The 10 things that guide how I give to charity

Blog reader Brian Holtemeyer wrote to me with this question:

My wife and I want to donate some money to a social cause. She wants to donate to domestic causes (e.g. Planned Parenthood, Black Lives Matter, etc). I’m more inclined to donate to an international cause because the returns seem higher (e.g. water wells in Africa). Do you know of anyone who’s done work trying to figure out the ‘best’ cause to donate money to? Clearly it’s very subjective, but I’m sure very smart people have already attacked this question, and just wondering if you’re aware of any of it.

This is a hard question. I haven’t seen any system for determining the highest impact charity that I buy (I’ll get to GiveWell below). So the best I can do is tell you how I personally think about it and give.

  1. We tend to give at least 10% of our income away a year. I would like this to be higher, but my moral ideals are in tension with my somewhat selfish decisions to buy a large house and send my kids to the UChicago Lab School. But we aspire to give more over time and probably will.
  2. Even though I think that dollars go further abroad, I split my spending between domestic and international causes. This is partly because I already give so much time to international development. But it’s mainly because I’ve come to believe that being a member of a city or country brings certain responsibilities and obligations.
  3. We’re in the peculiar situation where, because of our work, Jeannie and I know some truly amazing people in poor countries who need some help with university fees or child assistance or something else. Many are social workers in some fashion. About half our giving ends up supporting people where we have some personal tie. I think this is a terrific way to give if you have those connections. For others this will be needy neighbors or family, and I’m not such a utilitarian that this troubles me.
  4. The other half of our giving goes to established charities. I think it’s important for charities to have regular, predictable support, and so even though my donation is a drop in the bucket I almost always set up automatic and recurring monthly donations.
  5. Organizations like GiveWell have models for evaluating the highest impact charities in terms of savings lives. As a result, almost all of these charities are international and focus on health. The one exception is GiveDirectly, which is my personal favorite number one charity. They give cash to the poorest, directly. In addition to giving money monthly, I freely offered them the ad spot you see on this page, and I hope you’ll click and donate. See GiveWell’s summary for more information. I know the founders and leaders personally and they’re among my favorite people in the world.
  6. Otherwise I’m not so keen on GiveWell’s model that I put my money behind it. My personal view is that the means and end to human well being is good government and political rights and freedoms. Now, it is extremely difficult to know how to be effective, who is any good, or measure the impact of a dollar. So be it.
  7. That’s why internationally we give monthly to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and domestically we give to the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Democratic National Committee, Planned Parenthood, and the National Immigration Law Center. We also give to the International Rescue Committee, who in part focus on good governance, but also work on refugee relief more broadly–an issue close to our hearts. Jeannie also runs the research department for IRC and is in charge of measuring impact. So we’re in a good position to know that those are good dollars spent.
  8. We also give to two small organizations where we know the founders. Our friend Scott founded and runs Arbor Brothers, who find and support social entrepreneurs in the NYC area to really scale up what they do. Jeannie’s brother founded and runs Haiti Partners, a faith-based organization that focuses on education in rural Haiti.
  9. We also like to give locally in our city. This year we’ve started giving to Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and Heartland Alliance. There are similar anti-poverty organizations in any city. Even though I am a cash transfer evangelist, I do this instead of handing cash out on the street because even I worry about the impact of that kind of giving. But I would like to see (maybe one day run) the randomized trial of cash in the US. And if there were a US organization handing out cash I would probably support it.
  10. Last, I give small amounts monthly to the public services I use the most. This includes the local National Public Radio station and the Wikimedia Foundation, which runs Wikipedia.

I think I could improve my giving in a few ways. I’m not sure what the best US organizations are for political change, and I worry that I’ve defaulted to the obvious large ones. I’m pretty sure my giving looks like the stereotype of the wealthy white liberal elite of America. I would also like to find more organizations that organize grassroots political action in developing countries to support. Suggestions, comments, and criticisms are welcome.