Is Givewell still on MeFi's black list? April 20, 2011 6:42 PM   Subscribe

Whatever happened to Givewell of astroturfing infamy? Have they redeemed themselves since?
posted by Dragonness to MetaFilter-Related at 6:42 PM (246 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

Not with us, no.
posted by box at 6:43 PM on April 20, 2011


(Royal we.)
posted by box at 6:53 PM on April 20, 2011


I don't remember following the Givewell thing when it happened here and don't have an opinion of them, but this "Mistakes" section on their website seems like a somewhat novel approach.
posted by andoatnp at 6:54 PM on April 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


Yeah, I read up on the Mistakes page a few weeks ago. It's actually fairly interesting reading, and a lot more introspective and self-critical than I was expecting. Would love to see something similar for every company.
posted by carsonb at 6:55 PM on April 20, 2011


If we see people posting links to them in AskMe we examine them very very closely.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 6:57 PM on April 20, 2011 [11 favorites]


Carsonb, I only just discovered the scandal myself, and reading the 'Shortcomings' page on their website, I cynically just assumed they were trying to cover up the original by posting other essentially insignificant 'mistakes' they made.
posted by Dragonness at 6:59 PM on April 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Do people post links to Givewell in AskMe often? When they do, do other people post links to the MetaTalk thread?
posted by box at 7:00 PM on April 20, 2011


Box, the one recent comment on AskMe I saw was from carsonb here, who seems to trust them.
posted by Dragonness at 7:05 PM on April 20, 2011


That comment was on MetaFilter, and it was dripping with sarcasm.
posted by carsonb at 7:11 PM on April 20, 2011 [8 favorites]


I think the significant mistakes listed on that page are pretty significant. In particular, a lot of the criticism of Givewell as an organization (both before and after the astroturfing) was that their grantmaking process was too labor intensive for small organizations to realistically apply to their foundation. I was surprised to see that they marked that as a big change.

Apparently, Givewell went not being able to even hear criticism, much less listen and understand, to noticing a mistake and working on alternative strategies. And considering their spectacular hubris in believing twenty something hedge funders could, with no experience or industry advice, solve problems that 30-year veterans of nonprofits could not, I think that really does indicate that the founders may really have matured, personally and professionally.
posted by lesli212 at 7:14 PM on April 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


You're right, carsonb, it was on MetaFilter. I'm very glad you clarified you were being sarcastic, I could interpret it either way in the context.
posted by Dragonness at 7:16 PM on April 20, 2011


I'm trying to think of who else is on Mefi's "black list." I can think of a few notorious users that are probably beyond redemption.
posted by crunchland at 7:17 PM on April 20, 2011


lesli212, I was astounded by Holden's arrogance in the AskMe thread, so yeah, I see your point.

Does anyone have knowledge of Givewell's reputation in the non-profit domain today?
posted by Dragonness at 7:22 PM on April 20, 2011


Much as I hate this, they've made quite an impression on people, as evidenced by Peter Singer's support. They fill an important niche in philanthropy by helping to eliminate one significant obstacle to giving, the fear of inefficacy.
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:23 PM on April 20, 2011


Holy cow, that was in 2007. Doesn't seem that long ago.
posted by marxchivist at 7:24 PM on April 20, 2011 [5 favorites]


Holy cow, that was in 2007. Doesn't seem that long ago.
posted by marxchivist at 10:24 PM on April 20 [+] [!]


I'm 31 and I do this every day, remembering something recent and realizing that, no, that was actually 10 years ago and here's your cane, grandpa. I'm so screwed when I actually get older.
posted by empyrean at 7:31 PM on April 20, 2011 [21 favorites]


When you start forgetting stuff?
posted by box at 7:33 PM on April 20, 2011


Just reading a fascinating little NY Times follow-up linked from the MeFi Wiki page about the incident:

Mr. Karnofsky told the board on Dec. 31 about his failure to identify himself in various online forums. But Mr. Hassenfeld did not tell the board until last week about his use of his girlfriend’s name, also on Dec. 31, to answer a question — “Where should I donate?” — that had been posted by someone on mnspeak.com, a Minneapolis blog aggregator.

“Have you seen www.givewell.net?” Mr. Hassenfeld replied as Talia. “It’s a new Web site that tries to help donors answer that question by researching, evaluating and recommending the best charities. It was mentioned in The New York Times last week.”

posted by Dragonness at 7:35 PM on April 20, 2011


Holy cow, that was in 2007. Doesn't seem that long ago.

May James Taylor someday forgive me for this.

I remember Holden Karnie back on 12-31
and his... final scene at MeFi done
Cause the mods found out and banned his ass
We don't want your shitty little cash
He'd thought - nobody knows me
Nobody's quite caught on
Til little Miko busted me
Oh I shoulda just stayed gone

Somebody Ban 'em up
Ban 'em all up
Ban 'em up
Ban 'em all up
Ban 'em up
Ban 'em all up
Ban 'em up
Ban 'em all up

Ah that time Tombola got caught
Does dry cleaning make your crap post hot
And I turned away cause no it don't
Try to not look closely while you just get boned
But it's ... much too closely linking
To sites you control
They've got wounds and they're just sinking
You better call the medical

I say ..
Ban 'em all up
Ban 'em up
Ban 'em all up
Ban 'em up
Ban 'em all up
Ban 'em up
Ban 'em all up

Oh I've seen trolls get booted
And sock puppets included
And certainly a rude kid
I've gone bannin' up your posts
I've been flaggin' out the nose
Sure I know how it goes

Another day goes by
Now that you just got screwed
I'm breaking my brain
Over where you went to
Maybe took a nap
And got some sleep
We haven't heard a peep

Who waits for you
Lonely tired old Hold
Your accounts laid out before you
Like a broken up band with a can on the side of the road

Ban 'em all up
Ban 'em up
Ban 'em all up
Ban 'em up
Ban 'em all up
Ban 'em up
Ban 'em all up

Yeah, big man lyin
People all findin out
Smiles
For detectives
They go finding all things you've done
Each re-engages
posting into the blue
I watch them post new pages
Everyone but you

Ban 'em up
Ban 'em all up
posted by cashman at 7:37 PM on April 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


Genius, cashman, I'm cracking up here.
posted by Dragonness at 7:44 PM on April 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm trying to think of who else is on Mefi's "black list."
Well, I don't think Pretty Flowers is on anyone's playlist.
posted by unliteral at 8:20 PM on April 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm trying to think of who else is on Mefi's "black list." I can think of a few notorious users that are probably beyond redemption.

God, just leave me alone!
posted by shakespeherian at 8:36 PM on April 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Their board no longer contains any people whose careers have been in the nonprofit sector.
posted by Miko at 8:49 PM on April 20, 2011 [6 favorites]


Their board no longer contains any people whose careers have been in the nonprofit sector.

Thank you Mike. This is exactly the sort of advice I am looking for.
posted by special-k at 9:20 PM on April 20, 2011 [5 favorites]


Their board no longer contains any people whose careers have been in the nonprofit sector.

Their chair is at Magnetar Capital, the firm alleged by This American Life to have worsened the collateralized debt obligation financial crisis.
posted by grouse at 9:35 PM on April 20, 2011 [6 favorites]


Bunch of filthy conniving weasels. There aren't many people I can think of whom I'd reflexively cock-punch upon being introduced to them; but that Holden dipstick is definitely on the list. It personally offends me most deeply that I share the same number of chromosomes with such creatures. It's a damn good thing I'm not a moderator hereabouts, or their lair would have been a wet and smoking ruin after I summoned the mob.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 10:23 PM on April 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm trying to think of who else is on Mefi's "black list."

well I don't think anyone of us will be buying laptops from airnxtz anytime soon...
posted by russm at 10:40 PM on April 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


GiveWell is great and has become very well-respected. It's the organization that Peter Singer recommends people use to maximize effective giving, for instance, and that's a huge deal.

There was some discussion of GiveWell in this thread. Stbalbach and I defended them here and here.
posted by painquale at 11:07 PM on April 20, 2011


russm: "well I don't think anyone of us will be buying laptops from airnxtz anytime soon..."

Wow, that is quite the thread(s). Thanks for sharing.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 11:35 PM on April 20, 2011


Nthing Painquale.

By enabling donors to direct their funds in a way that maximises utility, GiveWell, at least in intent, has the potential to do inestimably more good than a millennia of Christmas gift drives on MetaTalk, no matter how warm and fuzzy they make users feel. It has the potential to save and improve lives of the world's poorest people on a significant scale. It's a respected organisation with serious, and important, ethical goals that deserves to be taken seriously.

By contrast, this is a self-congratulatory circlejerk.
posted by dontjumplarry at 11:42 PM on April 20, 2011


Their board no longer contains any people whose careers have been in the nonprofit sector.

So it now consists solely of ex-hedge fund soi-disant "geniuses" who, to give them credit, did get out of the hedge fund business and into working --well, or at least being paid-- full-time in the "charity sector"?
posted by orthogonality at 11:47 PM on April 20, 2011


There aren't many people I can think of whom I'd reflexively cock-punch upon being introduced to them; but that Holden dipstick is definitely on the list.

Hey!
posted by Richard Holden at 12:07 AM on April 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


By enabling donors to direct their funds in a way that maximises utility, GiveWell, at least in intent, has the potential to do inestimably more good than a millennia of Christmas gift drives on MetaTalk

Oh, barf. Total puke-fest. In convincing the willfully-gullible that they have some entirely self-invented right to rule, this ravening pack of slimy ivy-league posers siphon what would otherwise be useful dollars into their filthy gaping maws. Flame-throwers are too good for such parasites.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 12:07 AM on April 21, 2011 [14 favorites]


Wow
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 1:36 AM on April 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


orthogonality: So it now consists solely of ex-hedge fund soi-disant "geniuses" who, to give them credit, did get out of the hedge fund business and into working --well, or at least being paid-- full-time in the "charity sector"?

Actually, all board members (except for Holden Karnofsky, who is again part of the board) still have jobs elsewhere, most in hedge fund-related things.
posted by bjrn at 1:43 AM on April 21, 2011


I need some cash. How can I get into this hedge fund managing thing? I'm going to guess I fail to have the right credentials, i.e. East Coast Money Family. Otherwise I suspect I'm at least as qualified.
posted by maxwelton at 1:48 AM on April 21, 2011


russm: "well I don't think anyone of us will be buying laptops from airnxtz anytime soon..." Wow, that is quite the thread(s). Thanks for sharing. post

Wow, the Internet DID used to be the Wild West.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 1:50 AM on April 21, 2011


I'm trying to think of who else is on Mefi's "black list."
Well, I don't think Pretty Flowers is on anyone's playlist.


Damn. I read that thread when it happened but didn't actually listen to the music he was shilling. I just did so. Ouch.
posted by cj_ at 2:01 AM on April 21, 2011


Much as I hate this, they've made quite an impression on people, as evidenced by Peter Singer's support. They fill an important niche in philanthropy by helping to eliminate one significant obstacle to giving, the fear of inefficacy.
posted by anotherpanacea at 3:23 AM on April 21


Banned!

GiveWell is great and has become very well-respected. It's the organization that Peter Singer recommends people use to maximize effective giving, for instance, and that's a huge deal.

There was some discussion of GiveWell in this thread. Stbalbach and I defended them here and here.
posted by painquale at 7:07 AM on April 21


Banned!

By enabling donors to direct their funds in a way that maximises utility, GiveWell, at least in intent, has the potential to do inestimably more good than a millennia of Christmas gift drives on MetaTalk, no matter how warm and fuzzy they make users feel. It has the potential to save and improve lives of the world's poorest people on a significant scale. It's a respected organisation with serious, and important, ethical goals that deserves to be taken seriously.
posted by dontjumplarry at 7:42 AM on April 21


Banned!


I love a good purge!
posted by Decani at 2:24 AM on April 21, 2011


Oh, barf. Total puke-fest. In convincing the willfully-gullible that they have some entirely self-invented right to rule, this ravening pack of slimy ivy-league posers siphon what would otherwise be useful dollars into their filthy gaping maws. Flame-throwers are too good for such parasites.

This is dumb, drunk, ad hominem noise. The ivy league background of its founders, their personalities and motivations are irrelevant to the effectiveness of the organisation's work (and, at any rate, you manufactured those personalities out of whole cloth, and the glass of red wine in your hand). If you'd like to advance an argument as to how GiveWell's work is ineffective -- why it is a bad idea to provide evidence-based evaluations of charities -- by all means let's talk. First read the links to the prior thread given above by Painquale which summarise the role and purpose of the organisation and detail why the world's most eminent ethicist has specifically recommended them.

While you are playing to the peanut gallery with your middle-class, pseudo-left populism, people like Singer and, quite possibly, GiveWell are actually contributing materially to improving the lives of the world's poorest people by directing people to give more of their charitable dollar to highly effective programs such as immunisation and anti-TB initiatives, and less of it to feel-good local charities which provide warm and fuzzies without changing squat.

They have, quite likely, done more good -- alleviated more suffering, saved more lives, prevented more mothers from screaming in agony while their toddlers die in front of them -- than you or I will do in our entire lives.

To me, that matters more than whether the fucking founder went to Princeton. And if you were actually on the side of the poor, it would matter most to you, too.
posted by dontjumplarry at 2:50 AM on April 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


lesli212: …spectacular hubris in believing twenty something hedge funders could, with no experience or industry advice, solve problems that 30-year veterans of nonprofits could not…

From what I understood at the time, their goal was not so much that as to skim off 50% of people's donations whilst churning out thousands of blog and forum posts under a variety of aliases attacking their competitors and insisting that looking at the overhead is not a good way of evaluating charities. I don't think that's changed.
posted by nowonmai at 3:01 AM on April 21, 2011


Do you have a cite for the 50% figure?
posted by dontjumplarry at 3:21 AM on April 21, 2011


(And just on the point about overheads. I think the whole point of an evidence-based approach to charity is to look for what the charity actually achieves rather than what proportion goes on administration. Charity Navigator does the latter; fair enough. My preference is for a ranking system that rates by actual effectiveness rather than admin percentage. YMMV)
posted by dontjumplarry at 3:33 AM on April 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm trying to think of who else is on Mefi's "black list."

Sonofminya (for chopping his hand off during a meta thread)

Pretty_generic (for hacking the site)

Dhoyt ( multiple multiple sockpuppets, which were very well done)


at the closing of the threads

and the swinging

of the banhammer,

we will

remember them.


(paaaarp)
posted by sgt.serenity at 3:39 AM on April 21, 2011


It's not something I really want to fight about, I just think it's interesting that they've managed to salvage themselves. I mean, how many people do you know whose reason not to give is tied to the sense that their money will be "wasted" or misdirected?

On the other hand, I'd never give directly to GiveWell, which is how they're funded. Also, I worry that they're mostly replicating the internal process at big institutions like Oxfam. It can still be useful to make that info available publicly, but Oxfam could publicize that process on their own and cut GiveWell out with relative ease.
posted by anotherpanacea at 3:40 AM on April 21, 2011


anotherpanacea: I mean, how many people do you know whose reason not to give is tied to the sense that their money will be "wasted" or misdirected?

No one.

Seriously, I don't know a single person in real life who limits their charitable donations because they think charities are badly run and will waste their money.
posted by Kattullus at 4:00 AM on April 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


But have they salvaged themselves? What's different now to what they were doing before, apart from a lack of known astroturfing?
posted by harriet vane at 4:00 AM on April 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


I know and encounter many people who use that excuse. I send them to Peter Singer and GiveWell.
posted by anotherpanacea at 4:02 AM on April 21, 2011


dontjumplarry: Do you have a cite for the 50% figure?

It's what they were aggressively defending at the time of the original controversy. I don't know what the figure is today, but a quick Google search for "givewell overhead" will net you plenty of more recent Givewell blog posts defending high overheads, in addition to a lot forum threads around the net where people who may or may not be Givewell sockpuppets are attacking the likes of Charity Navigator and banging on about how overhead is not the way to assess the effectiveness of a charity.

Frankly, dontjumplarry, it will be difficult for you to make many more comments along the lines of the ones you have already made in this thread without being accused of being yet another Givewell sockpuppet.
posted by nowonmai at 4:17 AM on April 21, 2011 [7 favorites]


I've done phone-based charity fundraising. A quite common response was that Oxfam, and 3rd world charities generally, are not worth giving to because they change nothing.

Though I think GiveWell's main aim is not persuading non-donors that giving can be effective; rather it aims to be an information resource that existing donors can use to maximize utility.

anotherpanacea - perhaps Im wrong but I dont think Oxfam reviews and ranks the effectiveness of rival NGOs.
posted by dontjumplarry at 4:21 AM on April 21, 2011


My problem with GiveWell is the exclusionary nature of their assessment method, which effectively puts the onus back on the charity and costs the charity labour, time, money and resource they may or may not have, and distinctly favours a certain type of charity over other types.

Now, imho - and I'm not talking out of my butt here - every broad-based method of charity assessment brings with it flaws, and GiveWell is not necessarily evil for attempting it. But I'm not sure the idea that you can "score" or rank charities across a continuum is actually a valid one, attempting as it does to cross a complicated nexus of policies, applied ethics, and citizen desires. Certainly, there is a demand for such assessments, and perhaps they even facilitate donations that otherwise might not be made - we simply don't know, though, and I would rather my money was going towards actual aid as opposed to an NGO marketer in a sense.

GiveWell are neither the first, nor the last word on a charity's effectiveness - no one is. Least of all Peter Singer, who from the way some people are going on in here you would think was the Jesus of charities or something. Well, lots of people have (well-founded) problems with Singer's ethical approach, and I feel that his knowledge and understanding of the aid sector is limited - at least it is compared to the academics and experts I respect and read about regarding aid, including ones I disagree with. He's not the satan of aid, mind, but he certainly ain't the jesus and he's not someone I would be looking to for especially informed discussion on the topic; everything he says is filtered through and shaped by his strictly utilitarian views, which are by no means universal.
posted by smoke at 4:33 AM on April 21, 2011 [16 favorites]


Oxfam doesn't have rivals. Oxfam evaluates the efficacy of their *partners*, and rejects projects that don't meet their efficacy standards. Thus is why, for instance, they did not initially accept donations for Japan, because they didn't have partners on the ground there. They didn't have partners there because there was no effective aid to do. They knew that because of their internal "GiveWell"-style of evaluations, which all institutional philanthropists use. GiveWell is just retailing that process to the masses.
posted by anotherpanacea at 4:42 AM on April 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Peter Singer is "the world's most eminent ethicist?"

I've read enough.

The line between celebrity self-promotion and "charity" is mighty blurry these days.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:58 AM on April 21, 2011 [5 favorites]


Also the problem with Givewell is that in the world of charitable giving, public trust is the alpha and omega of success. You don't get a free pass for the first or second times you abuse and violate public trust. The fact that some of us suspect the more puffy comments in this very thread are the work of Givewell's astroturfing squad (Hi Holden if you're reading!) speaks volumes to the importance of reputation, and the fact that no amount of celebrity window-dressing (which is all Peter Singer means to me) can make up for a history of deceiving the public, at least for many of us.

Ask yourself whether the "mistakes" they made would be publicly posted (and include the astroturfing) had Holden never been caught shilling on AskMe? I doubt it. We'd never have known were it not for Miko's excellent intervention in that original thread in 2007. And how many more such instances are out there of which we know nothing? It's awfully easy to get away with what they did, only they were apparently too dumb to get away with it. But if they learned from their "mistake," they might just as well have learned how to astroturf with more deniability.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:07 AM on April 21, 2011 [8 favorites]


It'd be nice if the mods would intervene here to assure us that dontjumplarry is not associated with GiveWell. His contributions have a tone that makes them difficult not to hear as, well... motivated.

That said, it would be a mistake to assume that organizations with problems can't do good work. I know lots of aid workers with bad marriages or skeevy interpersonal styles. Personal failings and hypocrisy don't matter as much as doing the job well.
posted by anotherpanacea at 5:36 AM on April 21, 2011


It'd be nice if the mods would intervene here to assure us that dontjumplarry is not associated with GiveWell.

No, it wouldn't.
posted by mediareport at 5:46 AM on April 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


To be clear, I find dontjumplarry's defense of Givewell completely uncompelling given 1) the detailed dissection of Givewell's problems by Miko and others back in the day and 2) the news about the sleazy Magnetar Capital connection, but the idea that there's anything in dontjumplarry's defense (or history) that requires mod intervention about his identity is far more toxic than anything that account has written here.
posted by mediareport at 5:54 AM on April 21, 2011 [6 favorites]


I don't need to know who he is. I'd just like to know who he's not. Nothing plannedchaos said was "toxic," but it mattered that it was Scott Adams saying it.

Didn't it? Maybe not... I could be wrong on this.
posted by anotherpanacea at 6:01 AM on April 21, 2011


Put the worms back in the can.
posted by mediareport at 6:01 AM on April 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


Dontjumplarry has been a reasonably active user on mefi for over 18 months, participating in many posts and questions. That's a ridiculously long game for someone anticipating that someone else would maybe post a metatalk about Givewell with which they could respond, and frankly I think that accusation is unwarranted and somewhat paranoid. It's possible to just disagree without being ulterior. :)
posted by smoke at 6:10 AM on April 21, 2011 [5 favorites]


That's fair, smoke. dontjumplarry, I apologize for my suspicions. I can see they're unwarranted.
posted by anotherpanacea at 6:14 AM on April 21, 2011


has become very well-respected

In what sectors? I think you have to look at their total "money moved" metric and recognize that it's pretty small - significant to the charity that was the major recipient last year, of course, but nothing that a single donor couldn't provide on his or her own.

The graphs are pretty interesting in that they reveal that the bulk (more than half) of donations comes from a few people, and that though they are hoping smaller individual donations from people they "don't know personally" will take hold as the main revenue stream, that is far from the case today.

The bottom of this analysis admits

A major question for GiveWell is whether the value of our research is worth the cost of producing it.

I agree that this is not just a major, but the most significant question for the organization. GiveWell employs four full-time people and generates a lot of charts and verbiage - to raise a 1.5 mil, most of that from friends? It just seems like the very example of the kind of wasteful effort they deplore. Lady Gaga just made $1.5 million for Japan relief selling a rubber bracelet.

It doesn't seem, at this point, they are doing anything illegal or particularly shady for their niche in the philanthropic world. It just seems a pretty ineffective ratio of effort to funds raised, and still has the feel of a small investors club with little perspective from the charitable sector informing its work. Though the numbers are interpreted to give a sense of progress and success, it's not really clear that this organization is making a more unique or valuable impact than an investors donation club - or even a single donor devoting the time to do this research - would. The structure of GiveWell and all the work to create the public-facing material are not essential to the production of this exact result.

Perhaps a more interesting and productive model for them would be to contract their services as researchers to the larger and better known charity evaluators, possibly adding a certifying function as an overlay to the metrics those organizations already use.
posted by Miko at 6:22 AM on April 21, 2011 [17 favorites]


I just looked over their shortcomings page for the first time in ages, and I'm struck, again, but how the majority of their write-ups reveal the depth of their inexperience in the nonprofit world. I assume that's a shortcoming they're working on, although with no board members who work in the field, I have to wonder who's mentoring or teaching them.

