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.

14 thoughts on “The 10 things that guide how I give to charity

  1. Working in homeless services there are things that are very lightly conditional cash transfers in diversion programs that are very effective. If you have a program where you have cash grants to pay for rent arrearage and utility bills for people who will become homeless when evicted those work really well and pretty much every big city homeless organization probably does a lot of it. It can also be as simple as giving them enough cash for a bus ticket back to their home town (although some communities try to just ship out homeless people to bigger cities in the area rather than deal with them). There are also effective programs for providing substitutes for pan-handling for the homeless but because the main complaint from the community about the homeless is generally that they want to get rid of panhandlers you have to provide an incentive structure, most likely somewhere else to go and something else to do in addition to a small cash payment.

    This is also why gifts that are not tied to some specific program or project are more useful for organizations, because it’s really hard to fundraise for programs like this that are often pretty small and ad hoc. It’s also good to do drives for things that the the organization would otherwise have to buy like toiletries and for family shelters diapers.

  2. Pretty shocked to see your support for Southern Poverty Law Center, Amnesty and Human Rights Watch given their active political focus and ongoing criticism.

  3. Impressive Chris, but rather than give relatively small amounts to 16 organizations, wouldn’t it be better to give it all to one, and so reduce admin costs for the charities concerned? How to do that without harming the charities who stop getting your cheque? One way to do it would be a website that allows you to pair donations with someone else (rather than both give $50 to A and B, you give $100 to A provided your counterpart gives $100 to B). Does such a clearing house exist?

  4. Chris, I wonder if you have any idea what the Wikimedia Foundation spends your donation on? Have you looked at the Form 990? Did you agree with their paying about $600,000 to two different CEOs throughout 2015? Did you agree with their spending millions of dollars on code developers for unwanted projects like Flow and VisualEditor? How did you feel about their pass-through payment from the Stanton Foundation to the Belfer Center?

  5. Pr Chris, thank you for your kind-hearted nature to giving to a worthy cause. Heard of the hashtag: #BringBackOurGirls? It’s an organization demanding that the government of Nigeria find and return the #ChibokGirls back to their parents. Their twitter handle is @BBOG_Nigeria . You can visit their website (bringbackourgirls.ng) also to find out more about the organisation. Thank you once again for sharing this.

  6. Chris – you have a very large, and open, heart. I often get asked ‘who to give too’ but my professional contact with development NGOs usually crosses them off my list, rather than putting them on it. This is partly because examining their budgets makes me think that a little does not go very far – particularly if they are also receiving major flows from (e.g.) government aid or foundations. Giving to small NGOs that we personally know is one common recommendation – particularly if these small orgs have not yet got their hands on the big grant flows. And buying as much as we can from charity shops….

  7. Curious why so positive about GiveDirectly but not the other GiveWell recs. I understand you believe governance and institutions are the key to long-term welfare gains; that seems plausible but not certain to me. But let’s say you think it’s quite likely; even then presumably you’re not sure what forms it should take or how to achieve such givernance. The right response then seems to be more research in that domain (exactly what you’re doing!) to resolve the uncertainty, but in terms of current donations going after sure-fire immediate and nontrivial marginal improvements. Which would be: cash and saving lives.

  8. Thank you for list and the thoughts, I love hearing these types of recommendations!

    I give some to GiveWell’s recommended charities, but only a limited percentage, for similar reasons; the requirement for direct measurable impact excludes many causes that logically have more impact. Therefore, I do give to orgs pursuing political/governance causes (in no small part, to your influence). But in this area, it seems most prudent to give to orgs with a specific, strategic focus (hardly the DNC), and the the groups that have stood out to me are Oxfam, RESULTS, and Jubilee, with their very intentional focus on advocating for political influence in areas specifically connected to helping those in greatest poverty. But I’d love to hear more of your thoughts/discussion on what are the crucial factors of governance for development, how they are influenced, and how that intersects with the work of organizations that we can potentially support (and if my assessments about that are wrong). Thanks again!

  9. Yes, Chris, your gifts are “the stereotype of the wealthy white liberal elite”.

    I remember giving to SPLC long ago, but they have become a “(all) Republicans are racist” intolerant group.

    Your gifts to Haiti Partners are likely to be among the most effective, partly because so many faith-based orgs include fewer corrupt bureaucrats (not none, just much much fewer). Our Slovak St. Elizabeth University continues to fund a health clinic in Haiti, and many there are truly tying to improve things.

    You should consider replacing the anti-Rep ACLU with FIRE (https://www.thefire.org/ Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), one of the best anti-PC censorship orgs available, not very popular with most of your friends.

    Trump, Brexit, and populism is partly a reaction against elite PC hypocritical suppression of Free Speech. Your gifts show you to be fully on board with elite corruption and PC authoritarianism. (I think you personally do good work, but I call your gifts as I see them. HRC was a terrible, corrupt, greedy elitist politician, and fully deserved to lose to whoever.)

    Thanks for your honesty. Wish the orgs you like were actually better, in actual results, not in (hypocritical? dishonest?) rhetorical “good intentions”.

    Big gov’t Socialists also claim good intentions, until they run out of OPM, and nice places degenerate into hell-holes like Venezuela is becoming.

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