer with a resounding "Yes."  Send that money to someone who will deliver vaccines in Africa, or train more healthcare educators in Asia.  I don't disagree.  Yet I think it is in restricting people's goodwill that we lose potential supporters of our movement.  As an already-charitable person who "converted," so to speak, to effective altruism, I certainly would have been discouraged had someone said, "The Sierra Club?  Terrible idea."  Rather, it is most important to encourage giving at all, and educate current altruists on the most good they can do. 

So those donations might have saved more lives elsewhere.  But I'm not chiding myself for it.  Instead I am glad to see the real impact of my altruism both at home and abroad.  I witness attacks on Planned Parenthood and other communities, and I want to help.  That is a feeling I will celebrate, not discourage. 

So what can you do to make your giving more effective? 

1.  Stop looking at "overhead."  Start looking at impact. 

It is a common and oft-discredited myth that a company's "overhead" is an indicator of financial irresponsibility.  Instead of looking at Charity Navigator's almost-meaningless assessments of "Organization A spends 40% of their budget on marketing," look at 990s and annual reports to run the numbers yourself.  If Organization A doubled its marketing budget last year but distributed eight times as many vaccines as a result of increased visibility and funding, then this is an organization to support: one that can achieve its goals, and continually solves for its constituents. 

2.  Never restrict your donations. 

Under the guise of transparency and donor cultivation, some organizations will offer you the opportunity to direct your funds to a specific program of your choice.  First of all, this is a red flag.  No highly effective organization would allow its donors to restrict their donations right off the bat: they know that they are trustworthy and assure you that your dollars are well-spent.  However, if you have the opportunity to support a specific clinic location or new initiative, always opt to designate your donation as "General support" or "General operating funds."  How can you possibly know what this organization needs the most right now?  If you don't trust the team with your money, don't give it to them.  

3.  Find an organization you care about and support it consistently.  

Sustainable funding is a challenge for every organization.  Yes, your $50 once per year (when you get thousands of appeals in December) does good, but not nearly as much as if you focus your efforts and dollars in one place.  The Fistula Foundation, for instance, can find nine $50-donors to fund one surgical procedure, and likely count on those donors for one or two more donations in their lifetime. However, a single donor who truly cares about and understands this cause can automatically donate between $10 and $50 per month, and provide dozens of surgeries throughout their lifetime. 

Read more: How I pick my favorite effective charities

4.  Find matching gift opportunities. 

At least four of my donations were made toward the end of 2015, when gifts are often doubled in a last-minute push to meet the calendar year's budgeted goals.  December 30 and 31 are consistently the biggest days of the year for charitable donations, and now that Giving Tuesday has taken off, your favorite charity has likely found a donor who will match your contribution on those days. 

But there are matching opportunities all year round: your employer, for one.  If you work for a large corporation, chances are good that all you need to do is fill out a form saying how much you donated to what and when, and your employer will match your gift once they verify it with your charity.  Digital spaces like the Fundraise platform at AgainstMalaria.org (also highly effective, recommended by GiveWell and The Life You Can Save), often feature generous donors who will match gifts from fellow supporters around the world.