It's the organization that Peter Singer recommends people use to maximize effective giving, for instance, and that's a huge deal
.

A huge deal to whom?
posted by rtha at 6:37 AM on April 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


I have no idea whether GiveWell has reached the point where they're doing worthwhile work. I just don't have the expertise to evaluate their efforts.

I do respect them for posting that "shortcomings" page. I don't see too many people willing to demonstrate that level of public critical self-analysis.
posted by tdismukes at 6:53 AM on April 21, 2011


I do respect them for posting that "shortcomings" page. I don't see too many people willing to demonstrate that level of public critical self-analysis.

Yeah, you know, it's something to think about and I don't think there's an easy answer to how good an idea this is. As we talked about way back when, lots of organizations do have rigorous self-analysis - for accreditation programs, grant applications, annual reports, etc. But you're right that these mostly remain internal to the organization and often its membership or to the industry. When I think about why it's not more often revealed, it's not only a resistance to transparency for resistance's sake - it's that, in fact, it could undermine support. Ultimately, your duty is to maximize support, and I think it's actually yet to be shown that total transparency increases support. That's really the bottom line and I think the assumption that transparency is always a good has to be examined more deeply. In this case, for instance, transparency does not seem to be increasing support. There are some donors who may say "gee, how great that they're offering a page full of mistakes! How refreshingly honest!", but the question is whether that's a big enough sector to counterbalance the many who would logically say "whoa, that's a lot of mistakes for one young organization. I'll keep shopping."
posted by Miko at 7:07 AM on April 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


It'd be nice if the mods would intervene here to assure us that dontjumplarry is not associated with GiveWell. His contributions have a tone that makes them difficult not to hear as, well... motivated.

It's a far, far better idea to write us an email if you've got specific grounds for a suspicion and let us sanity check it that way than to speculate in thread about stuff like this. That aside even from the fact that GiveWell isn't exactly some mild topic around here that we aren't going to keep an eye on anyway.
posted by cortex (staff) at 7:09 AM on April 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


That aside even from the fact that GiveWell isn't exactly some mild topic around here that we aren't going to keep an eye on anyway.

CEILING CORTEX IS ... something ... something ... something ...

Oh, forget it.

posted by slogger at 8:06 AM on April 21, 2011


I had to look up this Peter Singer fellow and apparently he is something of a well known ethicist. An ethicist. Who recommends Givewell.

He has a book out which profiles Givewell and according to them, "a portion of the book’s proceeds are being donated to GiveWell". That seems bizarre and I can't find that information on the book's website or anywhere else.

On the Amazon site for the book, Holden Karnofsky, the co-founder of GiveWell has a quote recommending the book. Is it normal Amazon policy to include quotes praising books from people who are its subject and gain financially from its sales? That's a pretty clear conflict of interest.
posted by euphorb at 8:09 AM on April 21, 2011 [14 favorites]


Don't ever change, Holden.
posted by grouse at 8:30 AM on April 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


No one.

Seriously, I don't know a single person in real life who limits their charitable donations because they think charities are badly run and will waste their money.


This, exactly. Givewell's "product" was always a solution looking for a problem. I have a normal work schedule, a family, and plenty of outside activities, and yet I still somehow find time every year to do a minor amount of research into which charities I want to support. This has never been a problem for me or anyone I know. If I had a much higher income and subsequently wanted to give larger chunks to charitable causes, I can only imagine it would be even easier for me to do this minimal research, or hell, pay an accountant to do it for me.

Even assuming such a product were useful, the research organization would have to be so amazingly well-regarded and staffed completely with industry experts for me to even bother looking into using them. Givewell hardly meets this criteria.
posted by odinsdream at 8:35 AM on April 21, 2011


Well, I don't think Pretty Flowers is on anyone's playlist.

You know, I am actually really glad the img tag is gone.
posted by adamdschneider at 8:41 AM on April 21, 2011


It's a far, far better idea to write us an email if you've got specific grounds for a suspicion and let us sanity check it that way than to speculate in thread about stuff like this.

Sorry about that. Won't happen again.
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:50 AM on April 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


That seems bizarre

I agree, I noticed the liaison with Singer a while back when he was on NPR, and looked around to see what was happening there. It smacks of personal connection - I mean, why would we have such a dog in the fight, and such a specific one, and be so uncritical when generally he's really critical? - but it's not one that's easy to discover, if it exists. Maybe it's a completely disinterested relationship, though I think given past performance, and lack of other similar public echoes of support, it's reasonable to reserve some doubt.
posted by Miko at 9:41 AM on April 21, 2011


Just read the part of Singer's book where he profiles GiveWell, briefly. Frustratingly, he perpetuates they myth that accountability in the charitable field is nonexistent:

One reason the figures don't necessarily tell the full story is that they are taken from forms the charities themselves complete and send to tax authorities. No one checks the forms...

So false. Charities have regular audits (I've certainly been called upon to provide justification/documentation for hours or expenses during audit cycles) and the form goes to the IRS in the US, obviously. That's in addition to all the other checks and balances, and to state oversight. I understand Singer's utilitarian arguments but he is not presenting the full set of facts there. If I were relatively uninformed about charities I would find his statement shocking and be misled.
posted by Miko at 10:05 AM on April 21, 2011 [7 favorites]


By contrast, this is a self-congratulatory circlejerk.

Okay, that's just appalling and ridiculous. I don't congratulate anybody, much less myself, until the circle jerk is done.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:26 AM on April 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


has become very well-respected

In what sectors?


Well, I guess it's probably a small sector, but it's a significant and well-informed one. In my experience, GiveWell is really well-respected among ethicists, philosophers, economists, and other academics. Singer is not alone in his support here; he's just the most public ethicist. I travel in circles that overlap with ethicist circles, and GiveWell is very highly regarded. Organizations run by academics, Giving What We Can, tend to support them.

I'm probably not the one to launch a defense of GiveWell against the onrush of Metafilter's ire, but I will say that I'm personally more impressed with the arguments and information I see on GiveWell's blog than I see when I look at sites like Charity Navigator. Their series of posts on Japan was pretty insightful, I thought. Their discussions of QALYs and other effectiveness metrics have been worthwhile. They are right that whether or not a charity has a high overhead is only a small consideration against giving to that charity. The fact that they make not just their information but their arguments and their worries public, and that the arguments and worries all seem very sensible, have given me reason to trust their recommendations. I do not think that past astroturfing gives me reason to not trust them. Ethicists I know feel similarly.

This is not idle support. At least, I hope it's not. It's an issue of some importance for me, because it matters where my money goes and how much impact it makes. I know a lot of people who give money to charity, and almost everyone gives to VillageReach on the basis of GiveWell's recommendation. If there is a better charity they could be giving money to, they would love to know about it, as would I. So I'm asking honestly here: is GiveWell wrong about VillageReach being the best place to donate? I'm completely willing to ditch my support for GiveWell if I learn of a reason not to trust their recommendations, but I haven't seen any yet.

(I'm not at all associated with GiveWell, by the way. It's weird that I feel that I have to disclaim that just because I support them, but I probably should get that out of the way before any accusations come.)
posted by painquale at 10:38 AM on April 21, 2011


(I'm not at all associated with GiveWell, by the way. It's weird that I feel that I have to disclaim that just because I support them....)

I agree, it's too bad GiveWell's past actions have caused us to continually question anything having to do with them. But there you go.
posted by Floydd at 10:45 AM on April 21, 2011 [5 favorites]


When you start an organization that judges charitable organizations, you'd think you'd understand that it is critically important to not publicly prove that you are willing to lie to further your own ends because people need to be able to trust your honesty and judgment.

That these geniuses missed that is astounding. I think "Wall Street savvy" can definitely help the non-profit sector, but being interested in data isn't everything.
posted by ignignokt at 11:04 AM on April 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


and almost everyone gives to VillageReach on the basis of GiveWell's recommendation. If there is a better charity they could be giving money to, they would love to know about it, as would I.

VillageReach may well be the pinnacle of charities; I have no idea. And, frankly, neither does GiveWell - it's among their most highly rated, based on a self-selected sample size that isn't all that huge. Charities opt in to GiveWell's rating system, and not opting in doesn't mean they're not awesome - it means they've never heard of GiveWell, or they don't have the time/staff to comply with yet another layer of accountability metrics, etc.

I'm not arguing that what GiveWell does isn't good, but it's not the be-all and end-all of figuring out who to give your donation dollars to. And I do find it disturbing that their subtext is still very much "There was no transparency before we came along!", because that's just not correct.
posted by rtha at 11:17 AM on April 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


Considering Singer's view of the disabled, his endorsement does not help Givewell's image where I am concerned.
posted by miss-lapin at 11:39 AM on April 21, 2011 [5 favorites]


Some massive confusion on my part was alleviated only when I realized that we were, in fact, not talking about Pete Seeger.
posted by 8dot3 at 11:52 AM on April 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


This is dumb, drunk, ad hominem noise. The ivy league background of its founders, their personalities and motivations are irrelevant to the effectiveness of the organisation's work (and, at any rate, you manufactured those personalities out of whole cloth, and the glass of red wine in your hand)

Cut it the fuck out with these presumptions of drunkenness. It's fucking rude, and it's fucking lazy. Consider it possible that one can be angry, contemptuous and abusive without being drunk. Okay?
posted by Decani at 12:29 PM on April 21, 2011 [4 favorites]


[NOT DRUNKIST]
posted by odinsdream at 12:30 PM on April 21, 2011


Nice. GiveWell can even ruin enjoying a Zima or two while posting.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:44 PM on April 21, 2011


Hell, drunkeness makes me like humanity a lot more. Or, at least, makes them attractive enough to sleep with.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:44 PM on April 21, 2011


VillageReach may well be the pinnacle of charities; I have no idea. And, frankly, neither does GiveWell - it's among their most highly rated, based on a self-selected sample size that isn't all that huge.

That's a really important point, and it's definitely the case the GiveWell's suggestion isn't the be-all and end-all, but this doesn't imply that GiveWell has no idea whether VillageReach is the pinnacle. Their recommendation gives reason to increase one's degree of confidence that it is the best place to send money. We're reasoning under uncertainty; all we can hope for is to maximize expected good. It's obviously better to take GiveWell's recommendation rather than give at random. I also think it will increase expected good to take their recommendation than try to reason through it on one's own, given that they have invested more time than I have to reasoning through the cost-benefit analysis, and their blog indicates that I have good reason to think they are competent and trustworthy at it. I should rephrase the question: what course of action would increase the expected impact of one's donation over just accepting GiveWell's recommendation of VillageReach?
posted by painquale at 1:14 PM on April 21, 2011


The ivy league background of its founders, their personalities and motivations are irrelevant to the effectiveness of the organisation's work

I've worked my whole career in the non-profit, charitable sector. My current role has a heavy emphasis on evaluation, effectiveness measures, metrics, etc, etc, etc. I am wholly on board with the idea that our sector needs to be evaluated and provide results for the money we are given and entrusted with. It's a part of our social contract with the communities we serve.

My concern with people with no experience in the sector running something like Givewell (and I think the idea of something like Givewell is a good idea) - and I have nothing against Givewell, haven't looked into them enough to determine what I think of the work they are doing - is the lack of knowledge of our sector. It's different. I base this assessment on several conversations I have had over the last few years with family members, board members, and volunteers (all of whom work in the for-profit sector). Some examples:

I remember one treasurer for our organization who, after a year and a half in the role, threw up her hands in frustration at the level of tracking, reporting, rules, and accountability requirements we had to cope with to maintain our charitable status and contracts. In all of her years as a professional accountant doing audits of for-profit companies, she had never seen the level of complexity or restrictions that we operated under. In another case, I had a meeting with a new volunteer with our local United Way. He had recently retired from a fairly high-level job in the oil and gas sector, and was going to volunteer with UW funded organizations as an organizational effectiveness consultant - providing advice to increase their impact and improve performance. They sent him to us to see what they felt was a "good organization" first (and I say that not to brag, but to tell you why he was here). After two hours with him, covering what we did in terms of services, reviewing our governance and staffing structure, policies, procedures, etc., etc, he tried to guess our annual operating budget. He was over by about 100%, and left the meeting absolutely flabbergasted at what we were doing on what he considered to be half the budget we needed. And I had one long conversation with my dad when our business lease was up for renegotiation. He was surprised to learn that we had to engage in the exact same discussions about lease rates, utility costs, improvements, etc, as every company he had worked for did. I don't know why he was surprised, but he was.

I bring these up to point out that there are tremendous misconceptions out there about this sector - most often, the assumption is that we are inefficient. I won't argue that we always aren't, and that some charitable organizations aren't engaging in the activities they say they are...but starting from the assumption (as many outsiders seem to) that we aren't being effective and efficient, or interested in such things is wrong. So when I see an organization like Givewell without anyone who has past experience in the sector, I am going to question where they are coming from and if their initial mindset is one of openness or the assumption that we aren't as effective/efficient/"good" as the for-profit sector.

My sector can learn from the business sector, yes. I also think the business sector can learn from us. And the starting point for that conversation has to be one of mutual respect and acknowledgement of the fact that our sectors are different and operate under different rules and in different contexts. Having a mix of people from both inside and outside the sector involved with this type of project/organization is important to achieving that, in my experience.
posted by never used baby shoes at 1:23 PM on April 21, 2011 [25 favorites]


I think the most basic thing the for-profit sector can learn from the non-profit sector is humility.

That and just lose the idea that government automatically equals BAD.

Good comment, nubs.
posted by lysdexic at 1:27 PM on April 21, 2011


"I had to look up this Peter Singer fellow and apparently he is something of a well known ethicist. An ethicist. Who recommends Givewell."

He's a philosopher primarily known for his utilitarian arguments regarding veganism and the mentally handicapped. That doesn't necessarily mean that he's a good judge of charity efficacy metrics, nor that being an "ethicist" confers a presumption of uncontroversial ethics.
posted by klangklangston at 1:41 PM on April 21, 2011 [4 favorites]


No one.

Seriously, I don't know a single person in real life who limits their charitable donations because they think charities are badly run and will waste their money.


I think this is one major factor in things blowing up here, actually. The AskMe question that started everything seemed a bit contrived, as well as the follow-up endorsements in the thread, in that they tried to press the concern in a way that didn't quite feel true to real life. It could be that this is just really obvious after the fact, but I'd be interested in hearing if this was one thing that caused Miko to dig deeper and start asking questions.
posted by SpacemanStix at 1:41 PM on April 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Okay, that's just appalling and ridiculous. I don't congratulate anybody, much less myself, until the circle jerk is done."

"Waddaya mean, 'Nobody brought a biscuit?'"
posted by klangklangston at 1:42 PM on April 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Seriously, I don't know a single person in real life who limits their charitable donations because they think charities are badly run and will waste their money

I know a lot of people who _say_ this. In most of these cases, I suspect it's just an excuse for not donating at all. But that's hard to prove. It's a sentiment I've heard pretty frequently my whole life, though.
posted by wildcrdj at 2:21 PM on April 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


I also think it will increase expected good to take their recommendation than try to reason through it on one's own

I'm not sure how you define "expected good." Is this a term from ethical debate? If so, we'd need a definition in order to have this conversation on the same terms. Based on a superficial impression of what the phrase might mean, I'd say though that think we're probably interested in producing demonstrable good, not expected good.

But in any case, I don't think it stands to reason that taking their recommendation is better than identifying a charity on your own. Their recommendation is only better if you are, as they say, "agnostic" about where your dollars go, as long as they are doing some good. That describes very few charitable donors, and primarily ones motivated by the financial advantages of donation (admittedly their target market). If you do have a serious charitable interest other than "saving lives" (which may not even be an uncomplicated good) then their system's design is of no use to you.

Meanwhile, their sample size is so vanishingly small that it seems ridiculous to assert that just because they've vetted fifteen charities or so and identified one strong winner, that winner must be better than the hundreds of thousands of charities they have not evaluated. Numbers aren't on the side of this game. They've identified one efficacious charity, but it's entirely possible for a terrible charity to be rated best of their bunch, because their bunch is so small, and for a charity identified and evaluated directly by me or any other person to be much better. The quality of the work within their scope may be good, but its lack of comprehensiveness means that it's impossible to say anything about the quality of any charity outside their scope. All they can talk about are the relative qualities of charities within their scope.

For instance, let's say I was on a quest to find the best school within my state to send my child to. Let's assume I have total school choice and my daughter's tuition follows her wherever she goes. If I invited schools to compete for her attendance, and four schools responded, I could indeed study them in great depth to identify the best of the set of four. And I would likely find it.

However, if there are four hundred schools in the state, it's quite likely that a number of the schools are better than all four of my sample, including the best of my sample, unless the best one in my sample happened to also be the best across the board. In fact, the better the school, the less likely it is that they would need to compete for my daughter's attendance and the tuition it might bring with it. They would already be attracting capable students and not aggressively seeking to fill empty seats by pursuing single students in a competitive fashion.

And I might not need metrics that are as deeply detailed in order to identify the best schools. Where the four schools in my sample might be so similar that they'd need a lot of detail to differentiate them, it is likely that in a larger sample the good done would be overwhelmingly obvious through the use of simpler and fewer metrics, like college acceptance rates or number of honor society members. So someone who did not use my detailed system to choose a school for her daughter, using broader, simpler, fewer and more widely comparable metrics, would be quite likely to find a much better school than my system revealed. And even if my system happened to reveal the best school of all, so would the simpler system using more schools be able to unequivocally reveal that school.

Finally, the trust issue does come into play for some of us, because the charities who have applied are self-selecting. It's unfair, probably, but I still can't help but wonder how many of these groups are run by people connected to their social network. It is probably unfair because they appear very earnest about their new direction, but as never used baby shoes underscores, they don't appear to have taken seriously the realities of the nonprofit sector or the heart of the critiques they've received, and haven't structured their process in a way that is friendly to and wide open to organizations with ideas and needs. They are, in effect, an organization saying "trust us - we do the homework so you don't have to," but you have to trust that the homework isn't manipulated.

I do agree there is no reason for an organization that does deep analysis and evaluation not to exist. No one is afraid of this and we could use more of it. But I think their model is flawed and their operations, for a nonprofit, are nonstandard. It's not the basic idea so much as the implementation and reasons for lack of confidence that are worrying.

I'd be interested in hearing if this was one thing that caused Miko to dig deeper and start asking questions.

It was indeed tone, the suggestion that it's "stupid and wasteful" to do your own research on charitable efficacy, and in particular it was the combination of Holden's first comment ("not being a fraud is not enough" with geremiah's second comment. Geremiah cited Holden's comment, but went on to talk about Givewell in a way that showed he was already familiar enough with the organization to provide an evaluation of it, and that seemed odd since ostensibly he was just hearing about the organization in this thread. And then when he repeated the name of the organization he called it "givewell.net" which seemed like an unusual degree of attention to the domain type. There was a distinct aura of medicine-show tactics, where the Innocent Inquirer suddenly meets the Knowledgeable Disinterested Party and they seem immediately simpatico.

Also, it bothered me that they were positing a charitable giver who was saying "I don't want to have to do any research at all. But I'm REALLY concerned about efficacy!" You can't really have both. If you are really concerned about efficacy, then you honestly have to do research. If you want to trust someone to do it for you, that's great, but it's nothing more than trust. That's what they're selling and that's why it's a hard sell after their initial approach.

Anyway, ugh, this issue. There's nothing wrong with researching and evaluating charities at the base of it. I'd just like to see it done more knowledgeably and comprehensively..
posted by Miko at 2:24 PM on April 21, 2011 [21 favorites]


The guy is a lying scumbag without a single qualification to advise anyone about anything other than diverting funds to his redundant, if not useless, operation. Declaring yourself an expert in some field you have no exposure to, nor any experience in whatsoever, doesn't then simply make it so. He decided that there was money to be made in charity, but the only strategy he had was to create an online campaign through sock-puppets to discredit already established, and perfectly credible and useful resources such as Charity Navigator. A quick look up of the numbers when he raised his filthy snout out of the sewer he dwells in revealed that almost all of the money Givewell had raised had gone to salaries, administration, travel, and expenses; and that no charitable activity of any kind had been undertaken. Sorry, but that's a scam.

When caught in his online frauds, this cork up the asshole of human progress then shamelessly tried to bribe us. I judge people on their actual behavior, endorsements from some self-declared pundit caries no weight with me. I could give a rat's ass that some "ethical expert" thinks that he's the cat's particulars. The revelation that this Pete Singer person has some low-rent co-branding scheme running with this tarted-up boiler-room is hardly surprising to me, because that's just how Holden karnofsky rolls. Anything associated with Holden Karnofsky will be always be tainted by his shady manipulations with an eye on the main chance.

The expenses at that money sink-hole of his places Givewell among the least efficient of all such operations, there is absolutely no need for their existence, except to create cash flow to themselves. Assholes like this who feed off of the misery of others are beneath contempt. If there's a bright side to the eventual heat death of the universe, it's that his particular gene-set will then be forever destroyed. Just utter scum.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 2:37 PM on April 21, 2011 [6 favorites]


but this doesn't imply that GiveWell has no idea whether VillageReach is the pinnacle.

Miko's said it far more eloquently and with more detail, but Givewell cannot, at this stage, have any such idea. They can say that it's the pinnacle of the charities that have submitted to their examination, but that's really it. To read it otherwise is a mistake.
posted by rtha at 2:42 PM on April 21, 2011


PareidoliaticBoy, I'm not really clear on how you feel about GiveWell. Could you be more explicit?
posted by lalex at 2:46 PM on April 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


this cork up the asshole of human progress
posted by PareidoliaticBoy


Interesting phrase. In your metaphor, what is human progress? The asshole, or the material it expels?
posted by Ann Onymous at 2:50 PM on April 21, 2011


The metaphor is Philip José Farmer's, I believe.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 2:57 PM on April 21, 2011


Thanks, Miko.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:06 PM on April 21, 2011


Cut it out the fuck out with these presumptions of drunkenness

That was in response to P-Boy's call for the founders to be set on fire.

The reason I was defending this organisation in a rhetorically colourful way is not because I'm associated with them. I live on the other side of the world and know little about them but what I've read in philosophy circles and here on MeFi. It's because I'm fervently committed to utilitarian ethics -- specifically, how do we reduce the most amount of suffering we can. At least in intent -- I can't speak to their execution at all -- they are one organisation that seems to be explicitly committed to this project. As a matter of fact, I have an absolutely fundamental philosophical divergence with GiveWell: it is speciesist, only ranking charities by their effectiveness to humans, not animals. It's conceivable to me that charities like Vegan Outreach, for example, could reduce more suffering than many human charities. This is not a minor quibble, by the way: to me, a non-profit which ignores animal suffering is like a charity which only helps white people because only their suffering matters.

