Thursday, December 18, 2008


My previous post spurred some interesting discussion about how benefactors can get the most bang for their buck. Carl writes:
Singer promotes giving to Oxfam in public speeches because it's easier for most people to understand the direct benefits of their work, but in private conversation he agrees that it is far better to donate to meta-charities. For instance, you can donate directly to the Poverty Action Lab, which conducts rigorous controlled, randomized studies to evaluate the effectiveness of interventions, often finding that billions of dollars are being wasted at low cost... Another strong candidate meta-charity would be the start-up nonprofit GiveWell, which seeks out the most demonstrably effective charities at improving human welfare in a transparent published research process to guide individual donors.

It's an intriguing idea: rather than trying to directly help the less fortunate, we would do better to serve as a 'catalyst' that boosts the effectiveness of others' giving. (Of course, it would defeat the purpose if everyone went the 'meta' route, as Brandon notes. But there's little risk of that in practice. And as things stand, it appears that we would do best to shift the balance at least slightly more in the 'meta' direction.)

Though it raises the question: are there meta-meta-charities to help us decide which of the various meta-charities is most worth donating to?


  1. At some point the buck can no longer be passed, and some thought is required. We can reduce the daily moral demands on donors by creating rating institutions that better align casual giving with effective giving, but some people have to do or support that work, or the work that enables that work.

    Government taxation and foreign aid can reduce the personal effort required to help the poor, but only if people actually voluntarily contribute to the unremunerated efforts to shape the political system accordingly.

    If there were a rating service for meta-charities, you would still need to decide whether to trust it. In the case of the Poverty Action Lab, Peter Singer's endorsement seems to have served that role (he is also an adviser for GiveWell) for you, but Singer knew about those things because others investigated them and informed him about them. You could trust Singer only by learning about his views and competence. It's at that most basic level that we need to step up.

  2. I think, on the subject of meta-meta-charities that this is a function of the complexity of one's society. In its initial form charity is just direct giving to people who seem to need it; thus charities in the sense of organizations that handle a lot of this are really already one step 'meta': they're meta-almsgiving. When your society reaches a certain level of prosperity and population, though, you can end up having more of such organizations than you can keep track of, and it makes sense for part of the donation pool to shift toward organizations whose function is to handle a lot of them. Thus meta-charities. Assuming no civilizational disasters or stagnation, I'm sure meta-meta-charities will be on the way at some point.

    I don't think the issue is really so much of information, though; information is a difficult part of any sort of charitable giving, whether it's basic almsgiving or any other. The information problem is constant. What happens, though, is that, once you've already decided your interests, channelling of relevant information becomes easier through division of labor. I don't think this helps to determine whether your donation here rather than there is really most effective in anything like a global sense (analyzing that involves too many counterfactuals for any of us seriously to handle); but it does help with interest matching, by giving more information about things that already interest you than you could find out on your own. It's like news in that way: you can't at all trust journalists to tell you what would be most useful for you to know, no matter how good the journalism is, but you can decide on your own what you judge to be useful and even flawed journalists can help you collect more information about it. The basic problem (what's really useful) remains unchanged, but once we've made our best judgment as to the solution, we have more means to follow through effectively.


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