Miko, if I'm right, your core critique is this: (a) evidence-based evaluation of charities is possibly a valid aim but (b) GiveWell works from too small a pool of charities to make their recommendations any better than broader, simpler, widely available metrics; they might just be singling out the best of a poor bunch. This is an interesting critique though I'm not sure it's a compelling one. What are these simple heuristics that allow quick and dirty evaluation of charities for effectiveness? By effectiveness I mean impact, in terms of reduction of suffering -- not effectiveness in terms of programs implemented or administration costs minimised. Development aid is notoriously complex and mixed in its effects, and can very easily cause more suffering than it eases or be "suffering neutral" (solve some problems, but cause others by increasing family sizes, putting local workers out of business by introducing free goods, and so on). I think independent, evidence-based evaluation is exactly what we need, not your common sensical approach. Again, I explicitly am not making a judgment on how GiveWell does at this evaluation, cos I don't actually know very much about them. To that end, I didn't know (as per n.u.b.s.) that they had no engagement with the aid sector specialists and find this an odd oversight that should probably be rectified.
posted by dontjumplarry at 3:44 PM on April 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's obviously better to take GiveWell's recommendation rather than give at random.

I'm not sure that this is at all obvious.


how do we reduce the most amount of suffering we can.

I know this one, Hedonic Calculus!
posted by ActingTheGoat at 3:52 PM on April 21, 2011


By effectiveness I mean impact, in terms of reduction of suffering -- not effectiveness in terms of programs implemented or administration costs minimised.

Givewell says they look at the effectiveness of programs implemented and how administration costs are minimised. I don't even know how you'd begin to measure who reduced suffering more without looking at costs and programs and comparing apples to apples. If a financially responsible organisation puts in wells for clean water in a village, have they reduced more or less suffering than an equally financially responsible organisation that vaccinates kids or hands out mosquito nets?

Development aid is notoriously complex and mixed in its effects, and can very easily cause more suffering than it eases or be "suffering neutral" (solve some problems, but cause others by increasing family sizes, putting local workers out of business by introducing free goods, and so on). I think independent, evidence-based evaluation is exactly what we need, not your common sensical approach.


I don't think Givewell is doing the kind of work you think they're doing.
posted by rtha at 4:06 PM on April 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


I don't think Givewell is doing the kind of work you think they're doing.

Huh? A quick scan of their Wiki page suggests the intent is explicitly to evaluate according to how many lives are saved or improved -- a utilitarian, outcomes-based metric. Leaving aside whether you think that evaluation is possible or effective, that does seem to be the philosophy.

I'd be surprised if they ever said that they are ranking by a deontological metric such as number of programs implemented or by administration costs saved. Seems to be their point of difference that they don't do that. I happily stand to be corrected, though.
posted by dontjumplarry at 4:35 PM on April 21, 2011


I'm still giving my money directly to the panhandling winos and junkies. I don't care what you say.
posted by jonmc at 4:55 PM on April 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


In my experience, GiveWell is really well-respected among ethicists, philosophers, economists, and other academics.

Okay dude, then:

a) Time to pony up some names. Surely, you can name at least, say, four of your ethicist, philosopher, economist, academic friends that support Givewell, and

b) that sentence is essentially saying In my experience, GiveWell is really well-respected among ethicists, philosophers, economists, and other academics people who have no specialist knowledge or experience in the aid sector."

Post-doctorates aren't a better class of person, man, and knowledge in one sector doesn't automatically translate to another (this should so be named The Economist's Folly). If you had said something like, development specialists, aid workers, sociologists specialising in the third world, or even developing world health specialists, maybe that would have a little more weight with me.
posted by smoke at 4:57 PM on April 21, 2011 [13 favorites]


I agree with dontjumplarry nearly entirely, but I'd still like to respond to Miko.

I'm not sure how you define "expected good." Is this a term from ethical debate? If so, we'd need a definition in order to have this conversation on the same terms. Based on a superficial impression of what the phrase might mean, I'd say though that think we're probably interested in producing demonstrable good, not expected good.

I could have said "expected utility," if that would help explain what I mean. I think that dontjumplarry is perfectly right in saying that GiveWell does the best job of embodying a utilitarian ethics. However, I didn't want to tie myself too tightly to an ethical theory that I thought people here might find problematic; I think what I'm saying is perfectly compatible with pretty much any reasonable ethics. The reason to give to others is need is to effect change, after all. That's why I used the term 'good' instead.

(Whether the good is "demonstrable" is pretty closely related to the concept of expected good. If past actions have been demonstrably good, then I have good reason to expect that future donations will also be good.)

But in any case, I don't think it stands to reason that taking their recommendation is better than identifying a charity on your own. Their recommendation is only better if you are, as they say, "agnostic" about where your dollars go, as long as they are doing some good. That describes very few charitable donors, and primarily ones motivated by the financial advantages of donation (admittedly their target market). If you do have a serious charitable interest other than "saving lives" (which may not even be an uncomplicated good) then their system's design is of no use to you.

I guess that by 'agnostic', you mean agnostic about the particular sort of charity that the money will go toward? Yes, I am definitely agnostic in that sense. I think that I should send my money to the charity that will do the most good in the world, and any other considerations are mostly irrelevant. I think that this might be why GiveWell is so popular among the people I know who support it. I think these three claims are all true, and they recommend GiveWell over other aggregators:

1) There is a single place (or a small number of places) where my dollar will do the most good in the world.

2) It might be impossible to figure out exactly where my dollar will do the most good, but we can do better than chance if we try to weigh out the expected likelihood of various outcomes and try to approximate the relative values of the outcomes.

3) If I care about doing the most good, whether or not I identify with an organization or like a certain sort of aid should not be a deciding factor in deciding where to spend my dollar.

My guess is that most philosophers and economists would agree (Peter Singer would, most certainly). But I get the impression that a lot of people here dispute these claims. For instance, rtha says, "If a financially responsible organisation puts in wells for clean water in a village, have they reduced more or less suffering than an equally financially responsible organisation that vaccinates kids or hands out mosquito nets?" Well, yes, it's really hard to determine, but there is an answer to this question! We can do better than chance by trying to work things out.

When you go to Charity Navigator, it lists a bewildering array of top ten lists. It's of very little help in telling me where my money is best spent. It seems like it cater well to the sorts of donators you mention who care about personally identifying with a cause; it gives stamps of approval and leaves the rest up to individual choice. GiveWell is nice in that it doesn't just give me information; it interprets and analyzes the information in a way that no other evaluators seem to do. (I'd be happy to be proven wrong though: the more such places that exist, the better.)

(With regards to using "lives saved" as a metric: saving lives matters, but it's not the most important thing, I agree. There's a post somewhere on the GiveWell blog about fistulas that shows they agree too.)

Meanwhile, their sample size is so vanishingly small that it seems ridiculous to assert that just because they've vetted fifteen charities or so and identified one strong winner, that winner must be better than the hundreds of thousands of charities they have not evaluated.

I agree. I think this, and other concerns that arise from the small number of charities they have evaluated, are a big problem. (They've vetted a lot more than fifteen charities though.) This is why I keep asking you guys what I should do. You are bashing GiveWell but not telling me a better course of action. I acknowledge that GiveWell has an unhappily low number of charities listed, and yes, that causes me concern. But please tell me, and others who think that there are objective facts about the best place to donate to, how to do better. GiveWell seems to be the only place giving the sorts of information that I want about how to do the most objective good.

Time to pony up some names. Surely, you can name at least, say, four of your ethicist, philosopher, economist, academic friends that support Givewell.

I'd rather exercise a right to anonymity rather than tossing around the names of colleagues in a place that is very Googleable. I hope that's understandable.
posted by painquale at 5:13 PM on April 21, 2011


I've been poking about on their site. Am I right in concluding that their only value-added is the evaluation of questionnaires, i.e. charities' self-reporting? And for this, they will accept my money, skim off a certain percentage (nowhere can I find this clearly stated or specified - but it's late over here) and then donate a proportion of the total to the charity of their choice? Srsly?
posted by likeso at 5:15 PM on April 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


And for this, they will accept my money, skim off a certain percentage (nowhere can I find this clearly stated or specified - but it's late over here) and then donate a proportion of the total to the charity of their choice? Srsly?

I was thinking about this earlier today: everyone I know who uses GiveWell just donates directly to VillageReach or their other recommended charities. If GiveWell are good utilitarians (as I think they are, but which everyone else here disputes), I'm pretty sure they should recommend donating directly to the charity. After all, they surely don't think that they're the place where dollars are best spent. That's kind of an interesting conundrum.
posted by painquale at 5:23 PM on April 21, 2011


The donate link on their site to Village Reach.
posted by likeso at 5:26 PM on April 21, 2011


What I don't understand:

donations go directly to VillageReach. GiveWell plays no role in the process.


Yet:

Alternatively, you can donate through Network for Good, another third party, if you want features such as giving anonymously or setting up automated monthly giving. Network for Good charges a 4.75% fee on all donations. This fee includes credit card processing fees.

(italics mine)
posted by likeso at 5:29 PM on April 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


So how exactly are they funding their overhead?
posted by likeso at 5:30 PM on April 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


painquale: it's not understandable, if these people are academics whose names would presumably be published and public in a wide variety of ways, and you know so many of them as you implied. Frankly, I don't think you actually do know that many, if indeed any at all, and certainly none with the kind of qualifications that would lend credence to supporting Givewell. I think you've mentioned hordes of anonymous experts as a means of trying to validate the charity.

Secondly, your whole premise is based on the highly questionable proposition that "good" or "most good" is an easily-definable, static measure. But it's not, at all. Who's to say that saving a life via vaccination = better than the long term changes that educating women in the same village etc might make? That question is unanswerable, and I honestly don't know if anyone has the right to answer it on behalf of others. And as someone who has studied and worked in this sector, let me assure you it's a question the vast, vast majority of donors are not even asking. People donate to various charities for very personal, sometimes even impulsive, reasons.

Thirdly, even if we accept your utilitarian definition of good, Miko has already brilliantly outlined how GiveWell is unable to provide a measured assessment of even a small slice of the aid/charity/NGO sector. By following their recommendations, you're limiting your pool of possible recipients to an almost comical extent.
posted by smoke at 5:32 PM on April 21, 2011 [4 favorites]


"Core donors" and this page.
posted by likeso at 5:34 PM on April 21, 2011


It's a tax shelter. For the "core donors".
posted by likeso at 5:43 PM on April 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'd rather exercise a right to anonymity rather than tossing around the names of colleagues in a place that is very Googleable. I hope that's understandable.

It's not. There are highly suspected authorities who buy Holden's Karnofsky's horseshit you claim; yet you aren't at liberty to reveal who they are? That's your argument? As if. Good grief. Give your head a shake there, painquale, because that's just pathetic. Go try that on some 9 year olds, and see if it works.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 5:44 PM on April 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Freudian slip with that "suspected" in there I guess.

Anywaze ... scumbags like this shit-heel Holden Karnofsky make me crazy angry, I am leaving this thread before I say something extreme.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 5:50 PM on April 21, 2011


Well, sorry guys, I'm not comfortable with it. If you don't believe that I know ethicists who like GiveWell, then don't believe me, but please don't push me on this point any more.
posted by painquale at 5:55 PM on April 21, 2011


Do you know more ethicists who like GiveWell than we can possibly imagine?
posted by euphorb at 5:59 PM on April 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


I noticed the liaison with Singer a while back when he was on NPR, and looked around to see what was happening there. It smacks of personal connection - I mean, why would we have such a dog in the fight, and such a specific one, and be so uncritical when generally he's really critical? - but it's not one that's easy to discover, if it exists.

Yeah, my sniffer is telling me there's definitely a story there.
posted by mediareport at 6:08 PM on April 21, 2011


painquale, you asked earlier (sorry, i'se about fried ;) about other ways of researching worthy charities. Well, here in the Netherlands, Price Waterhouse Coopers audits charities' annual reports and evaluates accuracy, transparency and efficacy of communication. It the awards the Transparency Prize to the organization which it concludes has best achieved these goals. Former (multiple-year) winners include WarChild and Doctors Without Borders.

Just a thought.
posted by likeso at 6:16 PM on April 21, 2011


Time to pony up some names.

Seems to contradict this:

If you had said something like, development specialists, aid workers, sociologists specialising in the third world, or even developing world health specialists, maybe that would have a little more weight with me.

If you didn't care what names painquale offered, why did you ask for them? As he pointed out, they weren't going to be sociologists or aid workers. They were going to be ethicists and economists.

I, too, know many ethicists and economists who like GiveWell. The aid workers I know don't care about GiveWell at all, but then, they hate the whole fundraising side of aid completely. Most of the academics who like GiveWell are rejecting arguments by the likes of William Easterly, who claims that "it is not at all clear that you (or anyone else) knows exactly what to do to save the lives of poor children or how to get them out of extreme poverty."

Academics like to distinguish between two questions: whether we can know the right answer, and whether there can *be* a right answer. Perhaps Easterly is right about the first question, but like painquale and dontjumplarry, I believe we can answer the second question affirmatively: there is a "best" use for my money, some single expenditure that reduces suffering the most. People who hate GiveWell effectively admit that there's such a thing as a right answer to the question of how to give, because they believe that GiveWell is the *wrong* answer!

On the other hand, I think that Miko's skepticism is warranted. The argument from painquale and dontjumplarry seems to be, if there's a right answer, why not take a shot at figuring it out? So: is Wyclef Jean's charity effective? At little research suggests not. There are other obviously wrong answers, too. For instance: donating money to a church or to a museum doesn't save lives or fix fistulas, so those are demonstrably inferior kinds of charity.

Yet it's also possible that this is such a really hard problem that we're better off with no information rather than some information. Perhaps there really is no reason to believe that GiveWell's metrics will help me direct my money better than traveling to a poor country and handing out twenty dollar bills! You think I'm joking, yet I've actually seen this proposed (by the economist Tyler Cowen. To which I respond, perhaps I should skip airfare [overhead!] and simply mail the money to a random person!)

My own strategy is to just give to Oxfam. They may not use it the best, but they're going to use it a hell of a lot better than me. It's a simple if inelegant solution I learned from Peter Singer. But if I had a good reason to think I could increase my impact by giving elsewhere, I'd change my giving habits. And if someone wants more knowledge than that, if they're more motivated by metrics, then I send them to GiveWell.
posted by anotherpanacea at 6:26 PM on April 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


I am working on a paper and do want to comment, but can't really take the time and hope to get back to it tomorrow. However, I do wonder about all these GiveWell fans out there. I've Googled them a lot and, if they do have supporters in the academic sector, they sure don't seem willing to put it into writing much. I suspect they like the foundational ideas - that efficacy can be evaluated and that we can define "good" and make a measurable difference in the amount of it there is - but are reserving their thoughts about the implementation strategy.
posted by Miko at 6:35 PM on April 21, 2011 [4 favorites]


Miko, I'm signing off now, too, but I look forward to hearing more from you tomorrow.
posted by likeso at 6:39 PM on April 21, 2011


If you didn't care what names painquale offered, why did you ask for them?

Because I thought they were a crock of shit, and if Painquale felt comfortable using her/his invisible academic friends as a measure of GiveWell's effectiveness, he/she should be able to name at least a few of them, given that any serious academic would have their name published all over the place constantly. But Painquale felt comfortable using said academics as support for a charity, even though said academics obviously wouldn't feel comfortable publicly supporting GiveWell themselves. Unless they're not really real, or simply undergraduate friends etc.

Walking and chewing gum at the same time: not just for sassy waitresses in movies!

The problem, as I said in my first response, is that assessing charities like this is directly placing them on a continuum, but the fact is, the only thing a lot of charities have in common is that they're charities. You're museum example actually illustrates this perfectly. You seem to be positing a world where it is immoral to support a museum in a world where people are starving. I think this kind of view is really problematic. Walking and chewing gum, etc.
posted by smoke at 6:40 PM on April 21, 2011 [5 favorites]


Huh? A quick scan of their Wiki page suggests the intent is explicitly to evaluate according to how many lives are saved or improved

I haven't looked at their wiki; I'm going off what I'm reading in their write-up of VillageReach, which is full of phrases like "cost-effective." That appears to be an important metric by which they judge an organization's effectiveness at reducing suffering. But we may be talking past each other.
posted by rtha at 6:51 PM on April 21, 2011


You seem to be positing a world where it is immoral to support a museum in a world where people are starving. I think this kind of view is really problematic.

Can you say why this view is problematic? Why is it worth supporting the $101,700,000 valuation of a Van Gogh when you can save a person's life for $1126?
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:00 PM on April 21, 2011


Why is it worth supporting the $101,700,000 valuation of a Van Gogh when you can save a person's life for $1126?

I also have problems with the assumption that it's always the best idea to save the most possible lives. We could as easily be creating more suffering by concentrating on life saving. Someone above mentioned "speciesist" ideas, and while I'm not sure that that's the base of my concern, I do think that the assumption that saving lives, regardless of all other factors and risks of poverty, disease, cruelty, opportunity for happiness, political strife etc., is always a good needs to be examined. I understand that many people come from this flat humanist perspective that saving lives is always the most essential function of charity. I don't necessarily make that assumption, since I think that quality of life is perhaps even more important than quantity on a globe bursting with overpopulation, and in any case, I don't think it's been shown that saving lives and pursuing other charitable interests are mutually exclusive activities.

I used to scoff at the efforts made by conservators in the museums I work in. Recently I was standing next to one when she said, full of awe at the recently conserved Egyptian sarcophagus head we were looking at, "the lives of these objects are so much longer than our lives." And possibly, for many of us, quite a bit more important. It's a reasonable argument.
posted by Miko at 7:08 PM on April 21, 2011 [5 favorites]


Why is it worth supporting the $101,700,000 valuation of a Van Gogh

Uh, when you support museums, you're not "supporting the valuation" of individual artworks or entire collections. You're supporting staff, buildings, public programming, publications, research, infrastructure, conservation, etc. -- none of which are directly paid for by the valuation of any object of art, and none of which are covered solely by admissions alone. Many museums operate on shoestring budgets, regardless of the value of their collections.
posted by scody at 7:13 PM on April 21, 2011 [7 favorites]


Besides, why set it up as charity vs. charity? The private art market in the business sector wastes vast amounts of money. IF we're seeking to divert money to charitable ends, instead of vetting charities, why not argue for private monies currently spent on luxuries to be redirected to the public sector? There is much more low-hanging fruit there than in competition for charitable dollars.
posted by Miko at 7:15 PM on April 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


Can you say why this view is problematic? Why is it worth supporting the $101,700,000 valuation of a Van Gogh when you can save a person's life for $1126?

That's a totally false dichotomy; you can do both. Also, way to cherrypick the most ridiculous example you can make up to make me think you're interested in discussing this rather than arguing. I have a great idea: we can get Painquale's ethicists to do the valuations of the paintings - everybody wins!
posted by smoke at 7:16 PM on April 21, 2011


Oh, and lest you (anotherpanacea) think none of that work is really "charitable" or "serves the public good": the museum where I work has basically filled the vacuum left over in Los Angeles by the near-total decimation of art education in the public schools. There are literally tens of thousands of kids in LAUSD whose only formal exposure to art making and art history comes through the outreach efforts of our museum -- efforts which are strongly funded by (wait for it!) donations.
posted by scody at 7:18 PM on April 21, 2011 [7 favorites]


Smoke: way to cherrypick the most ridiculous example you can make up

Uh, how is the example ridiculous? Big city philanthropists give billions of dollars to the arts. That's money that could, if used ethically, help to eradicate TB or malaria. And scody, yes, it's true: that may negatively impact the kids who come to your museum. The point is to make those hard choices. I'm not denying they are hard choices; there are inevitably losers whenever you redirect charitable dollars from one cause to another. I guess ultimately I just strongly believe that if I have to choose between saving the life of a kid with gastroenteritis with a cheap electrolyte mix, and sending a kid for a trip to a museum, I would save the life. I think if you were in a face-to-face situation where you had to choose between giving one kid lifesaving medicine and the other a museum trip, you would choose the medicine too. It's just that when we scale up our thinking to the level of charitable giving budgets, we lose sight of terrible impact of our decisions on individuals.

Miko: I'd agree with you: I don't think number of lives saved should be our metric. But then that's not what utilitarians are really interested in. The point is utility (or for me, reducing suffering), not maximising the population. Although saving a life may be a useful indicator because we tend to suffer a lot when we, our children and our relatives die.

To your second point, Miko: I don't think this discussion should be framed just in terms of arts vs overseas aid philanthropy. But we need to fight every battle we can -- from seeking to raise our overall personal charitable giving, to expanding the overseas aid budget, to increasing taxation, to pushing for fair trade, to joining social movements that push for global equality. Redirecting cultural philanthropy to overseas aid is one tool in a pretty large toolbox -- but it's a tool nonetheless.
posted by dontjumplarry at 7:32 PM on April 21, 2011


Can you say why this view is problematic? Why is it worth supporting the $101,700,000 valuation of a Van Gogh when you can save a person's life for $1126?

That's a totally false dichotomy; you can do both.


It's not a false dichotomy. Every dollar you have can either go to supporting the person or the Van Gogh. And once you've given that dollar away, you're faced with the exact same choice with your second dollar. If your first dollar was best spent in one place, then your second dollar will probably be best spent in that place as well.

This is the basis of an interesting economic theorem that says that you shouldn't try to "diversify your portfolio" when giving money to charities.
posted by painquale at 8:52 PM on April 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


That's a totally false dichotomy; you can do both.

You can't spend the money on both things. Either it gets spent on art, or it gets spent on neglected tropical diseases.

Also, way to cherrypick the most ridiculous example you can make up to make me think you're interested in discussing this rather than arguing.

Just so we're clear, I didn't make that up.

$101,700,000 is the amount that the Museum of Modern Art paid for Van Gogh's Portrait of Joseph Roulin

$1126 is the high estimate for what it costs to save a life using mosquito nets. It may be as cheap as $182 per death averted.

Here's another figure I didn't make up: 22,000 children under the age of five die each day from easily prevented poverty-related diseases like malnutrition, asthma, and diarrhea.

Those children's' short, painful lives involve no formal training in the arts, not to mention philosophy, which is what I teach. I don't think of it as charity, even though I work with disadvantaged students, because I get paid a living wage to do what I love.

We could as easily be creating more suffering by concentrating on life saving.

I agree with the spirit of this concern, certainly. For instance, we could treat an obstetric fistula for $450 dollars. That seems like a good deal.

Look, I know this sounds overly demanding. I know it sounds melodramatic, like we're all in the same position as Oskar Schindler:
This car. Goeth would have bought this car. Why did I keep the car? Ten people right there. Ten people. Ten more people. This pin. Two people. This is gold. Two more people. He would have given me two for it, at least one. One more person. A person, Stern. For this. I could have gotten one more person... and I didn't! And I... I didn't!
In the film, you're supposed to think he's being too hard on himself. But isn't he right? Ten people died so some rich industrialist could drive around in luxury. How many died so that I could sit up late typing this comment on my computer? How can that possibly be just?
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:52 PM on April 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Can you say why this view is problematic? Why is it worth supporting the $101,700,000 valuation of a Van Gogh when you can save a person's life for $1126?"

Well, the problematic point is the prescriptive moralism that's hypocritical. If you follow this line of logic, that it is not only less good but actively immoral to support a museum rather than saving a life, you've argued that someone else's life is the highest consideration, and it becomes hypocritical to do anything other than save these possible lives, including commenting on a website.

Utilitarianism all relies on some problematic assumptions about objectivity that mean prescriptive total ethical programs based on pure utilitarianism almost always extend to absurd ends.

I find the assumptions like that there's an activity to do the most good, rather than many competing goods that are essentially equal in utility (which does not preclude utilitarian analysis within classes of goods; there are many best ways of accomplishing specific goals) really problematic and based more on hope than reason. I think this is an epistemological limit, fundamentally.

"Those children's' short, painful lives involve no formal training in the arts, not to mention philosophy, which is what I teach. I don't think of it as charity, even though I work with disadvantaged students, because I get paid a living wage to do what I love."

Not to be mean, dude, but if you follow your logic — I assume you work at a public university. Every dollar in state money spent on your salary is a dollar not spent saving children's lives. Ergo, it is immoral to pay you and is equivalent to killing children.

If you really believe that this is ultimately unjust, you have a responsibility to correct it, and not just through comfortable means.

So either you don't believe that it's unjust or you're not acting like it or, and I think this is the best option, your philosophy is inconsistent and unworkable, and shouldn't be used for moral prescription.
posted by klangklangston at 9:16 PM on April 21, 2011 [11 favorites]


Every dollar in state money spent on your salary is a dollar not spent saving children's lives. Ergo, it is immoral to pay you and is equivalent to killing children.

Sadly, I am much more likely to spend the money saving children's lives than my employer.

If you really believe that this is ultimately unjust, you have a responsibility to correct it, and not just through comfortable means.

Exactly!
posted by anotherpanacea at 9:20 PM on April 21, 2011


your philosophy is inconsistent and unworkable, and shouldn't be used for moral prescription.

I think you're putting this wrong. My actions may be (partly) inconsistent with my words, but that doesn't mean that the words themselves are inconsistent. The prescriptions can be hard without being unworkable. Nobody ever said that being ethical had to be easy.

By the way, this is also why I really do want to have a good answer why I am wrong: it would make me much happier to know that I'm justified in spending money on gardening and gadgets, rather than being an irresponsible child-death-allower.
posted by anotherpanacea at 9:28 PM on April 21, 2011


If you follow this line of logic, that it is not only less good but actively immoral to support a museum rather than saving a life, you've argued that someone else's life is the highest consideration, and it becomes hypocritical to do anything other than save these possible lives, including commenting on a website.

You don't necessarily need to bring the word 'immoral' into it. It is better to save a child's life than it is to spend time on the internet. Any ethics, utilitarian or not, will hopefully agree with that. And that's all you need in order to run the arguments that anotherpanacea, larrysaysjump, and I have been advocating.

In other words: you can think it supererogatory rather than obligatory to give to the charity that you think will do the most good. That doesn't give reason to not find the best charity.

I find the assumptions like that there's an activity to do the most good, rather than many competing goods that are essentially equal in utility (which does not preclude utilitarian analysis within classes of goods; there are many best ways of accomplishing specific goals) really problematic

Utilitarianism does not preclude there from being a whole bunch of different objects of ultimate value. (Objective list utilitarianism, for example.) If your claim is that there are no objects of ultimate value... I find that really hard to think about. Why do you do what you do if there aren't things that you just value non-instrumentally?
posted by painquale at 9:36 PM on April 21, 2011


Oops, I mean dontjumplarry, not larrysaysjump. Sorry!
posted by painquale at 9:41 PM on April 21, 2011


Okay this high-faluting discussion is very interesting, but I can't help feel you guys are using it as a dodge to avoid the real world problems people are having with GiveWell, namely: it's a charity that effectively charges charities to be assessed by it; seems to have limited to no support in the sector; is run by inexperienced ex-hedge fund managers; doesn't assess even 5% of the charities out there and in so doing doesn't do actually provide a meaningful assessment of charities at all - its ostensible raison d'etre.

Personally, I'm much more interested in seeing those criticisms addressed than a moral argument that poses spending everything up to and including the shirt on my back as the only alternative to murder, ffs.
posted by smoke at 9:55 PM on April 21, 2011 [5 favorites]


"I think you're putting this wrong. My actions may be (partly) inconsistent with my words, but that doesn't mean that the words themselves are inconsistent. The prescriptions can be hard without being unworkable. Nobody ever said that being ethical had to be easy.

By the way, this is also why I really do want to have a good answer why I am wrong: it would make me much happier to know that I'm justified in spending money on gardening and gadgets, rather than being an irresponsible child-death-allower.
"

You're wrong, as per prior, because it's a false dichotomy.

Further, like I mentioned, it requires a whole bevy of unsupportable assumptions about what can be known, what constitutes the good, and what our obligations are regarding it.

It's also worth noting that by your measure, every adult in the global north, and quite a few in the global south, is living immorally. No one may have said that being ethical had to be easy, but unless you're advocating some idealist position (which is generally inconsistent with American pragmatic utilitarianism), it does have to be possible. Strict utilitarianism devolves into the absurd.

This is similar to Mill's arguments justifying liberalism from a utilitarian standpoint, where freedom is justified not as an inherent good but as a utilitarian maximizing system — there simply are no effective, universal metrics.

As such, the legitimate problems with GiveWell's process — both in its limited sample and barriers to participation — magnify the problems with assuming that there is a single Best above the general good.

And ultimately, even within utilitarian ethics, it's easy to say that because there is not (and I'd say cannot be) a single definable ultimate good, that supporting a broad range of roughly equivalent goods is superior even if it sacrifices efficiency in maximizing any one good.
posted by klangklangston at 10:13 PM on April 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


smoke: to the contrary, for me (and likely anotherpanacea and painquale) the crucial issue here is the philosophy that underpins GiveWell, not the organisation.

klangklangston: you seem to have a few critiques of utilitarianism kind of mixed in together. I'll do my best to respond.

1. Utilitarianism leads to absurd ends, like we should give all our money away. Yes, that's where the ethical framework leads. I guess my response is: what makes you think that is an absurd moral stance? Your intuition? The point of this kind of philosophical reasoning is to try and ground our moral positions in reason, not intuition. You follow the reason where it leads, even if it suggests (and it does) that it is actually ethical to most or all of our money to saving lives (or repairing fistulas, or whatever).

2. Utilitarianism is hypocritical. As discussed above, this isn't at all a convincing critique of the philosophy -- though it's a great critique of me, anotherpanacea and painquale as individuals.
We are undoubtedly not very good utilitarians (I'm worse than most). I don't think there are any truly good ones. Peter Singer does a lot more than most (he dedicates a pretty serious chunk of his pay to util. causes) but he falls hugely short of his own standards. The fact that we can't meet the high standard set by this moral philosophy doesn't mean we shouldn't try to do as much as we can.

3. Utilitarianism is unworkable. Many people want to say this I think. They hear Singer's analogy of the kid in the pond (would you save a kid from drowning in a pond even if it meant ruining your expensive shoes? - of course; would you save a poor kid from dying of malaria on the other side of the world by forgoing buying those shoes? - usually no). They throw their hands up in the air and say -- what would you have me do? It's unworkable to give everything away! Then they make a quick jump to, well, let's ignore the whole obligation. I think there's a middle ground, where you try to do as much as you can and balance that against your very human, selfish (I say that in a morally neutral way) needs.

4. It isn't possible to find a way to do the most good; there's an epistemological limit, so we should not bother; there's no such thing as objectivity; there's no single best good. I note first that you presuppose we should be doing good (rather than evil or nothing at all; that, to me, is the most potentially damning critique of utilitarianism - why should we do good at all anyway, rather than evil?). But you accept that we should, so let's use that a starting point. I think that doing good is about improving the lives of human or animal subjects (Bentham: "The question is 'Can they suffer'?") rather than (say) doing good to rocks or vases. I suspect you might agree with that too, although Miko might not (from his comment above about the Egyptian vase). Is this what you mean by a "bevy of unsupportable assumptions"? It's certainly one assumption, but I think it's an assumption most people in this thread would agree with: you save a kid from a burning house, not a chair.

Once you've accepted that we have an obligation to improve lives (rather than chairs or rocks) is it really that hard to imagine that we might start to compare different projects for their effectiveness on that score?

Take the example of the $100m Van Gogh painting used above, which could save around 90,000 if used on global health initiatives. Are you saying that our powers of reason are so benighted that we cannot even begin to judge whether using the $100m on global health might alleviate more suffering than the painting? Because I think that's total bullshit, and (thankfully) so do people like Bill Gates.

larrysaysjump is my evil twin sockpuppet
posted by dontjumplarry at 10:18 PM on April 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


If I'm understanding this correctly, a charity which has an internal staff devoted to researching and improving their own efficiency is bad, because that's more overhead; but having a "charity" whose job it is to do the exact same thing, probably more inefficiently and with greater ultimate overheads--but external to the organization--is good?

Is "utilitarianism" a flavor of libertarianism? Seems like it is.
posted by maxwelton at 10:31 PM on April 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


the crucial issue here is the philosophy that underpins GiveWell, not the organisation.

Well that is just fucking nuts, especially since the entire purpose of Givewell is explicitly focussed on ignoring the philosophies of the charities it assesses in favour of what the organisations are accomplishing and what they are doing with their overhead.

I am gobsmacked you can't see the hypocrisy of ignoring GiveWell's logistical and literal functioning because you believe in their cause, when you (and GiveWell) are effectively damning other charities (and mefites) for doing just that1

I mean, you're arguing that philosphies matter, and in the same breath saying that the only thing that matters is saving lives. Which is it, buddy?
posted by smoke at 10:32 PM on April 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


It's also worth noting that by your measure, every adult in the global north, and quite a few in the global south, is living immorally. No one may have said that being ethical had to be easy, but unless you're advocating some idealist position (which is generally inconsistent with American pragmatic utilitarianism), it does have to be possible.

Everyone always jumps on utilitarianism for implying that everyone is immoral, or that everyone is evil. The problem is that the notion that there exists a strict line between a good man and an evil man is somewhat of a holdover from deontological thinking. Let's just get rid of the words 'immoral' and 'evil' for a moment.

"Every adult in the global north, and quite a few in the global south, could be doing more to make the world a better place."

That sounds fine to me.

"Every adult in the global north, and quite a few in the global south, should be doing more to make the world a better place."

That also sounds fine to me. It doesn't sound like an unacceptable consequence in the same way that "everyone is immoral" does.

On a utilitarian theory, the former sentence is the closest translation that you can get to the sentence "every adult in the global north, and quite a few in the global south, is living immorally." We could have been brought up in a utilitarian society without ever learning the words 'immoral' and 'evil', instead just saying sentences like the two above. I think that once you realize that, a lot of the intuitions about utilitarianism being unworkable go away.
posted by painquale at 11:00 PM on April 21, 2011


Every dollar you have can either go to supporting the person or the Van Gogh.

Now you are just arguing in bad faith -- either that, or sheer ignorance of how museums acquire art.

MoMA did not use $101 million in public donation monies to purchase van Gogh's Portrait of Joseph Roulin as you imply. As can be found simply by reading the credit line and provenance, you will see that it is "gift of Mr. and Mrs. William A. M. Burden, Mr. and Mrs. Paul Rosenberg, Nelson A. Rockefeller, Mr. and Mrs. Armand P. Bartos, The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection, Mr. and Mrs. Werner E. Josten, and Loula D. Lasker Bequest (all by exchange)" -- specifically, through exchange and sale of seven works of art in 1989. (And by the way, your claim that MoMA paid $101 million is flat-out false; the price was half that.)

In the event that some of those names in that credit line don't ring a bell, I should point out that a number of were also noted collectors and philanthropists who raised and donated more resources to a greater variety of causes than I suspect Givewell will manage to do in its entire existence. I mean, just in case you still want to make this bizarre zero-sum argument that by contributing to the purchase of the Van Gogh they weren't also capable of contributing to causes that supported actual human beings as well.
posted by scody at 11:30 PM on April 21, 2011 [6 favorites]


guh! In that first sentence of the final graf, "a number of were also..." should read "they were also..."
posted by scody at 11:32 PM on April 21, 2011


maxwelton: If I'm understanding this correctly, a charity which has an internal staff devoted to researching and improving their own efficiency is bad, because that's more overhead; but having a "charity" whose job it is to do the exact same thing, probably more inefficiently and with greater ultimate overheads--but external to the organization--is good?

Why would it be a bad thing for charities to research and improve their efficiency? That's vital! But there is also a place for an independent evaluator, using an evidence-based methodology, to look at the end result of that work. Charities themselves generally do not, and probably cannot, provide independent comparative assessments of how many lives they improve or save. Think about scody and his museum mentioned earlier. He or she will no doubt say that that cause is a fantastic one we should donate to. But the WHO's Stop TB initiative will say the same. So will Scientology's drug outreach program. So will every other charity. The aim is to try to compare that information in an evidence based way (rather than in a common sensical way).

smoke: Well that is just fucking nuts, especially since the entire purpose of Givewell is explicitly focussed on ignoring the philosophies of the charities it assesses in favour of what the organisations are accomplishing and what they are doing with their overhead. I am gobsmacked you can't see the hypocrisy of ignoring GiveWell's logistical and literal functioning because you believe in their cause, when you (and GiveWell) are effectively damning other charities (and mefites) for doing just that1. I am gobsmacked you can't see the hypocrisy of ignoring GiveWell's logistical and literal functioning because you believe in their cause, when you (and GiveWell) are effectively damning other charities (and mefites) for doing just that1. I mean, you're arguing that philosphies matter, and in the same breath saying that the only thing that matters is saving lives. Which is it, buddy?

When I say that the philosophy is most important for me, I mean this. What's important is the moral obligation to direct donations to the areas of most need - to saving and improving lives. There are a range of orgs that are probably effective ways of doing that. I'd suggest Oxfam and the WHO's Stop TB. GiveWell aims to develop some more options using an evidenced-based comparison. As I've tried to make clear throughout, I can't really speak to their implementation and I think all critiques of their methodology should be on the table. As discussed earlier, it seems unwise for them not to engage with experts from the non-profit sector. What I am enthusiastic about is their stated mission. If you can name a similar organisation which is attempting to do what they do (look at outcomes, not process or transparency or admin spend), I'd be equally enthusiastic about them.

scody: I won't speak to the examples you're disputing. I will point out that they are entirely orthogonal to this discussion. painquale's point applies to a $1500 donation just as much as it does to a $100 million one -- the $1500 can save one or two lives, the $100m can save 90,000 lives. I'm at a loss as to why you think it's a "bizarre zero sum argument" to claim that donations can either buy paintings or save lives. Imagine a $1500 cheque: it can buy immunisations for a small town, or it can go into a painting fund. How can it do both at the same time? The fact that your high level art donors also donate to a range of causes, including humanitarian ones, is of course fantastic. But it doesn't change the fact that the many hundreds of millions of dollars spent on art philanthropy, ballet, opera, etc are -- in a very real sense -- leading to the deaths of thousands of children by diverting money that could otherwise eradicate TB and so on. That doesn't make the donors "bad people". That's not what utilitarians say. We are just saying that their money could be doing more good that it's currently doing.

Last thought: think of a triage hospital on a battlefield, where there are 100 dying patients and only 20 beds. That is utilitarianism in action. There are horrible choices to be made -- we have to turn away people who are probably going to die anyway in order to focus our energy on people who we can best help. Most of us accept that it's right in that situation to focus -- in a cold, rational way -- on how to save and improve the most lives. For some reason that kind of escapes me entirely -- people accept that a triage hospital has to do this, but don't accept that this applies more broadly to charitable giving or personal ethics.
posted by dontjumplarry at 12:00 AM on April 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Imagine a $1500 cheque: it can buy immunisations for a small town, or it can go into a painting fund.

Again: that's not how museums buy paintings.
posted by scody at 12:11 AM on April 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


(guh, too quick on the post-trigger.) When people donate to art museums, they may be donating to a general fund, or to a variety of funds -- including funds to take art education into the community, to preserve films, to improve infrastructure, to conserve ancient artifacts, etc. But if you think that hundred-million-dollar works of art are being purchased by collecting 67,000 $1500 checks, you are admitting that you don't know the first thing about how art museums actually build their collections; further, if you think that people who give $1500 to an art museum might not also be giving $1500 to immunizations (OR might instead give $3000 to immunizations, if not for that damned museum buying its bloody useless paintings) then I don't think you know much about the complexity of how and why people donate in the real world.
posted by scody at 12:17 AM on April 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


further, if you think that people who give $1500 to an art museum might not also be giving $1500 to immunizations (OR might instead give $3000 to immunizations, if not for that damned museum buying its bloody useless paintings) then I don't think you know much about the complexity of how and why people donate in the real world.

I don't understand what you mean by that last bit, scody. I'm not really concerned with the psychologies of other donators, nor am I interested in a theory about why people donate as they do. I'm interested in where my donation will do the most good. That means I have to decide whether a museum or a malaria prevention system or an AIDS foundation can do more with it. And as I said earlier in the thread, I think there are decisive arguments for thinking that you'll expect to do the most good in the world by only choosing one charity and sticking with that one. (If your first dollar was best spent at VillageReach, you should expect that the same will be true of your second dollar.)

I definitely don't think paintings are bloody useless. I don't think anyone here thinks that.

(It's true though: I really don't know the first thing about how art museums build their collections.)
posted by painquale at 12:45 AM on April 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Scody, it's just not relevant how art museums buy paintings. The principle applies to every kind of donation, however big or small, whatever part of the museum it goes to, however the museum collects it. The point is that $X is being spent on a cause (museums) that doesn't save kids' lives, rather than a cause that does save kids' lives (immunisations). For some reason, most people are fine with that in an abstract sense -- but likely horrified at the idea when applied to a specific individual, immediate case (imagine saving a $1500 museum display case rather than a child if your museum was on fire).

As I suggested above, it's great if museum donors who give $1m to your museum are also giving $1m to Oxfam. I'm sure many high end donors mix up their giving like this. I would simply try to persuade them to reconsider contributing the whole of their gift to Oxfam, rather than just half of it. Not because paintings are bloody useless; because (in the cold light of day) they do not stop as many kids, and mothers, from suffering as immunisation programs do.

And now I have RSI so I'm going to shut up for a while.
posted by dontjumplarry at 12:55 AM on April 22, 2011


dontjumplarry: Of the four critiques you mention, the epistemological limit is the one that seems most relevant here to me; but when you suggest that because it's fairly easy to accept that 'humans are more important than rocks' and 'humans are more important than paintings', then:

Once you've accepted that we have an obligation to improve lives (rather than chairs or rocks) is it really that hard to imagine that we might start to compare different projects for their effectiveness on that score?

I think it really is that hard to imagine. As klangklangston already pointed out, Mill's problem with utilitarianism is the lack of a universal metric of 'worth' or 'goodness'. Given a choice between saving a tree and saving a million people, I'd save the people. But given a choice between a charity that helps kids read and a charity that provides safe abortion facilities, I think it's very difficult to figure out some useful comparative number of their worth. At the end of the day, individual donors will always need to play some value judgement on what they think is worth funding, purely because we do hold different values.
posted by adrianhon at 3:11 AM on April 22, 2011


(BTW, sorry to post that just after you said you have RSI!)
posted by adrianhon at 3:11 AM on April 22, 2011


supporting a broad range of roughly equivalent goods is superior even if it sacrifices efficiency in maximizing any one good.

I think this is right, at least on epistemic grounds (experimentation, uncertainty, etc.) It depends on what we mean by "roughly equivalent."

your claim that MoMA paid $101 million is flat-out false; the price was half that.

That is the price listed by Wikipedia, ajusted for inflation. If we don't adjust for inflation, then we're comparing apples and oranges when we describe current uses of the money like buying mosquito nets.

if you think that people who give $1500 to an art museum might not also be giving $1500 to immunizations (OR might instead give $3000 to immunizations, if not for that damned museum buying its bloody useless paintings) then I don't think you know much about the complexity of how and why people donate in the real world.

I find this to be a weirdly aggressive claim. Is the idea that, since I don't understand other donors' motivations, I can't possibly be right to say that there are better and worse uses of the money? My wife used to be the director of development for an NYC non-profit, so she's the real expert, but I know how and why *I* donate in the real world. That seems like it ought to count as insight of some sort.

I would have thought this was a common intution: whenever we see a rich person spending lavishly on a boat or a sports car, don't we sort of feel that they're wasting their money, that there are folks in need who could use it better? Am I really a philistine, a "flat humanist," for not appreciating the craftsmanship in a Porsche or the softness of 600-count Egyptian cotton? I like lots of luxury items, too: I'm not an ascetic. Right now, I'm lusting after the iPad, a lemon tree, and a nice pair of boots from Frye. I may even buy some of that stuff. I just think it's not particularly praiseworthy to spend my money on luxury goods while there are children dying from diarrhea and women living with obstetric fistulas.
posted by anotherpanacea at 4:57 AM on April 22, 2011


Why would it be a bad thing for charities to research and improve their efficiency? That's vital! But there is also a place for an independent evaluator, using an evidence-based methodology, to look at the end result of that work. Charities themselves generally do not, and probably cannot, provide independent comparative assessments of how many lives they improve or save.

This presumes, or seems to, that the charities themselves are not using evidenced-based methodology to look at the effectiveness of their programs, and that is just incorrect. They use exactly the same methodology that Givewell does - what percentage of the donation goes to program overhead (salaries, rent, office supplies, etc.) and what percentage goes to the program's purpose (mosquito nets, vaccines). Givewell does do a comparative analysis amongst the nonprofits who opt in to their system.

I just think it's not particularly praiseworthy to spend my money on luxury goods while there are children dying from diarrhea and women living with obstetric fistulas.


And yet three of Givewell's top six charities do not have directly saving lives as their main focus. VillageReach, its top pick, has programs whose purpose is something other than the direct saving of lives.
posted by rtha at 6:13 AM on April 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


I know nothing about GiveWell, but I do know that if they used this begging robot, I would totally give them all of the money.
posted by sonika at 6:32 AM on April 22, 2011


Huh? "VillageReach aims to improve the systems that distribute medical supplies to rural areas in Africa, so that life-saving supplies get to those who need them."

Frankly, though, I don't care much about GiveWell. I think it would have been much better if some other established charity had taken on a GiveWell-like role. All of my donations go to Oxfam, and I tend to think they'd have done the best job publicizing the internal auditing you mention, since they effectively audit thousands of other charities in choosing their partners.
posted by anotherpanacea at 6:32 AM on April 22, 2011


Perhaps I am taking the utilitarian argument to an absurd (and/or undercaffeinated) end: the money spent on motorcycles is money not spent on vaccines.
posted by rtha at 7:00 AM on April 22, 2011


Motorcycles are vaccine delivery devices. Think syringes.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:06 AM on April 22, 2011


I think this absurdly abstract argument about "morality" and "ethics" obscures larger structural realities and fails to question an important assumption -- that competition among charities is an unalloyed good.

First, the art vs. life question obscures the fact that dollars are dollars, whether spent on charity or some other good. Why is it immoral to spend $100 mil on a Van Gogh instead of on TB meds, but not immoral to spend $70 mil on an apartment instead of on TB meds? The moral opprobrium cast on art museums just serves to obscure the rottenness of disparate wealth in general.

Second, the focus on ranking charities based on "effectiveness" seeks to turn charities into competitors in a marketplace. But there is no evidence that injecting this competition will actually help make charities more effective as a whole, rather than simply finding a couple of winners. Competition may also have unanticipated negative effects, such as cutting down the flow of information between charities. A true effort to improve effectiveness would seek to improve all charities rather than turning them against each other in competition.
posted by yarly at 7:41 AM on April 22, 2011 [4 favorites]


Utilitarian arguments do go to absurd ends, as klangklangston is arguing far better than I can. Having spent my life in nonprofits, I'm exhausted by discussions of the utilitarian approach which inevitably come up. As far as I'm concerned, those arguments are the stuff of the classroom. Ultimately, very few people actually take this approach when donating. Neuroscience increasingly reveals that decisionmaking - even that supported after the fact by rationalization - is emotionally based, and that includes decisions about donations. That is the reality in the world of philanthropy, and no one knows it better than development officers.

There is clearly a small percentage of people who become obsessed with this idea of doing the "most good" in a zero-sum system. They generally freely admit their own behavior is hypocritical, so ultimately these pronouncements are fairly meaningless on a pragmatic level, and I do have a hard time listening to the justifications that we are all obligated to embrace the ideal of doing the "most good" from people who still have two kidneys. I also question the fundamental assumptions that (a) saving existing human lives is the overriding concern of charity; (b) philanthropy is a zero-sum game, and resources spent one place mean that other causes must suffer; and (c) that it's possible to compare the efficacy of different charitable efforts without regard to context. Conversations about charitable effort tend to be commandeered by this kind of economic thinking, and it's unfortunate. In reality, philanthropy is not zero-sum. The world has more than abundant enough resources to solve any of its basic human problems within the capabilities of science and understanding. Our problems with aid are not those of lack of resources, but of collective will and well-planned action. In many cases, the best possible solutions would not be philanthropic, but governmental or individual or community-based; philanthropy steps in where other systems fail.

The discussion of the Van Gogh painting is a bit of a red herring. The painting could have stayed in private hands forever and thus avoided being the subject of our critique. Instead, it was given into the public trust. By being given into the public trust, greater utility was created. Since there were only a few alternatives - sell it on the private market for profit, keep it in private hands indefinitely, or give it to the institution - the act of giving it to the institution was the most ethical of the alternatives.

Ultimately, I'm too much of a realist and pragmatist to find much use in extreme utilitarian philosophies. I'm not a philosopher, though, and don't relish the granular arguments that become really goofy in their case examples and lead to quite counterintuitive and potentially immoral real-world applications, and debating the philosophical points becomes a mud trap and a timewaster, an intellectual game, especially since even its most fervent adherents expect not to have to take their own worldview seriously. Someone above mentioned that in the real world there is "a middle ground." Indeed there is a middle ground between our ideals of helping others and improving the world and our own self-interest and desire to promote outcomes we care about. I think good morality, good politics, and good charity lie in that middle ground. As applied to this specific scenario, do we need to know in perfect, quantifiable, granular detail how much impact a dollar here or there has? I don't believe it is necessary to quantify that in order to do good. I think we can satisfy ourselves, and satisfy the vast bulk of the world's need, with a simpler and less rigorous standard that that proposed by obsessively utilitarian dollar-maximizers. Is the charity well managed, operating legally, not corrupt? Is it having some demonstrable effect at improving some condition which its mission sets out to improve? Are donors and recipients satisfied with the outcome? This is the kind of standard we apply in other areas of our lives. There is arguably a best college to attend for, say, general liberal studies or engineering in any nation (if you accept that it's a good use of your funds to attend college when those funds could save X number of lives). However, there are fewer spaces in that best college than there are people who meet the admission requirements, and there is more need for college graduates in those areas of study than there are graduates of that college. So other colleges, not as illustrious but just as pragmatically good, are also necessary. Dollars given to those colleges are not wasted dollars, since they do help expand the number of people receive the educational service and produce more graduates. If you don't get into the "best" college, you will not necessarily give up and walk away, you'll accept admission to another program and make the best of it. And perhaps, over time, as faculty and staff and program changes, that second- or third-best college may become the best. Or not. It doesn't matter, because it helps to produce more value.

In short, my take: there is plenty of room for plenty of charities. There are plenty of good charities. Establishing a basic standard for 'good charity' and allowing the freedom for diversity of purpose and donation is desirable. Evaluating charities on how effectively they do their work is useful for the charity, for the donors, and for recipients, but competitive systems compare apples and oranges unhelpfully. Charities that do not meet basic standards should be dismantled through the established processes laid out in law and bylaws. Chasing the MOST VALUE for every dollar is something that interests just a few people, for idiosyncratic reasons. It is not necessary to maximize the value of every dollar to do a great deal of good. Most people give for reasons that are emotional and personally meaningful. Most donors are not agnostic, but care about promoting certain interests or ameliorating certain problems. Recognizing and feeding those personal reasons for giving are the key to drawing the greatest amount of charitable giving from any private individual. Solving world problems is not a zero-sum game. There are other ways of solving problems than charitable giving, including economic development, scientific study, and political structures. Some problems are not solved with money. Both public and private systems can tolerate a certain amount of waste, and private systems are far more wasteful than public systems.

GiveWell actually works within this framework. They have a target audience: economic thinkers in the business community who don't have a real choice about charitable giving (it's a tax advantage) and so, given that they have to do it, want to feel they are getting the most bang for their buck. Those are their idiosyncratic personal reasons, to which they are emotionally disposed, which end up being supported by rationalization and quantification, and the GiveWell system plays to that kind of thinking by that kind of person, and so meets the needs of the target audience. And that might be enough to sustain the employment of the people working there, while generating some detailed public information about a small group of charities. But they aren't in a position to claim anything like the dollars donated to and through them are doing the "most good" possible, and likely will never be, and even if they were, their very existence is drawing off charitable resources that could be doing more good, as long as the organization remains run by paid staff. I don't worry that less good would be done if those dollars went elsewhere. It's just as likely that an equal amount of good, or more good, could be done by those dollars being directly donated to, say, an Oxfam or some other organization that meets strong basic standards of efficacy and management.

And finally, what they are doing is just not so unique. What's unique is the structure of their organization and desire to publicize their research, but it's false to keep saying "no one else is doing this." Foundations and public grantors do this exact kind of evaluation every single day within their target aid areas, and they do it really pretty well. They measure efficacy and potential for growth and scalability and put funds where funds do good work. Even hardcore utilitarians will find exacting granular standards and reporting in many other places where they can spend their dollars. The GiveWell insistence that their low-barrier transparency is what makes their recommendations especially worthy and trust-able is something I continue to have reservations about.
posted by Miko at 8:18 AM on April 22, 2011 [17 favorites]


Motorcycles are vaccine delivery devices. Think syringes.

True. I should really not post anything until I've had at least two cups of coffee and been awake for more than two hours.
posted by rtha at 8:40 AM on April 22, 2011


"1. Utilitarianism leads to absurd ends, like we should give all our money away. Yes, that's where the ethical framework leads. I guess my response is: what makes you think that is an absurd moral stance? Your intuition? The point of this kind of philosophical reasoning is to try and ground our moral positions in reason, not intuition. You follow the reason where it leads, even if it suggests (and it does) that it is actually ethical to most or all of our money to saving lives (or repairing fistulas, or whatever)."

Well, first off, because I don't necessarily think this is the endpoint of all utilitarianism (it's trivial to argue that it's more utile to earn a lot of money and then give all at once, and the trappings of luxury can encourage greater wealth accumulation, ergo utilitarianism says that you should buy those $1000 shoes if it means you can give more than $1000 plus the inflation or whatever down the line — fundamentally, the metrics are too subjective), but it's an absurd end because in practical effect, no one does it. It fails the pragmatic test of livable moral philosophy, and is, again, bounded by unsupportable assumptions. If practically everyone can be said to be immoral under that metric, then the term "immoral" is absurd, as it is empty of meaning.

It is also absurd because it infinitely regresses — every action you take, every breath you draw under your formulation, requires you to maximize an undefinable utility to others. It is absurd because it makes each of your keystrokes a moral crime, presuming that there is a more utile effect you could have.

And further, the privileging of suffering leads to the absurd calculus where it's trivial to argue that, say, executing all prisoners painlessly is a better outcome than having them serve time for their crimes.

"2. Utilitarianism is hypocritical. As discussed above, this isn't at all a convincing critique of the philosophy -- though it's a great critique of me, anotherpanacea and painquale as individuals.
We are undoubtedly not very good utilitarians (I'm worse than most). I don't think there are any truly good ones. Peter Singer does a lot more than most (he dedicates a pretty serious chunk of his pay to util. causes) but he falls hugely short of his own standards. The fact that we can't meet the high standard set by this moral philosophy doesn't mean we shouldn't try to do as much as we can.
"

You misunderstand the critique. If practically no one follows the philosophy that they espouse, it follows that this is not a very good philosophy for ordering lives around. Further, it does imply that utilitarianism is an idealism (common term, rather than epistemologic), at which point it loses its claim on moral suasion as a system; people can and do have different ideals. At that point, again, utilitarianism ceases being one of many tools with which to evaluate a decision, and becomes an end unto itself, which leads, as per above, to absurdity based on the subjective nature of its metrics.

"3. Utilitarianism is unworkable. Many people want to say this I think. They hear Singer's analogy of the kid in the pond (would you save a kid from drowning in a pond even if it meant ruining your expensive shoes? - of course; would you save a poor kid from dying of malaria on the other side of the world by forgoing buying those shoes? - usually no). They throw their hands up in the air and say -- what would you have me do? It's unworkable to give everything away! Then they make a quick jump to, well, let's ignore the whole obligation. I think there's a middle ground, where you try to do as much as you can and balance that against your very human, selfish (I say that in a morally neutral way) needs."

This contradicts your point at 1. I agree with you that there is a middle ground, however, acknowledging that middle ground removes the strict utilitarian prescription. It is not immoral to fund art over saving lives; merely different.

"4. It isn't possible to find a way to do the most good; there's an epistemological limit, so we should not bother; there's no such thing as objectivity; there's no single best good. I note first that you presuppose we should be doing good (rather than evil or nothing at all; that, to me, is the most potentially damning critique of utilitarianism - why should we do good at all anyway, rather than evil?). But you accept that we should, so let's use that a starting point. I think that doing good is about improving the lives of human or animal subjects (Bentham: "The question is 'Can they suffer'?") rather than (say) doing good to rocks or vases. I suspect you might agree with that too, although Miko might not (from his comment above about the Egyptian vase). Is this what you mean by a "bevy of unsupportable assumptions"? It's certainly one assumption, but I think it's an assumption most people in this thread would agree with: you save a kid from a burning house, not a chair."

I have to say, I really object to your glib framing. I think it does your arguments no favors to present our only choices as child or chair.

But even so, you're again stuck at the point of no universal metric for suffering, which is one of the necessary assumptions — how many mice are worth a child's pain? This is easily reified in pain research, where animals are tortured to minimize human pain. Is human pain more important? Certainly, we have more developed nervous systems — shouldn't that mean that if given the choice, a human's pain is more important? How much more important? We know empirically that women report both being more sensitive to pain and a higher pain threshold than men. Which is more important for maximizing utility?

In looking back, I see my comment was that the bevy includes:

1) What can be known (implicitly about the good) — Outside of fairly trite child or chair nonsense (and way to impugn Miko while you were at it), our ability to turn subjective experience into actionable objective criteria is fundamentally limited. Any answer to "How many mice to save a child" is inherently arbitrary. Add to this the problem of adding subjective amounts as outlined by Rawls — there's no effective way to say that my pleasure and your pleasure is worth more than one other person's greater pleasure (or suffering; negative constructions also fail mathematically).

2) What constitutes the good — Is it maximizing pleasure or minimizing suffering? Bentham says the former, Singer says the latter. Both rely on fairly arbitrary definitions to avoid the subjective question of what constitutes suffering or pleasure (or, really, Bentham doesn't much care and rolls on anyway). Even within those states, the unfortunate fact of imperfect information means that the vast majority of decisions are based not on reason, but on intuition and emotion.

3) What is our obligation regarding the good — You took this as granted because I granted it for the sake of the argument, but yes, that we should follow any moral program at all is an assumption.

Ultimately, Utilitarianism is an Enlightenment and Modernist project, with all the attendant criticisms that engenders. You've already started to realize this, stating that you seek a "middle path," despite realizing that this is, implicitly to utilitarianism, immoral, unless you ground it in your own pleasure. At which point, you might as well fall into Randian consequentialism.
posted by klangklangston at 8:55 AM on April 22, 2011 [6 favorites]


"But it doesn't change the fact that the many hundreds of millions of dollars spent on art philanthropy, ballet, opera, etc are -- in a very real sense -- leading to the deaths of thousands of children by diverting money that could otherwise eradicate TB and so on. That doesn't make the donors "bad people". That's not what utilitarians say. We are just saying that their money could be doing more good that it's currently doing. "

This is preposterously false, conflating the lack of positive action with a negative action. And yes, if you believe that a donation to art is leading "in a very real sense" to the deaths of thousands of children, then you have a responsibility to say that's an immoral act.

But it isn't leading to those deaths and asserting that it is, is inane.
posted by klangklangston at 8:59 AM on April 22, 2011 [4 favorites]


GiveWell actually works within this framework. They have a target audience: economic thinkers in the business community who don't have a real choice about charitable giving (it's a tax advantage) and so, given that they have to do it, want to feel they are getting the most bang for their buck. Those are their idiosyncratic personal reasons, to which they are emotionally disposed, which end up being supported by rationalization and quantification, and the GiveWell system plays to that kind of thinking by that kind of person, and so meets the needs of the target audience.

I think you are misidentifying their audience. Their audience is people like me and anotherpanacea and dontjumplarry and my (unfortunately dubious) academic colleagues and the people at Giving What We Can and Peter Singer. We do not want to feel that we are getting the most bang for our buck. We want to get the most bang for our buck. After all, lives are on the line.

This thread has at least helped to show why Peter Singer supports GiveWell. It seems that there is an antipathy toward utilitarian reasoning in the rest of the sector. Is that fair to say?
posted by painquale at 9:37 AM on April 22, 2011


Our problems with aid are not those of lack of resources, but of collective will and well-planned action. In many cases, the best possible solutions would not be philanthropic, but governmental or individual or community-based; philanthropy steps in where other systems fail.

Thank you, Miko. As interesting as I find the debate around utilitarianism on an intellectual level, the underlying assumption that the world's problems would be solved if more people put more money into them was getting incredibly frustrating to me, so I'm glad you brought up this point, and I wanted to highlight it.
posted by EvaDestruction at 10:29 AM on April 22, 2011


Their audience is people like me and anotherpanacea and dontjumplarry and my (unfortunately dubious) academic colleagues and the people at Giving What We Can and Peter Singer.

You adademics are giving the $200,000 gifts? I suspect you're giving the sub-$1000 gifts (these average $154 per person). Those gifts amount to less than 10% of their total "money moved". The big donors are their true audience. I know they describe an Obama-campaign-like "many small donors" strategy, but that isn't happening yet and, I suspect, they will find themselves continuing to have to court big donors in order to pay their bills. I would be surprised if the 649 small donors and their $100,000 are covering the staff salaries and operating expenses....

Also, I have reason for saying that their audience may not be entirely what it seems, because at the time of the whole kerfuffle I did a lot of learning about the intersection between major donors and the philanthropic world (which gets otherwordly/Ozlike quickly, as do all things where giant money is concerned). At least part of their intended audience are the big philanthropic consulting firms and financial counselors, by whom they want to be noticed. Much of their outward-facing work is intended to influence the sector in ways that please major business donors and cultivate the image of the GiveWell staff as innovators - there's a meta-strategy at play as well as this direct donation stuff. Important to recognize.

And I do think you want to feel you are getting the most bang for your donated buck. This is not an empty distinction. Nobody can guarantee you that you are, and it's statistically likely that with any donation you are not making the single best possible donations of all possible donations, but GiveWell can create that feeling for you by narrowing the field of choice, presenting you with a lot of data and making some fine points about which you can feel certain, if you trust that their work is independent and truthful. If you like that approach, I can understand why you will like GiveWell. The "lives are on the line" rhetoric I can do without, especially because they recommend a bunch of charities that are not about saving lives. You've already indicated that you are among a group of people who care about quantification and economics and prioritize the sheer existence of human life above all other concerns. This might be an appropriate way for you to go about donating, but it's not the best choice for everyone nor for the charitable sector as a whole.

I don't think there's exactly an antipathy toward utilitarian reasoning as much as an indifference to it; it's not something people reference a lot, because it's all in the abstract, devoid of contextual realities. As I noted, most of us working in the sector are not philosophers and don't find the idealistic arguments particularly helpful or applicable in our work. My job doesn't happen to be for VillageReach, but I'm not seeing an opportunity or desire to quit and go work for them, so I'm going to keep doing the work I do to achieve my organization's mission, supported by the thousands of people who are contributing money and resources to see me do it.They wanted something to happen, and so do we, so collectively we are pooling resources of time, money, knowledge, and interest to make it happen. Utilitarian thinking appears, from that pragmatic point of view, just not all that useful or relevant to the fact that a group of people has united around a concrete set of interests and is willing to do what it takes to make their vision a reality. The introduction of utilitarian demands contributes, in the view of many, to analysis paralysis and wastes time and energy. Meanwhile there is no shortage of work to do that improves people's lives, and we're busily doing it. Opportunity to create change is ridiculously abundant - not a rarity. When we need to prove to donors and members and ourselves that we're effective, we do that; we don't want to be wasting our resources either. But the standards of what makes for a reasonably and appropriately effective program that is a good charitable value are not as outrageously high nor hard to detect as some of the analytically minded would like us to think. Planting the seed of doubt about the general efficacy of charities -- "in an ideal world they could be PERFECTLY effective and so we will measure selected groups against an absolute ideal of perfection as defined by a particular moral approach and reward only a few that come closest to the ideal" -- does contribute to harmful myths about the sector as a whole - its perceived wastefulness and its ultimate worth.

I just looked at their DIY suggested questions for charities you support - using their approach to do your own evaluation. I mean, this stuff is not very sophisticated, and any good organization can answer off the bat without their help. Here are the questions for my sector:
Explanatory note:

We expect the donor to get most of their information from their own experience as an audience member, and ask themselves whether they support the services provided and values promoted. The following questions are supplementary.

Questions:

* How would your budget likely change if you had more revenue than expected? Less?
* How much of your revenue comes from fees paid (e.g., ticket prices, admission) vs. donations?
* Do you have data on your audience - how many people visit, what their interests are, whether they're local or tourists, how happy they are with the experience you provide and what they'd like to see changed/added?
* What is your "audience per dollar of expenses" and how does it compare to that of other organizations? If it is lower, why do you think this is? (Note: we think there can be many good reasons to support an organization with a low "audience per dollar," but we think this is a metric for donors to check and be aware of. They should know whether they're supporting an organization that is unusually "niche" or perhaps just unpopular.)

Come on. This is basic stuff.
I have to also say that most charities that are not in an expansion phase and have secure and growing support from a committed donor base would not need to engage with a program like GiveWell's. Well-run charities already have plenty of legitimacy and a proven track record and tend to be successful at drawing funding from their own donor base and more established sources of grantmaking, making it unappealing and unnecessary to jump through the hoops they ask, especially for the small dollars that most of their recipients are getting for their efforts. That kind of thing is very inefficient unless you're in dire need, are a startup, or are in a growth phase.
posted by Miko at 10:30 AM on April 22, 2011 [7 favorites]


Miko, klangklangston, and dontjumplarry seem to want to turn this into a metaethics seminar. But no one seems to want to answer the small, basic question that is hiding behind the abstraction: "what's the right thing to do?"

My wife and I will be giving 2% of our pre-tax income to charity this year. Is that enough? (It doesn't seem like it is: why not 3%?) Is it wrong of us to give it all to Oxfam? Should we give it to scody instead?
posted by anotherpanacea at 10:32 AM on April 22, 2011


Yeah. Expenses are at least $250K. But I realized I'm mixing data. The 649 small donations are donations to charities that they tracked, not donations to GiveWell. GiveWell's operating expenses appear to be funded by "a set of core donors who believe strongly in our mission and pay our operating costs." Consider that, as well,when you think about who the audience is.

But no one seems to want to answer the small, basic question that is hiding behind the abstraction: "what's the right thing to do?"


That is what the utilatarians are trying to answer. But my answer would be: no one else can decide this for you.
posted by Miko at 10:42 AM on April 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


Are you saying that our powers of reason are so benighted that we cannot even begin to judge whether using the $100m on global health might alleviate more suffering than the painting? Because I think that's total bullshit, and (thankfully) so do people like Bill Gates.

Just noticed that. Bill Gates has one of the most valuable art collections in the world. Some portion of this will end up in museums.
posted by Miko at 10:48 AM on April 22, 2011


"what's the right thing to do?"

There is no right thing. There are decisions that are more and less in line with your personal ethics and morals and more and less in line with the society in which you live's ethics. Acting as if there is one right answer is oversimplifying this problem to an absurd degree.

I could no more tell you how to approach charitable giving then I could tell you what to eat for dinner. People will pick your decisions to death no matter how you make them, there is no right and absolute way to make everyone including yourself satisfied with the choices you make. Drawn to an extreme, it's indicator of trouble if you make the decision-making process so onerous as to basically be incompletable.

You need to talk to your wife, talk to some people whose opinions you respect, do some research, see what other people have done, and then decide you've amassed enough information and GIVE, if that's your decision. Put another way, all the time you spend researching who to give to is time you spend not giving or not earning money to give, etc. It's pernicious and a bit of a sticky mousetrap but society is sufficiently complicated that there is no right answer to most ethical/moral dilemmas, as much as we might like there to be.

It's clear that this decision-making process is causing you some level of anxiety, but just because people have decided to do their charitable giving and not endlessly wonder if it's the absolute best thing they could have done (I funded a local scholarship for girls in technology, as an example, and I'm comfortable with that) does not mean they are doing it wrong. Make your choice. Your discomfort is its own problem and is only sort of related to the weightiness and stickiness of the problem.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 10:49 AM on April 22, 2011 [4 favorites]


"But no one seems to want to answer the small, basic question that is hiding behind the abstraction: "what's the right thing to do?" "

Again, that assumes there's one right universal thing.

My advice would be to do your own research, or rely on those whose research you trust, and make your own decisions on how much you can afford to give.

But putting it on me is weirdly aggressive.
posted by klangklangston at 11:32 AM on April 22, 2011


But no one seems to want to answer the small, basic question that is hiding behind the abstraction: "what's the right thing to do?"

That's is the farthest thing imaginable from a small, basic question.
posted by rtha at 11:38 AM on April 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


It's funny to me that I'm sitting here typing about and thinking about what money goes to charities and what money goes to save lives. I work for a health policy nonprofit; we don't save lives directly, but we have program areas that partner with Gates et al. around issues like TB, malaria, and HIV/AIDS, and they do a lot of work on outreach and education. We're in a building that's part of a complex that houses the Anderson Collection, one of the premier private collections of 20th century American art. There's a frickin' Rauschenberg hanging over the water fountain down the hall. There's an Oropallo on the wall across from my desk. I could walk to the building across the way there and go look at the Hockneys. I don't really have a point to make with this; it's just an odd crash of online and meatspace realities.
posted by rtha at 11:52 AM on April 22, 2011 [3 favorites]


Huh. I am surprised by the responses to anotherpanacea's question. That's the question that ethicists try to answer, that philosophers since Plato and Aristotle have tried to answer, and everyone here thinks it makes no sense. I wouldn't have thought, before this thread, that there was such a huge gap between ethicists and the nonprofit sector.
posted by painquale at 12:10 PM on April 22, 2011


Yeah, there's a sense in which every economic decision is a moral decision, or at least a decision with moral repercussions, not just "where do I donate" but "what do I have for dinner?" or "how much is it reasonable to spend on a laptop?" or "public school or private?" or "buy art or vacation in Aspen?" or "keep old car another year, buy new car?" or "ditch car, ride bike to work?" or "put ailing mother in nursing home, care for her myself?"

The moment you have any surplus at all, you have ethical questions about what to do with the surplus. In practical living, though, we can't afford the time needed to concern ourselves with these questions with every single economic decision even if all of the outcomes were perfectly knowable, which of course they're not.

everyone here thinks it makes no sense.

I just think it makes no sense for others to answer for you. How can you tell anotherpanacea where to donate? Do you know what will bring him the most satisfaction? Can you guarantee the outcome he wants? What if the most effective use of his dollars is a cause he hates for political or moral reasons? P

lato et al might have come up with some excellent thinking about how to approach the problem of "what should I do?," but they don't have the power to coerce, or even convince. Each person has to arrive at their own approach to charity, as Jessamyn expressed really beautifully.

I wouldn't have thought, before this thread, that there was such a huge gap between ethicists and the nonprofit sector.

This is probably just the same as the gap between theoretical and applied work in any field. My field has a bunch of codes of ethics for professional-association member institutions and subspecialties, and we have state and federal laws and we have bylaws, and we do worry about complying with those and do debate those and question the value of the enterprise and think about how it can deliver better value, but we don't sit around talking hypotheticals all day.
posted by Miko at 12:20 PM on April 22, 2011 [4 favorites]


That's the question that ethicists try to answer, that philosophers since Plato and Aristotle have tried to answer, and everyone here thinks it makes no sense.

My dispute is with characterizing it as a small, basic question (with, presumably, a small, basic answer). As a philosophical question, it's very interesting and has a very long history of being tangled with (which kind of knocks over characterizing it as small and basic). As a here-in-real-life question, the answer is really going to be "It depends; it depends on the individual and on the context and a whole lot of other things, including the definition of "right"." In that way, no, it doesn't make sense for anotherpanacea to ask us what the right thing to do is. He is the only person who can ultimately decide that, as guided by the research he does and the life he lives.
posted by rtha at 12:22 PM on April 22, 2011


Thanks jessamyn.
posted by anotherpanacea at 1:26 PM on April 22, 2011


I wouldn't have thought, before this thread, that there was such a huge gap between ethicists and the nonprofit sector.
posted by painquale at 12:10 PM on April 22 [+] [!]


Not trying to be snarky but -- have you ever worked in the nonprofit sector, especially in the down-and-dirty, in-the-trenches part of it? Nonprofit workers generally don't have time to sit around and contemplate their umbilicals. They are driven by a shared sense of mission, and they know what they know about the success of their work based on their direct experience rather than philosophizing. The need to act is kind of incompatible with sitting around and wondering "what's the right thing to do?" Requiring nonprofit workers to address questions like "is this the highest and best use of my money and time, or should we just dissolve our abused pet nonprofit and give all the assets to Oxfam" would mean that nothing ever gets done, Hamlet-like.

Here's a little story: I once asked a guy who had been deeply involved in homeless services at all levels for his whole career -- like 30 years at that point -- how he dealt with being panhandled. Did he give them money, and how much, and if he did give, did he worry about it being spent on drugs? He answered "I still don't know what the right answer is to that one." Some important questions truly have no answer, but that doesn't mean you stop the work.
posted by yarly at 1:49 PM on April 22, 2011 [6 favorites]


I wouldn't have thought, before this thread, that there was such a huge gap between ethicists and the nonprofit sector.

I dunno, kinda fits my experience of "ethicists" pretty well that there'd be a huge gap between them and folks working in the nonprofit sector on a daily basis.
posted by mediareport at 3:27 PM on April 22, 2011


I like how Team Philosopher and Team Nonprofit seem to be taking shifts in this thread.

Something that I think is getting tangled is the difference between descriptive facts (about how people actually donate and what will actually convince people to donate), and prescriptive facts (about how people should donate). Take these quotes, for instance:

scody: I don't think you know much about the complexity of how and why people donate in the real world.

Miko: Plato et al might have come up with some excellent thinking about how to approach the problem of "what should I do?," but they don't have the power to coerce, or even convince.

and

Neuroscience increasingly reveals that decisionmaking - even that supported after the fact by rationalization - is emotionally based, and that includes decisions about donations. That is the reality in the world of philanthropy, and no one knows it better than development officers.

These all suggest that people are led to make the decisions they do based on their emotions, personal factors in their lives, how much satisfaction they get from the decision, etc. These are the kinds of facts nonprofit workers need to think about in order to figure out how to make donating attractive. How can I get myself to donate? It might turn out that it is very hard to get people to donate to international charities instead of local ones, and that we can get more people to be charitable by donating to local charities rather than distant ones. I know that I will be more willing to part with my money if I'm faced with someone suffering right in front of me rather than just hearing about the fact that someone somewhere is suffering. So it makes sense for charities to try to present me with pictures of people suffering.

But this is a case of a cognitive bias getting in the way of doing what is fair. It is not morally right for me to treat people in other countries differently simply in virtue of their being further away from me. Distance is not a morally relevant property. Unfortunately, it does have motivational significance.

If that is at all compelling, then there is a difference between morality and what one is motivated to do. There's a an exact analogue here when we think about truth and what one is motivated to believe. Think of the difference between research and teaching. Research involves the search for truths about the world. Teaching involves figuring out the best way to get people to accept those truths. (I liked Miko's mention of the difference between applied and theoretical work, here.)

That said, I think a lot of the anti-philosophical accusations I am being presented with in the thread (claims of navel-gazing and inaction; yarly asking me if I have ever worked in a nonprofit; Miko saying that there is more to charity than just sitting around discussing hypotheticals) are based on claims that I don't know anything about how to actually effect change. That's likely true, but I feel like these objections are missing the mark. That's a separate project entirely. It is like a teacher accusing a researcher that his project is misguided because it won't be compelling to his students or won't affect them personally.

We now have a lot of people here are saying that no one can answer anotherpanacea's question "what is the right thing to do?" because no one make the decision for anotherpanacea; he needs to discuss things over with his wife, etc. Miko asks me, "Do you know what will bring him the most satisfaction?" But I think this confuses the two projects together. Whatever satisfaction he gets from engaging in the project he likes best will be dwarfed by the good that he can cause elsewhere. We might actually have to engage with his sense of personal satisfaction in order to get him to donate at all, but it's a mostly irrelevant feature, like the satisfaction you get from helping someone near you rather than someone further away.

It may very well be the case that we shouldn't harangue anotherpanacea about what he should do, or that we should not publicly criticize him for the choice that he makes, or think anything but good of him. Anything other than that could do harm. If you are working on the applied side of things, these questions loom large. But it still makes sense to quietly ask oneself, "could he have done better?"

jessamyn: There are decisions that are more and less in line with your personal ethics and morals and more and less in line with the society in which you live's ethics. Acting as if there is one right answer is oversimplifying this problem to an absurd degree.

I am finding it hard to see how this doesn't lead to a version of moral relativism. If someone's personal ethics told them to donate to the Klan, they would be doing wrong. Do you mean to endorse relativism, or is there something else going on here? I just can't see how it is the case that "society is sufficiently complicated that there is no right answer to most ethical/moral dilemmas, as much as we might like there to be." (Well, I don't think that we need to say that there is "one right answer," incidentally. Instead, say that there are better and worse ways of doing things, and there are objective facts about whether one does better or worse.) Either you're a moral relativist, or a moral skeptic, or you think there are objective moral truths. I think the first two are non-starters. There are moral truths and there are answers to questions about what we should do. The answer might not be practically findable or knowable, but that is different from saying that there is no answer. The hope is that we can do better than we would otherwise do if we deliberate about it.

jessamyn: Put another way, all the time you spend researching who to give to is time you spend not giving or not earning money to give, etc.

yarly: The need to act is kind of incompatible with sitting around and wondering "what's the right thing to do?"

Right! This is why I think what GiveWell and what ethicists do is valuable. It would take a crippling amount of time to do the whole cost-benefit analysis on one's own, in just the same way that it would take a crippling amount of time for everyone to discover their math theorems and learn how to build their cars. In both cases, we will be better off if we let others do the bulk of the work for us.

Miko: You've already indicated that you are among a group of people who care about quantification and economics and prioritize the sheer existence of human life above all other concerns.

That's not true. I think there are a number of ultimate goods. Desire satisfaction, aesthetic reception, and freedom from suffering are all on the list, and all are important. They aren't incomparable, though.
posted by painquale at 4:00 PM on April 22, 2011


Heh. Speaking of ethicists...
posted by mediareport at 4:39 PM on April 22, 2011


Right! This is why I think what GiveWell and what ethicists do is valuable. It would take a crippling amount of time to do the whole cost-benefit analysis on one's own, in just the same way that it would take a crippling amount of time for everyone to discover their math theorems and learn how to build their cars. In both cases, we will be better off if we let others do the bulk of the work for us.

Wow, man, that seems really prescriptivist and arrogant, that people working inside the aid sector , or interested in the aid sector need some kind of class of professional thinkers to do their thinking for them - because the professional's thoughts are going to be inherently exclusive or better, and everyone should just STFU and do what they say.

It's also, sorry, staggeringly ignorant. Charities do this very thing all time. It is vital for securing funds from the public, organisations, or the government. It's required for tax. Some examples:

Medecin Sans Frontiers

World Vision

The Smith Family.

The reason why myself and every person who has worked in aid has come down so hard on you in this thread is because you clearly don't know very much - if anything - about aid, or the sector, and you haven't bothered to learn anything about it - yet you have proceeded to tell us why and how it's broken, and what we should all be doing. It feels very patronising to me, and basically no better than those people that say, "I never donate, the money just goes to the workers".
posted by smoke at 4:52 PM on April 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


because the professional's thoughts are going to be inherently exclusive or better, and everyone should just STFU and do what they say.

I did not say that everyone should shut up and do what they say, I said we should let them do the bulk of the work for us. Other people think hard about topics so that those who don't can get info from them. This is how it is in every single other area of life. Why would we think that ethical decisions should be any different?

Charities like the ones you list give us plenty of info about what they do, but there is a role for someone who collates all the info from various charities and comes to conclusions about how to compare them and where people should send their money. The aggregators out there that exist don't cut it, IMO. Some charities are tens of thousands of times more effective than others, and I would like to see a place that honestly says so.

I've never said that the sector is broken or that people who work for it are bad. It is laudable to work in a soup kitchen. There's no denying that. But if your primary goal is helping people, it is worth knowing that you could help many more people by working during that time and sending your aid overseas.

You outright accused me of lying earlier in this thread, and the language you're using now is insulting. Please, don't. This is obviously a heated topic and it should be possible to have respectful disagreements and differences about it.
posted by painquale at 7:02 PM on April 22, 2011


Holden Karnofsky was caught here lying and trashing well-respected operations. When exposed the fuckwipe offered to bribe us. Now unlike your unnamed "experts" we know this to be a fact.

Please explain how this demonstrates his integrity.

Justify why we need to trust you that these ethical paragons you so revere (yet refuse to name) should carry more weight than our personal observations.

What do you think about someone who pretends to be someone else, slanders a perfectly good organization while doing so, and when caught, tries to buy his way out trouble?

How is this kind of behavior some shining example of ethical purity?
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 7:50 PM on April 22, 2011


"it is worth knowing that you could help many more people by working during that time and sending your aid overseas." And the hungry local folks? What happens to them?
posted by arse_hat at 8:11 PM on April 22, 2011


Clearly they can eat cake, arse hat.

All this hand-wringing by the "philosophers" and "ethicists" ( barf) who claim that Givewell is some gleaming gem in a slag-heap of reprehensible non-profits is pure mental masturbation. It's idiotic dithering. I contribute monthly to Greenpeace, Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders, The Red Cross, and World Vision. These are all operations that conduct what I believe to be important work, and highly efficiently. Far more efficiently than fucking Givewell, that's for sure. I don't need a known liar and fraudulent poster like Holden Karnofsky to provide me with his self-elected stamp of approval; the lying asshole had no background or experience at all when he was anonymously slandering those operations.

Locally, I work with an organization that conducts back-country mountain-biking and cross-country skiing expeditions to a cabin in the mountains. I know through experince that this is highly worthwhile work. The change in the attitude of the kids in just 5 days in incredible to watch. I have personally witnessed complete turnarounds in life choices on every single trip. I've seen bullies become encouraging leaders. I sure as shit don't need fucking Holden Karnofsky's stamp of approval, and his skimming 1/2 of the budget, to prove the worth of this to me. I'll take one motivated high-school student with a reasonably maintained bike over an entire busload of post-graduate PHD "ethicists" getting their panties all in a twist about "maximum effectiveness" any day.

Lead, follow, or get the fuck out of the way; you endlessly mewling, ineffectual, dilettantes.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 8:44 PM on April 22, 2011


PareidoliaticBoy, I'm asking you to tone the vitriol down at this point. It's getting in the way of your argument and it's making this discussion more toxic than it needs to be.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 8:53 PM on April 22, 2011


These all suggest that people are led to make the decisions they do based on their emotions, personal factors in their lives, how much satisfaction they get from the decision, etc. These are the kinds of facts nonprofit workers need to think about in order to figure out how to make donating attractive

This is exactly right. Regardless of whether it's a cognitive bias, this is indeed how human beings make decsions, and it's not going away. This is something that is important to people and is not likely to change, and anyone wanting to effect change in the world needs to recognize and work with this reality. Maximizing dollars donated depends on recognizing the irrational and idiosyncratic reasons people give, and getting people to act on those very personal reasons. If we do that, we can get more dollars into charitable circulation than if we ignore it.

It is not morally right for me to treat people in other countries differently simply in virtue of their being further away from me.

Do you really believe this? I don't. Do you really privilege people you don't know, in distant countries, to exactly the same degree you do you own spouse, children, parents, neighbors, countrymen? In all decisions? In a burning house, or more likely a burning customs office, say, would you just as soon save a stranger visiting from Irkutsk as you would your wife? Would it really depend only on who was most proximal to you and most expedient to save? Would that depend on how much time you had and how likely it was that someone else might come along and save the stranger, allowing you to save your wife? Perhaps you really do think you'd consider the stranger entirely equal to your wife and make no distinction about whom to save. That would indeed be noble and disinterested. Personally, I find it true in the abstract that all lives are equally valuable, but also true that my motivation to save and improve lives closer to me is much higher than my motivation to save and improve lives distant from my own. I think any really useful approach to philanthropy needs to recognize that personally meaningful connection plays a role in the incentive to give, and that connection needs to be maximized to increase giving, rather than ignored or dismissed.

Even the cost-based approach to the philosophy of this activism recognizes that - if it took $40,000 rather than $400, as a minimum cost, to "save the life" of someone far away that you don't know and will never meet, it would be a far harder sell. I have a feeling people would shift their focus to some life-improving benefit that could be more easily bought for $400.

That's a separate project entirely.

It may be that effecting change is a separate project from moralizing about change, but if moralizing has absolutely no impact in the real world, isn't it then a fairly empty activity? If morals are to influence the effecting of change, don't they need to engage with the reality that people are not entirely rational when deciding where and how to make change? Don't they need to recognize the power of the behavioral dimension? If they don't take human irrationality, cognitive bias, and behavioral psychology into account, how much good can they do? Unless it becomes aligned with a pragmatic approach to change that recognizes existing human tendencies, the theorizing is a purely academic activity which will not impact the real world at all.

But it still makes sense to quietly ask oneself, "could he have done better?"

I don't think so. I don't think it makes sense to ask this of someone else. You can only fairly ask this of yourself - you can't possibly know whether another person could have done better, because you aren't operating from within their own moral and ethical framework, you are just employing your own framework for judgment, and applying your own definition of what "better" actions are. This might mean nothing to that other person and hold no water with them or anyone else. It could be that he donates $500,000 to support his pets in luxury after his death. It's true that money wouldn't go to save human lives, but you can't say that saving the human lives would have given him as an individual the same value that supporting the pets in luxury did. That's a ridiculous example, but in imposing your own standard of what a "good' action is with regard to resources they control, you're taking charge of someone else's decisionmaking, and that is an unfair encroachment upon their individual rights. You might argue that his money should have been spent elsewhere, but he might as easily argue that your money should too, that your kids should not have new shoes or dental care and that you should not own a home or eat meat. He can't know what constitutes value and rightness for you, and you can't know what does for him.

I am finding it hard to see how this doesn't lead to a version of moral relativism. If someone's personal ethics told them to donate to the Klan, they would be doing wrong. Do you mean to endorse relativism, or is there something else going on here?

Is relativism so inadmissible? What kind of relativism are you objecting to? People generally are relativist in their adherence to social norms, if not in their abstract statements, and there is some argument that it's an overall good to step away from absolutism. Whether we like it or not, relativism is real life - people reason differently and come to different moral conclusions. As far as social norms, we in Western society generally do say it's acceptable to donate to things like the Klan; it's not illegal, and most people I know, while deploring the individual choice to support such a contemptible organization, will say that it's necessary to a society which supports individual freedom of thought to allow for the possibility that someone might consider donating to the Klan a moral obligation, and will defend their right to make that donation. It's the old "money is speech" argument, and I think that's fair where individual actions are concerned. We can debate the choice with people who make that decision and can seek to dissuade them, but we don't generally assert that it should not be their right to donate where they wish. All kinds of organizations which I'm sure most of us here would agree are reprehensible are actively supported with donations by large numbers of people.

It would take a crippling amount of time to do the whole cost-benefit analysis on one's own, in just the same way that it would take a crippling amount of time for everyone to discover their math theorems and learn how to build their cars. In both cases, we will be better off if we let others do the bulk of the work for us.

In the case of cars, I know what I'm after - I will be satisfied with a car that runs with minimal maintenance and decent fuel efficiency and is not butt-ugly, and within some limitations, the market can provide me choices that adequately meet this basic standard. I also want charitable organizations that achieve ends I support with a baseline level of efficiency, and the charitable market can easily give me this. Now, if you asked my what my fantasy wish-list car would look like, I couldn't buy it ready-made. It would indeed take a crippling amount of time for me to build that car, but if I invested that time, I would get exactly the car I want: a candy-apple-chartreuse, convertible Mustang-bodied, 50-mpg, surround-sound, leather-seated, air-conditioned, power-everything beauty. If it meant enough to me, sure, I would go ahead and take on this project. I certainly know people - my neighbor Charlie, actually, for one - who work that hard at car customization because they care that much about it.It's not beyond the pale for someone who really cares to work additionally hard to get exactly the specs they want.

It doesn't mean that much to me to have my exact wishlist in a car. Or a charity. For most people, the degree of specificity a GiveWell approach seeks to take to charity is a chartreuse Mustang. The Charity Navigator model, or far better, the personal and direct experience model, delivers the set of basic, reliable manufacturer-level values most people are looking for. An exact fit of design to taste is a needlessly high standard, so high that it becomes effectually useless if you care about any metric other than a pre-defined standard of perfection that you agree with the manufacturer on 100% . The "most lives saved for the dollar regardless of all other information" model is just not what everyone is looking for as the difference they want to make in the world. It's not even the difference this one organization is trying to make. as they say themselves. But if you like that, then yes, there is a market for it. What I am arguing against is not that there's a specific market for this product, but that this product is the single best logical fit for everyone looking for a charitable product.

there is a role for someone who collates all the info from various charities and comes to conclusions about how to compare them and where people should send their money. The aggregators out there that exist don't cut it, IMO. Some charities are tens of thousands of times more effective than others

A. "More effective than others" - Effective at what? You are still clearly interested here in a single, noncontextual outcome defined by someone else, and not everyone looks for that kind of outcome in giving. There is a role for people looking for that outcome, but that outcome isn't necessarily always the best one for everyone looking for a charitable investment. B. The aggregators that exist don't provide you this information? Really? On what basis are you saying this? What information is it that you need, exactly, that you are finding lacking in other rating organizations?

As I said, if you are an economic thinker interested in maximizing your dollar in a specific way but are fairly indifferent to where, when, how, and by whom that dollar is applied, then sure, this organization might be right for you because you can invest your trust in them and stop worrying about the impact of your dollar. You've found people who think exactly like you; you've found your own chartreuse Mustang ready-made. But I think it's not right to argue that this is an important option for everybody to pursue, or that it's a groundbreaking and game-changing approach to charity. If you don't really care about where your charitable dollars go and just want to feel good about them doing something laudable, sure, there is a role for this kind of organization. There will always be a certain number of people who take this "agnostic" approach. But I'd say that the majority of people with dollars to donate do have a more nuanced personal opinion about where they want their dollars to go, a more specific idea about the kind of unique difference they, personally, would like to make in the world. And this probably isn't the solution for them.
posted by Miko at 9:03 PM on April 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


And the hungry local folks? What happens to them?

That's a great question, and man, I dunno. We're in a world in which millions of people are drowning and we only have a limited number of lifeboats. Whenever you help someone, you can always point elsewhere and ask: what about that person? Why not her? It is tragic. But although the overall outcome will always be tragic, some of the tragic outcomes will be better than others. I'm pretty sure what one should do is find a way to get as many people as possible into a lifeboat rather than just helping those who happen to be nearest.
posted by painquale at 9:06 PM on April 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm pretty sure what one should do is find a way to get as many people as possible into a lifeboat rather than just helping those who happen to be nearest.

In a real-life lifeboat, the people physically nearest to you are definitely the ones you are best advised to rescue first. They will have suffered the most minimal damage from exposure, and you'll be more certain of filling all your available space, rather than passing them by to go seeking people who are more distant and about whose condition you have little good information.

In real life, also, we don't have a limited number of lifeboats.
posted by Miko at 9:22 PM on April 22, 2011 [7 favorites]


Thanks for the thoughtful response, Miko.

Do you really believe this? I don't. Do you really privilege people you don't know, in distant countries, to exactly the same degree you do you own spouse, children, parents, neighbors, countrymen? In all decisions? In a burning house, or more likely a burning customs office, say, would you just as soon save a stranger visiting from Irkutsk as you would your wife?

Well, obviously I would prefer that my family survive, and I'd help them first. But is that the overall right thing to do, particularly if I could save many more people otherwise? That's a hugely difficult question. I'm personally torn on whether we do have special moral obligations to family members and friends. I really don't know what to say about that. (My hunch is that we don't, and that it's understandable but incorrect to weigh the lives of one's family more heavily than those of other people. I think that that's true of how one ought to weigh one's own life. But I'm unfamiliar with the arguments in this area.) Luckily, this issue doesn't really enter into debates about philanthropic giving, though. I'm torn on the family issue, but I'm not torn on whether we have special moral obligations to people who happen to be the same race as us, or proximately near us, or from our hometown. We haven't made any special promises, contracts, or bonds with them that would make them more deserving of our moral consideration.

It may be that effecting change is a separate project from moralizing about change, but if moralizing has absolutely no impact in the real world, isn't it then a fairly empty activity? If morals are to influence the effecting of change, don't they need to engage with the reality that people are not entirely rational when deciding where and how to make change?

It's not meant to be an empty activity. It's just one stage in a process that should end in us giving money to the right places. We figure out where money will do the most good; then we figure out how to get the money to those places. If we determine that we can save an order of magnitude more people by sending aid overseas, then we should try to figure out what sorts of rhetorical tactics will convince others (and even convince ourselves!) to support those charities. We don't take the cognitive biases into account when determining what is right to do, but we do take them into account when determining how to compel ourselves to do what is right to do. I also don't think that it's impossible for rational argument to influence giving behavior. A few friends of mine (who are real, I promise!) have run seminars on effective giving, and it's convinced undergrads to change their donation habits.

you aren't operating from within their own moral and ethical framework, you are just employing your own framework for judgment, and applying your own definition of what "better" actions are. ... It's true that money wouldn't go to save human lives, but you can't say that saving the human lives would have given him as an individual the same value that supporting the pets in luxury did.

I do not think that it makes sense to talk about what is right to do as if it is only relative to a framework for judgment. Some things (human life, pleasure, aesthetic reception, etc.) are objectively valuable. Sometimes people talk about scientific truths this way: for example, "you can't say that the earth wasn't actually flat for people who lived thousands of years ago; you aren't operating from within their scientific framework, you're applying you're own definition of what "flat" is." Yes, I am using my definition of 'flat', which refers to the property of being flat, to ask whether they believed that the earth was flat. Similarly, I am using my definition of 'valuable,' which refers to the property of being valuable, to ask whether another person is correctly valuing what is valuable. I do not mean "flat for me" when I use the term 'flat', nor do I mean "valuable for me" when I use the term 'valuable.'

In any case, I think that most debates about where money should be donated are not really debates about ultimate value. Everyone largely agrees about what is ultimately worth having, I think. We just disagree about how to best go about achieving those goals. I'm sure I disagree with the ultimate goods that GiveWell is trying to maximize, but I'm also sure they must be pretty close to mine, so I don't think this will really harm their end recommendations too much.

in imposing your own standard of what a "good' action is with regard to resources they control, you're taking charge of someone else's decisionmaking, and that is an unfair encroachment upon their individual rights.

It's not an encroachment on individual rights to think that someone else made a bad decision.

Whether we like it or not, relativism is real life - people reason differently and come to different moral conclusions.

That's true, but they also reason differently and come to different empirical conclusions. That doesn't mean we should be relativists about science. Just pointing out that people have different beliefs does not mean that all their beliefs are equally good. People can be wrong about what is best for them to do, either by valuing things that aren't actually valuable, or by having false beliefs about how to best attain those valuable things. (Like I said before, I think the latter is more likely.)

As far as social norms, we in Western society generally do say it's acceptable to donate to things like the Klan; it's not illegal, and most people I know, while deploring the individual choice to support such a contemptible organization, will say that it's necessary to a society which supports individual freedom of thought to allow for the possibility that someone might consider donating to the Klan a moral obligation, and will defend their right to make that donation.

Sure, I'll defend that right. People should legally be allowed to donate to the Klan, but there's a difference between legal permissibility and moral permissibility. The law doesn't track the moral, nor should it. Someone who donates to the Klan does something legally permissible but morally impermissible, and we can criticize them from a moral standpoint. I'm not arguing that we should force people to improve their donation habits. I'm saying that we can recognize that they could have done better.

It's not beyond the pale for someone who really cares to work additionally hard to get exactly the specs they want.

No, but they are few and far between. The situation we're in is one in which I'm forced to do a whole bunch of gruntwork on my own in order to "build a car" for myself, and so is everyone else. Most of us are going to do an absolutely terrible job of it. We might think we are doing well, but an expect could do a much better job of giving us the car we want.

The "most lives saved for the dollar regardless of all other information" model is just not what everyone is looking for as the difference they want to make in the world.

Well, no one just looks at "most lives saved," it's usually QALYs or something, but I see your point. Some people work at soup kitchens because they find it empowering, enjoy the personal contact, like the thought that they are helping their community, etc. They wouldn't get this benefit from working more hours at a desk job and then sending a check overseas. That's fine. But those decisions really are ones that are trading personal benefits for less overall good in the world. If a person's goal is to help as many people as possible and to maximize good, then there are are better charities out there.

There is a lot of confusion out there about how vastly different the efficacy of charities can be, and people would change their giving habits if they were aware. I think that the primary reason people donate is to do good, and it would be in their own interests to get them to donate where their money would go farther. I've found that just pointing out the difference in the number of lives you can save if you donate overseas instead of locally can easily cause undergrads to change their donation patterns. You are a lot more experienced in this area than I am, so maybe I'm wrong. I recognize that in order to get people to donate at all, you might have to sell them a personally appealing or glamorous charity which does not decrease as much suffering. But if what they are really interested in is decreasing suffering, then they should donate to those ones instead. That is why I think that we should try to identify those best charities, and figure out how to make them the glamorous ones that people naturally want to donate to. (Just pointing out that they are way more effective than other charities is one way to up the glam factor.)

What information is it that you need, exactly, that you are finding lacking in other rating organizations?

Firstly, they don't rank organizations; they just give them seals of approval. But more importantly, they don't rank charities solely by outcome. I do not care at all how much the head of a charity makes. If a charity is a thousand times more effective than another, then I don't care if the head skims fifty percent off the top. That is where my dollar will do the best in the world, so that is where it should go.

If you don't really care about where your charitable dollars go and just want to feel good about them doing something laudable, sure, there is a role for this kind of organization. There will always be a certain number of people who take this "agnostic" approach. But I'd say that the majority of people with dollars to donate do have a more nuanced personal opinion about where they want their dollars to go

I misinterpreted this the first time around because I naturally thought of the other side being the agnostic one. They want to have a personal relation to their charity but are agnostic about how much good it does. Anyway, I don't think you are characterizing what you call the agnostic side correctly... it's not that we want to feel good for doing something good; we want to do something good. If I could give five hundred dollars right now to save five hundred lives, but then I would immediately forget what the deal I made was (and in fact I'd be pissed that I lost money for an unknown reason), I would do it in a heartbeat.

Gah. Sorry for the length.
posted by painquale at 11:01 PM on April 22, 2011


Here in the lifeboat I'm in at this moment I have more discretionary time than money. I spend some of that time helping out small non-profit and even non-incorporated theatre and dance companies.

It may well be that I could spend that time finding a new source of income and it may well be true that there are children starving some place that could, for $0.87 a day, get a fill of carbs that could keep them alive, and with the addition of $6.71 of vaccine, healthy and if I sent my new-found income away I could fed 23 kids each day.

That may be true but I don't see any utilitarian arguments that show me it is in fact better than what I am doing now. What I do see is groups that provide real support for young people. Young people who find self esteem, peer support, adult and peer role models, a sense of accomplishment, a love of doing something to the best of their ability, and most strikingly for me, a voice and a sense of self worth for two homeless kids who ended up on the streets because their parents kicked them out due to their sexual orientation.

If I was still making a good 6 figure income I would have more money to give to charitable causes but it would not necessarily go to those far off children in need of rice. I give to groups small and large and and world focused and local. If I was working like I was a few years back i would spend less time on charitable work because I would have less available.

I do what I feel I can do to provide the most good to the most people. Sure I might be able to send money and arguably save more people but I have no empirical data that proves that. I think that providing a sense of accomplishment and self worth to a kid from my city could be just as important. Maybe it will prevent he or she from becoming a criminal and killing someone, causing great hurt to many, and becoming a drain on our taxes. Maybe he/she will go on to be a famous star and be able to raise more money for starving children than I will make in a lifetime. I have little data so I go with what my small, isolated steeltown trained, mind makes sense of.

Utilitarianism is seductive. I am a huge fanboy of Hobbes and Bentham. It is not a philosophy so much as a framework or map for moral suasion of either type. I can use it to convince people to go my way vis-a-vis chartable works but I can't use it as a map to providing the most good to the most folks. Ironic ain't it?

I have brought food to soup kitchens. Not boxes or cans or money but food I have cooked. I did it for hard to measure reasons like dignity and respect. I wanted to give folks food I had cooked myself. Look at them. I spent a bit of time sleeping rough and charity is helpful but so is a little respect. Especially if you don't deserve it or feel you don't.

As for Givewell all I can say is they don't provide anything I can use for any good purpose (others have addressed this well) and they have some top people I would not trust with money to go out and buy us lunch (others have addressed this well too).

On preview:
"Some people work at soup kitchens because they find it empowering, enjoy the personal contact, like the thought that they are helping their community, etc. They wouldn't get this benefit from working more hours at a desk job and then sending a check overseas. That's fine. But those decisions really are ones that are trading personal benefits for less overall good in the world."

"for less overall good in the world"? How do you come to this metric? I am not being snarky. I just want to know how you know this because I can't see it

I'll ask the same about "they don't rank charities solely by outcome" and "If a charity is a thousand times more effective than another".
posted by arse_hat at 11:46 PM on April 22, 2011


And again no snark intended: "I'm personally torn on whether we do have special moral obligations to family members and friends." I'm not. I think my ability to care for those who circumstance has put me in the boat with makes me more able to accept others I don't know or can't see. It seems to me folks who care little for strangers generally care little for those close too.
posted by arse_hat at 11:51 PM on April 22, 2011


In your metaphor, what is human progress? The asshole, or the material it expels?

I'm guessing that the expelled material is humanity, the velocity at which it is expelled equals the rate of human progress, and the size of the sphincter is the factor that governs that rate?
posted by PeterMcDermott at 1:31 AM on April 23, 2011


What is it about discussions of need and charitable giving that brings out the smug condescension in some people? It seems like the only appropriate tone should be humility in the face of the massive need, but instead you get all this cheat-beating one-upmanship.
posted by anotherpanacea at 4:19 AM on April 23, 2011


Well, obviously I would prefer that my family survive, and I'd help them first. But is that the overall right thing to do, particularly if I could save many more people otherwise? That's a hugely difficult question

I'm a lot less concerned with whether it's right than whether it's a human tendency, which it is. We might have some ideas about how to make humans act more rightly according to some abstract model or other, but we're not going to get there at all unless we recognize and work with their human tendency. People do value those closest to them, or with whom or about whom they've had some personal experience. That is exactly why aid organizations take pictures of their work and have "adopt a kid" or "buy a heifer" strategies. To motivate people to give, they need to have an emotional connection (well, most of them do. I can see that you and perhaps some others find an intellectual rationale sufficient, but what I've been saying is that this is not usual).

I'm personally torn on whether we do have special moral obligations to family members and friends. I really don't know what to say about that. (My hunch is that we don't, and that it's understandable but incorrect to weigh the lives of one's family more heavily than those of other people. I think that that's true of how one ought to weigh one's own life. But I'm unfamiliar with the arguments in this area.) Luckily, this issue doesn't really enter into debates about philanthropic giving, though

I definitely am not familiar with existing arguments in this area, but my hunch is that it's definitely true that we have special moral obligations to family members and friends. It's one of the reasons we have family members and friends. And it definitely does have an impact on how we think about philanthropic giving. In most non-Western societies, in fact, charitable giving is much more focused around family members and friends. Instead of donating to what seem like impersonal organizations, charity is focused around the needs of extended family for food, housing, education, etc. One real challenge in American philanthropy is working with people who are members of recent immigrant groups who are used to family-based charity structures. The expectations of what they can do and get with their donations are often out of line with what's possible in our legal system, and just making the value proposition "Hey, you should give to this great organization that's improving lives but has nothing to do with you or family personally, and no, we can't in return do an exhibition of your friend's paintings or buy computers from your brother's company" is a really hard sell.

When you say " I think that the primary reason people donate is to do good," I have to tell you that though doing good is part of the reason, it is not all the reason and might not even be half the reason. The primary reason most people donate is to feel good. When we can make them feel good, and then use their donations as a result to do good, we all win.

It's interesting that you can easily sway your undergraduates' giving patterns to favor more life-saving international charities because of the low cost of impact, but I wonder if the same outcomes would be seen if you delivered the same educational presentation to people in their 50s or 60s who have amassed considerable wealth. The difficulty there would be that those people now have a life history of powerful, deep personal connections to issues and institutions and are less flexible in their giving interests.

When people have questions about why and how people give, I always like to refer them to a report by the Center on Philanthropy called GivingUSA (free download with registration). What this consistently reveals is that people give the most to organizations they are closest to. Churches, by far, are the recipient of more donations in the US than any other sector (33%). This includes everything from the collection plate to membership fees to tithing to the soup kitchen, afterschool program, capital projects, religious education, etc. The bulk of this giving is within the denomination, if not within the very church organization, to which people belong. The next largest slice of the pie (13%) goes to education, which might look selfless except that it represents mostly alumni giving to universities, private and parochial school tuition, school fundraisers, etc. The other sectors - arts/humanities, human services, public/society benefit, ...come along behind those top two. International affairs comes in at only 3% - just ahead of environment, basically the lowest, which is at 2%. (International giving has been growing some, though).

What this reveals is that the number one rule in philanthropy is that, overwhelmingly, people give to entities to which they feel a personal connection. That varies person to person. You might be a lot more likely to sponsor a runner in a leukemia fund-raising marathon because someone you love has leukemia. You might be a lot more likely to support a service-dog organization if you have a family member who needs service dogs (or if you really love dogs). You might be a lot more likely to run a church youth group if you're concerned about youth boredom leading to violence and drug use in your rural town, and you're tired of having your mailbox knocked over. You might be a lot more likely to establish a scholarship for black students interested in an engineering degree if you were a black engineering student, or always wanted to be one and couldn't. and had a hard time finding support for what you wanted to do. People give to things that have touched them in some way. Few people give for abstract reasons. Even when people can have their consciousness raised about international giving to people they don't know and will never see, it's often because they were personally touched by the outreach. Your undergraduates were touched by an impassioned and convincing presentation given by someone they know. We're all touched by images and detailed reportage of the Haitian earthquakes or Asian Tsunamis brought to us through electronic media. We're touched by the stories of missionaries and Peace Corps volunteers. Little by little, we can feel our connection to the world broadening. But it is still a challenge to ask people to prioritize an impact at a great distance over a personally enriching impact in a nearer place.

The whole thing seems to rest on the question of obligation. Is there an obligation to do good? Has this been demonstrated? And if so, is there an obligation to do good without regard to your proximity to the recipients, interest, inclination, related agendas? And if so, is there an obligation to do the "most" good? And is the "most" good always saving lives or improving health wherever conditions are worse? I'm not convinced of all of the above, and they seem to be presented as assumptions, when I think it's important to recognize they're not necessarily assumptionseveryone shares. If you

Someone who donates to the Klan does something legally permissible but morally impermissible, and we can criticize them from a moral standpoint

Where I'm getting stuck is "impermissible." Who is doing the permitting? I'm not sure I can say what they're doing is "morally impermissible." It is by my lights, and I'll say so, and I'll use any other agreed-upon standard such as the Constitution or whatever else we might have to say "and it also contravenes this statement we supposedly all agree on," but I'm getting stuck on the "moral framework" question. You say it's immaterial, I say it matters to people. You're right that the earth was never flat, but if we go talk to a villager in 1200 about it, not only might he believe the earth is flat, but he's going to make all his decisions and form all his theories on his understanding that the earth is flat. If we don't understand that, we are definitely not going to get through to him when we want to talk about why he should care about gravity or other time zones or planetary movements. It's going to be a bunch of gibberish that is just meaningless to him, the chatter of eggheads from somewhere weird that can easily be dismissed, and they dress funny too. The Klan person is operating on a flat earth in which his moral imperative is to promote the interests of what he defines as Christian white people nationwide. The Jewish Federation exists to promote the interests of Jewish people worldwide. The Alliance Francaise exists to promote the cultural identity of French-speaking people worlwide. If I don't share the conviction that all these ends are good and valuable, that's fine, but I am pretty convinced that the members of these organizations really do believe their ends are good and valuable. For them, at least.

(I did discover that apparently the KKK is not a nonprofit but they do seem to have a fiscal agent that takes donations on their behalf).

I agree that we shouldn't be relativists about science. But that's not what we're talking about. "Morals" are mostly a human construct (at least in their codification), not an empirical phenomenon, and if they're a subject of scientific inquiry, that inquiry should be about how the brain makes moral decisions and determines its obligations to other organisms, and that's where I'm coming from. You can establish an ideal standard of behavior, but the onus is on people with the abstract standard which counterindicates the normal functioning of human moral reasoning to do the convincing that everyone should adopt the abstract standard and agree that it is an ultimate good. I, for one, will admit that I don't agree that "saving lives" is always the best focus of all charity to the exclusion of other charitable aims. In fact, I'm enough of a deep ecologist that I think the earth could do with a few less human lives, and strategies such as reproductive health education, contraception access, and female empowerment tend to get my support because that's one helpful way to attack the problem without ending existing lives. Also, once the lives are saved, there is a host of needs that must be addressed, for care, for food, for housing, for education, for opportunity, and for the enrichment of the human spirit, all of which are also worthy. And those needs exist across the world, especially those needs for education, opportunity, and enrichment which stand to produce more people who can influence global conditions for good overall.

Firstly, they don't rank organizations; they just give them seals of approval. But more importantly, they don't rank charities solely by outcome

I'm not sure how many times or ways I will have to repeat this, but this is false. Charities do track and report outcomes! Charities do track and report outcomes! Charities do track and report outcomes!

It does concern me that the pro-GiveWell argument is "the proper concern of people is efficacy at life-saving and maximizing the dollar value of a donation to the smallest degree, but it's defensible to be too lazy to really care about doing any homework yourself. What's important is the dollar, not the application." I see that this does describe a certain subset of people, who as I said are the "agnostic" ones about what their dollars do and concerned about waste and perhaps suspicious of charities in general, and a lot of those people are folks who are making donations because their wealth management counselors advise them to do so. Since they don't really care one way or another, this organization can give them the stamp of approval that seems to assure them they've gotten a good value, and they can feel good, which is, as I said, what people want from making a donation. I agree there is a role in the market for this service, because there is a set of potential donors who think about things this way, but I don't agree that it's obviously the best possible approach to charity overall or the best place for any individual who cares about their impact on the world to put all their charitable dollars, or that the results it's not pretty easily replicable through other channels.

As far as the language about "agnostic," that comes right from the GiveWell site. They refer to donors who don't care what their money does or where as long as it saves lives or "does good" as "agnostic."

I'm also sorry for the lengthiness, there are just a lot of points being made to address. I certainly respect your thinking and knowledge of philosophy, painquale, but I still think there are legitimate different points of view on charity. I can't agree that it's an obvious truth that everyone should be doing only this one kind of donating and only in this one manner. For most people, the will to donate is idiosyncratic, culturally influenced, and connected to personal experience, not the subject of abstract philosophical inquiry. Even if it turns out to be true that we should indeed be doing only life-saving donation, we will do a lot better at that if we recognize the real motivations of the vast majority of donors and work with their predisposed human tendencies to increase the efficacy of charitable appeal.
posted by Miko at 8:42 AM on April 23, 2011 [7 favorites]


What is it about discussions of need and charitable giving that brings out the smug condescension in some people?

Though I'm not sure exactly to whom you're referring, I just wanted to say that I don't feel this tone in the thread nor do I mean to project it. IT's a serious discussion but I think has been pretty respectful. I'm sorry if I'm the one projecting the condescension and assure you it's not meant.
posted by Miko at 8:44 AM on April 23, 2011


This is a great thread.
posted by lalochezia at 11:57 AM on April 24, 2011


I'm sorry if I'm the one projecting the condescension and assure you it's not meant.

Sorry, I didn't see this until just now. You can do a Ctrl-F on Carlin's seven words to find the people I have in mind. For the most part, I think you've been a picture of charitable interpretation. Your willingness to grant the value of GiveWell-style evaluations to some donors, despite your obvious misgivings and long history with GiveWell itself, is pretty close to superhuman.

One thing I think we're dealing with here is the that there is a difference between the discourses in arts philanthropy and humanitarian philanthropy. Within humanitarian philanthropy, there's already been a massive influx of this kind of cost-benefit analysis: it's just not readily available to retail donors, especially not with the kind of comparative outcome work that GiveWell supplies. (I think this is what you're missing with your repetition of "Charities do track and report outcomes": of course this is true, but they don't also publicly rank themselves in terms of efficacy.)

I often think that the various academics associated with Giving What We Can are engaging in a conscious effort to change the norms and standards of charitable giving. It's true that donors mostly give for reasons of self-satisfaction, which is why consequentialists of various stripes are engaged in a quiet effort to change the conditions under which donors can successfully congratulate themselves. By working on the codes of honor and merit, they hope to have an outsized impact on the behavior of major givers and institutions. Academics recognize that we're not rich and powerful, but we like to think that words and arguments can sometimes give us a bit of a multiplier effect.

To some extent, they've already succeeded, such that you see major criticisms of goals within global health and humanitarian aid communities for ineffective models, like the work of William Easterly, Dambisa Moyo, and David Rieff. More recently, some in the aid community have questioned the cost-benefit efficacy of the Gates Foundations' attempts to eradicate polio. The stretch I think you're rejecting is to force arts or education philanthropy into using the same metrics.
posted by anotherpanacea at 3:03 PM on April 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think we agree on most points, Miko. I agree that most people give out of emotional connection and a desire to feel that they have done good, and I agree that people who donate to the KKK probably the feel like they are doing the right thing. The "chatter of eggheads" won't directly convince most people to change their habits, true (though I do think it's not entirely ineffectual). So I agree with pretty much everything you wrote above. But if there is a difference between us, it is probably that I think there is an investigation that is distinct from questions about the will to donate: one that has to do with questions about where and why we should donate.

These metaethical questions may be taking us a little far from the GiveWell issue, though.

I'm not sure how many times or ways I will have to repeat this, but this is false. Charities do track and report outcomes! Charities do track and report outcomes! Charities do track and report outcomes!

Well, I wasn't expressing skepticism that charities track and report outcomes. I am skeptical that there is another aggregator or evaluator that bases recommendations only on outcomes.

I didn't realize that the "agnostic" language comes from GiveWell's own site; thanks for pointing that out.

anotherpanacea: consequentialists of various stripes are engaged in a quiet effort to change the conditions under which donors can successfully congratulate themselves. By working on the codes of honor and merit, they hope to have an outsized impact on the behavior of major givers and institutions.

This sounds right to me.
posted by painquale at 4:41 PM on April 24, 2011


Yeah, there's no hill I want to die on here. I'm not talking only about arts/humanities, I'm thinking about everything, but there is a really complexly evolved and data-focused sector there that does interact a lot with governments and the UN and such and has a different need for quantification, most likely, than a domestic social service charity.

I think there's room for something like this approach but would like to see it move forward with recognition and respect for other ways of conceiving of giving, too, and formulate less competitive and self-selecting metrics.

I am sure there is a great metaphysical discussion to be had about what we should do - no, I know there is - and that is indeed interesting, so I just want to stand up for the idea that any prescriptive ethics also should recognize the progress possible in pragmatic approaches and be able to tolerate imperfect outcomes, because nothing humans do can be fully rationalized, and there's a danger of making people throw up their hands at the "what should I do?" question and stop thinking hard about what they believe and want to promote as a cause. (That's a big reason for how the Red Cross, Sierra Club, big names like that end up with everything).
posted by Miko at 7:32 PM on April 24, 2011


A while back there was a demand that painquale "name names." I understand why he balked, but I've been looking around and I found 3916 names that should help bolster his claim. (Admittedly four of them are "anonymous." 3912, then.) Giving What We Can has a smaller list of 126 members, from 13 countries, who together have pledged 10% or more of their income (more than 35 million dollars in all) towards the kind of outcomes-based poverty-alleviation we've been discussing.
posted by anotherpanacea at 6:54 AM on April 25, 2011


anotherpanacea: I think painquale was asked to provide names of ethicists who support GiveWell specifically, not people who support outcomes-based poverty alleviation.

On a more general note, I was thinking about this conversation a few days ago while I was mowing the lawn. I see a parallel between approaches to charitable giving and this activity because you'd think choosing a pattern to mow your lawn is a simple matter. It's actually a case of an NP Hard problem subject to continued study in the field of algorithms.

What this means to me personally is that I'm guaranteed to be selecting a poorly-optimized path for mowing my yard every single time, no matter how much effort I put into the planning. And yet this doesn't prevent me from mowing my lawn.

The GiveWell analog in this situation would be someone approaching me with assurances that they've studied five, no.. TEN mowing patterns, and selected the most effective of these. I could easily cede to their expertise and mow with certainty that I'm doing the best I can do, after all, I was advised by experts. The reality is that nobody can offer such assurances since they're only theoretically, not realistically, achievable.

Consider the anecdote provided earlier by arse_hat just a few comments previous:
I do what I feel I can do to provide the most good to the most people. Sure I might be able to send money and arguably save more people but I have no empirical data that proves that. I think that providing a sense of accomplishment and self worth to a kid from my city could be just as important. Maybe it will prevent he or she from becoming a criminal and killing someone, causing great hurt to many, and becoming a drain on our taxes. Maybe he/she will go on to be a famous star and be able to raise more money for starving children than I will make in a lifetime. I have little data so I go with what my small, isolated steeltown trained, mind makes sense of.
The notion of the butterfly effect can't be discarded in our evaluations of how we choose to spend our resources. Entertaining the idea that any organization could provide you a "maximum return on investment" guarantee (or even less strongly, a vague asssurance) is only logical if you're willing to disregard the enormous amount of variables involved in thess chains of events.

Providing self-esteem to a local child leads to the same child becoming a high-income philanthropist. This is just as valid a possible outcome as: Providing one mosquito net saves a child's life tomorrow. The only difference is the interaction of thousands of variables over a longer time scale.

Any organization claiming to provide you assurances as to the "best use" of your resources is glossing over the complexity of the situation. I leave it to you what this says about the organization that it makes such a claim.
posted by odinsdream at 9:18 AM on April 25, 2011


I think painquale was asked to provide names of ethicists who support GiveWell specifically, not people who support outcomes-based poverty alleviation.

Giving What We Can and The Life You Can Save both use Givewell recommendations to direct contributions.

It's actually a case of an NP Hard problem subject to continued study in the field of algorithms.

I would like to see the proof that humanitarian aid is an NP Hard problem. But ultimately, these kinds of decisions need to be made heuristically, not algorithmically. (Bounded rationality has its advantages.)

Providing self-esteem to a local child leads to the same child becoming a high-income philanthropist. This is just as valid a possible outcome as: Providing one mosquito net saves a child's life tomorrow. The only difference is the interaction of thousands of variables over a longer time scale.

You're rejecting basic Bayesianism here, notably when you switch from probabilities to what you're calling "valid possible outcomes." On your account, it looks like any attempt at a solution could be equally likely to succeed. But you don't mow your lawn with fingernail clippers, do you? In your extended example you seem to suggest that the fastest way to get your lawn mowed is to mow someone else's lawn and hope they reciprocate.

I'm quite willing to plead fallibilism between a number of different charities, but not full-on skepticism. Think of this as a Bayesian portfolio theory: just as I use index funds to invest for retirement (because I can't pick stocks worth a damn), I use Oxfam to take advantage of expert knowledge and a broader range of possible projects.

Any organization claiming to provide you assurances as to the "best use" of your resources is glossing over the complexity of the situation.

They don't promise that. What they say is that of the charities they recommend, "each aims for a significant and lasting impact on clients' lives, whether literally protecting clients from death or giving clients a sustainable ability to support themselves and their families." In previous discussions of principles, they have said that they aim for the "best use" but also recognize that there are major epistemic obstacles to actually identifying it. Thus, no promises or guarantees.
posted by anotherpanacea at 10:52 AM on April 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Right. We can't know outcomes perfectly, but we can do our best with the evidence we have available. A butterfly flapping its wings might very well send a hurricane to interfere with our plans, but if we think that is equally likely for every course of action, it shouldn't affect our decision. (If we have reason to think that one course of action is more likely than others to be beset by butterfly-induced hurricanes, then we take that into account.)

Anotherpanacea just made a cool Metafilter post on economics and poverty, everyone!
posted by painquale at 11:21 AM on April 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


each aims for a significant and lasting impact on clients' lives, whether literally protecting clients from death or giving clients a sustainable ability to support themselves and their families

Sure, that's an honorable aim but a lot of charities - even here in the US - do aim for that. I assume the whole argument is we're not supposed to judge by aims but ends.
posted by Miko at 11:43 AM on April 25, 2011


But you don't mow your lawn with fingernail clippers, do you? In your extended example you seem to suggest that the fastest way to get your lawn mowed is to mow someone else's lawn and hope they reciprocate.

I'm not up for philosophical judo right now. All I meant by bringing up the grass-cutting is that real-world solutions exist for problems that have a theoretically perfect, but unattainable, solution. I still mow my lawn even knowing that there are more optimal paths I could be using.
posted by odinsdream at 12:30 PM on April 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm not up for philosophical judo right now.

You're invoking Millennium Prize Problems to create false equivalencies, and you're complaining that *I'm* the sophist?
posted by anotherpanacea at 1:15 PM on April 25, 2011


My point was made as simply as I could make it. I have no idea where "mowing someone else's lawn and hoping they reciprocate" came from as a result of my comments, so I sought to clarify further and obviously failed. My apologies.
posted by odinsdream at 1:42 PM on April 25, 2011


You suggested that raising a child's self-esteem so that she eventually becomes a rich philanthropist could be just as likely in the long-term to prevent a child's death as supplying a child today with a mosquito net. This is a weirdly roundabout way to proceed to that goal, without much evidence that should cause me to believe it is probable. What's more, since mosquito nets are very cheap, and educational outcomes are very expensive, it's possible to supply many more mosquito nets than self-esteem boosting educational opportunities.

Hoping to achieve uncertain indirect effects when a much more straight-forward option presents itself seems a little like trying to mow your lawn with scissors or hoping that your neighbor will do it if you mow her lawn, first. By which I mean: it may be difficult to find the optimal path, but it's easy to eliminate strategies that are demonstrably not cost-effective. Whatever particular path works best, it's probably going to involve you and a lawnmower.
posted by anotherpanacea at 1:57 PM on April 25, 2011


I dunno, this is where it gets ridiculous and why I set out to talk about the ridiculousness inherent in a "best charity" approach.

Educational outcomes don't have to be very expensive; you can get some darn good ones, even in the Western world, for like $2-5 a head per annum. And long-range economic arguments do work like this - which is why investing in female education is one of the most attractive long-term world-changing strategies. It's indirect, but it may have greater impact on, say, child mortality than any number of child-vaccination programs over the long haul.

It's impossibly to know all outcomes and the value of the outcomes ultimately is even more unknowable. It's possible you could save a thousand lives in a war-torn country, and find some huge percentage of the young men whose lives you've saved end up dying before age 20 in gang violence - having committed additional violence themselves before dying. The awareness that there is competition for global aid can impact the presentation and the tolerance level for conditions requiring aid. People shuffle money around - if aid can be expected for one quarter, spend your national budget in another quarter instead to advance some other ends. You really have to ask what the context of charity is. There was an incredibly provocative New Yorker piece last fall by Philip Gourevitch that started to deal with this concept - it was clear that the piece really only scratches the tiniest surface. As always, when you're dealing with social science and the frustrating realities of human vagary, full quantification and the economists' approach is going to be inadequate.
posted by Miko at 8:31 PM on April 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


...and you don't have to raise one rich philanthropist. If your little church group or scout pack can take a dozen regular, lazy American kids every year, who otherwise might never give a dime in their lives, and motivate them to at least develop a sense of social responsibility that has them giving $100 a year when they can afford it to something other than themselves - you've certainly multiplied your impact and put resources into the system that never would otherwise have existed. You don't need one rich philanthropist as much as you need a fully engaged culture of philanthropy, which is not expensive to create and yet could create a total sea change. But it does require the investment represented in considering your local, first-world causes to also be worth your time and support.
posted by Miko at 8:34 PM on April 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Miko, it seems to me that you've got two conflicting claims here.

On one hand, you think the "try to find the best charity" approach is ridiculous because "it's impossible to know all outcomes and the value of the outcomes ultimately is even more unknowable."

On the other hand, you give an argument for thinking that education has great impact. You say, "educational outcomes don't have to be very expensive [...] It's indirect, but it may have greater impact on, say, child mortality than any number of child-vaccination programs over the long haul. " Arguments like these are entirely welcomed by people looking for "the best charity." That is valuable information! But then you turn it around and use it as evidence that looking for a best charity is ridiculous. I don't see how that is supposed to follow. It seems to me that, if anything, it helps the best charity approach. You can't claim that education has a good impact unless you concede that we can predict the consequences of our actions with some degree of accuracy.

I thought that your main complaint with the one charity approach in this thread was that the approach assumes there is a single, objective good that we are trying to maximize. But now it sounds like you think that even if you fix the good you are trying to maximize --- say, lives saved --- the task is still hopeless, because the consequences of our giving is unknowable. It's true that it might be unknowable, but I do not think that harms the best charity approach. We're not completely in the dark. We can do better than chance by taking as much information as we can into account and working off of our subjective probabilities.

(FWIW, I think I agree with you on the point about education and increasing philanthropy. If I can get one student to earnestly sign up for Giving What We Can, that will almost surely be the most substantial charitable contribution I could make in a year.)
posted by painquale at 10:07 PM on April 25, 2011


"On the other hand, you give an argument for thinking that education has great impact. You say, "educational outcomes don't have to be very expensive [...] It's indirect, but it may have greater impact on, say, child mortality than any number of child-vaccination programs over the long haul. " Arguments like these are entirely welcomed by people looking for "the best charity." That is valuable information! But then you turn it around and use it as evidence that looking for a best charity is ridiculous. I don't see how that is supposed to follow."

That's because you keep arguing to persuade rather than to understand.

The claims are:

It is impossible to know the best (singular) charity.

GiveWell does not represent a good way of finding best (plural) charities.

Think about it like this:

Say I want to make a list of states from best to worst to live in (Like this, but serious).

It's impossible to make a stable, universal list, at least without establishing criteria that are abstractions of what you want to know — things like employment rates or general happiness surveys. The claim that there is a best state to live in is impossible because the statement is too vague and whatever metrics you use may distort away from where any given person might be happiest.

You can even complicate this by arguing that you can only live in one of these states — any year lived in one can't be lived in another.

There's simply no way to provide a universal statement that everyone would be happier in Oregon.

But none of this precludes there being better and worse ways to choose.

Now, say there's a website that claims to have found a way to rank states that it claims is objective, based on something that most states do themselves — say, a weighted index that favors a ratio of taxes collected to money spent on services as the primary metric, or say, overall budget to number of lives saved by EMS?

It doesn't conflict with the first claim to say that those would be poor ways to assess whether or not to live in a state — that there is no best doesn't mean that there's not a distribution.

So when GiveWell promises to find the best charity with objective measurements, we should be skeptical because, strictly speaking, that's impossible.

And when GiveWell describes the way they're going to find the best charity, it's still reasonable to point out that their methods are never going to produce proof of their promise.

Thus, finally, when GiveWell promotes their results and, implicitly or explicitly, asks for money, it is reasonable to point out that they don't deserve it. At the very best, read their research, let it move you to the extent it is able, and give to the folks they recommend because you've confirmed it elsewhere.
posted by klangklangston at 10:43 PM on April 25, 2011


I'm not sure those are the claims Miko was committing herself to in the post just above.

1) It is impossible to know the best (singular) charity.

Just to be clear... is this an okay summation of your argument?: "There's no way to draw up a universal or impersonal list of best states, so there's no way to draw up an impersonal list of best charities." Do I have that right? When you say that it's impossible to know the best singular charity, do you mean that there is no impersonal list of best charities? (Or do you mean something stronger: that even for an individual who is after a particular goal, there is no single best choice? I'll assume the former.)

There's a difference between a list of best states to live in and a list of best charities though. When we consider the pros and cons of living in each of the states, the biggest pros are ones that will make a person happy living there. Personal differences among people surely matter here. So, we won't be able to draw up a universal ordering. Everyone will get their own individual list. But when we ask which charity is best to give to, when we list the pros and the cons of each option, personal happiness is just one small factor in the outcome. Here too, different people will prefer to give to different charities, for emotional reasons. But the difference in personal satisfaction one feels will almost certainly be dwarfed by the possibility of drastically reducing the suffering of others. (Quick argument: The thrill one gets from personal involvement in a charity cannot morally be used as an excuse for choosing a charity that will cure one fistula over a charity that will cure two fistulas. And the expected good of the top charitable donations will be at least as good as curing one fistula.) This is why one list can be (quasi-)universal while the other is not.

Earlier in the thread, you and Miko and others have both expressed this idea that it's impossible to make impersonal claims about charity effectiveness. To be honest, I am willing to let it go. I am happy to not make universal claims, and only address all these claims to someone who is "agnostic." (Quite separately: everyone should be agnostic.)

Although Miko has argued against there being a universally best charity in other points in this thread, I do not think that she was doing it in her post just above.

2) GiveWell does not represent a good way of finding best (plural) charities.

That'd be a good point, but I also don't think it was what Miko was arguing in the post above. She didn't even mention GiveWell. Her position sounded more like a principled kind of skepticism. For example: "It's impossibly to know all outcomes and the value of the outcomes ultimately is even more unknowable. It's possible you could save a thousand lives in a war-torn country, and find some huge percentage of the young men whose lives you've saved end up dying before age 20 in gang violence - having committed additional violence themselves before dying."

The last ten posts or so (since odindream's first post) have been about the idea that it is just too hard to figure out the effects of our charitable actions. I thought that Miko's was another in this vein. If I was wrong, then I apologize.
posted by painquale at 12:20 AM on April 26, 2011


Klang, you should take a look at the work of Amartya Den. It's possible to be a consequentialist without being a utilitarian. The capability approach avoids many of the metaethical pitfalls that seem to be motivating your contributions here. Plus it was Sen who first remarked on the power of female literacy to reduce infant mortality. (Literacy being a bit operationizable than self-esteem.)
posted by anotherpanacea at 4:22 AM on April 26, 2011


Amartya SEN. Gah.
posted by anotherpanacea at 4:23 AM on April 26, 2011


why I set out to talk about the ridiculousness inherent in a "best charity" approach

How would you feel about a "better charity" approach? Aren't you implicitly committed to that by your own disapproval of GiveWell, which is a "worse charity"?
posted by anotherpanacea at 5:20 AM on April 26, 2011


You suggested that raising a child's self-esteem so that she eventually becomes a rich philanthropist could be just as likely in the long-term to prevent a child's death as supplying a child today with a mosquito net. This is a weirdly roundabout way to proceed to that goal, without much evidence that should cause me to believe it is probable. What's more, since mosquito nets are very cheap, and educational outcomes are very expensive, it's possible to supply many more mosquito nets than self-esteem boosting educational opportunities.

First, let me be clear that I'm not engaging here to be combative or contrary. I assume the same of nearly all the other commenters.

I did not mean to suggest that the two possible outcomes were equally likely. I said: "This is just as valid a possible outcome..." meaning that both described scenarios are possible results of a charitable action. I'm quite aware this is vulnerable to reductio ad absurdum. I'm purposefully restricting this to at least somewhat likely outcomes for this reason.

Hoping to achieve uncertain indirect effects when a much more straight-forward option presents itself seems a little like trying to mow your lawn with scissors or hoping that your neighbor will do it if you mow her lawn, first. By which I mean: it may be difficult to find the optimal path, but it's easy to eliminate strategies that are demonstrably not cost-effective. Whatever particular path works best, it's probably going to involve you and a lawnmower.

Here's the core of our disagreement, and I'm not attempting to persuade you really, I'm just noting it for clarity's sake. I don't believe that less-direct forms of charity are "hoping to achieve uncertain indirect effects" as you seem to. I believe they're just as valid, morally and logistically, as more direct forms of charity. We disagree, and that's fine.

Regarding GiveWell specifically, we've been over this in so many different ways it seems like the point simply isn't getting across. Even in the event that their claimed function were achievable, the means they use to reach their answers are unsupportable and examine only a very small percentage of charities. Further, even if these problems were fully rectified (which I don't think is even theoretically possible), they remain staffed with individuals who have demonstrated repeated untrustworthy behaviour of a particularly extreme nature, i.e., misrepresenting identity to hide conflict of interest. This type of transgression is directly relevant to the space in which they're operating. Posting apologies and reorganizing the board is not sufficient. That the individuals weren't immediately suspended or fired reflects very poorly on the organization's professional judgement. Let's go to the record:
Effective January 3, 2008, Holden Karnofsky has been removed from his position as Executive Director of GiveWell and from his position as Board Secretary. The Executive Director position is now vacant; Tim Ogden will serve as interim Board Secretary. In addition to being removed from his positions, a financial penalty has been imposed on Mr. Karnofsky. While we are removing him from the Executive Director position, we believe that his previous contributions outside of the acts noted above have demonstrated a commitment to the goals of the organization and have been important to accomplishing GiveWell’s work. As a result, Holden will be moved to a Program Officer position, where we believe he will be valuable in helping GiveWell meet its outstanding commitments to applicants and donors. He will also participate in a program of professional development and mentoring.(emphasis mine)
Personally, this strikes me as a situation where the organization couldn't stand to let this individual go. Perhaps because they allow their personal attachments to Holden to override their concerns from a business perspective. This should give anyone looking to support the organization pause, since it raises questions about their capabilities in all other operations. What other activities are they engaging in for personal reasons even if it's detrimental to their donors or GiveWell as an organization? We'll only find out after another suitably public PR disaster.

Another option is that Holden is too valuable from an operations or logistics perspective, and his leaving would be detrimental to GiveWell's operations. This is bad for obvious reasons.

I'm personally leaning towards the first option, judging from the rest of the board's statement:
We recognize that people can make mistakes and that they can learn powerful lessons from those failures. When we think about the whole picture of Holden, and view his mistakes in the context of his contribution to GiveWell so far as well as his character prior to this project, we believe that he will continue to make a positive impact for the organization in the future.
This reads to me like something you'd write about a close family member seeking to be forgiven for a transgression, not an employee who has potentially ruined your business reputation. There are many qualified people who could fill his job. That the board was unable to overcome its personal attachment to Holden and find such a replacement is extremely unsettling.
posted by odinsdream at 6:20 AM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


But the difference in personal satisfaction one feels will almost certainly be dwarfed by the possibility of drastically reducing the suffering of others.

I think this is an unfounded assumption, based on what you personally feel about charitable giving and how you personally choose to give. I'm not saying no one makes this calculation, or that it's wrong, but I don't think that everyone or nearly everyone does this. Or, at least, they define "drastically reducing suffering" much more broadly than "saving a life," which is what prompts them to donate more to the local charity that runs an after-school tutoring program for the local underfunded public school than to the more abstract (to them) malaria-fighting charity handing out nets 8,000 miles away. A lot of people give to both kinds, of course.

On re-reading this, maybe we're making the exact same point, just coming to it in different ways: people give (in part) in order to reduce suffering, and many people feel more connected to the suffering they personally witness in their communities, so that's where the bulk of their charitable money goes.
posted by rtha at 6:36 AM on April 26, 2011


that there is no best doesn't mean that there's not a distribution.

This is exactly what I'm arguing and I don't think there's a contradiction. I do assert that it's impossible to identify a universally "best" charity by using a single absolute standard because there are too many slippery factors - most particularly, long-range outcomes and unintended consequences.

As a related statement, I assert that it's an impossibility to know the "best," but that it's not very challenging at all to know the good from the bad. The GiveWell setup, though, doesn't bother to take on the project of differentiating good from bad - it takes a narrow "maximizer" approach which, as a side effect, contributes to an overall suspicion of giving, and weighs short-term outcomes above long-term ones and immediately reportable consequences against longer-range and fuzzier ones, where the broadest possible "satisficer" approach is, I think, ultimately better for increasing giving - both the culture of giving and the impact of giving across all society and all issues.

Aren't you implicitly committed to that by your own disapproval of GiveWell, which is a "worse charity"?

I don't think I've said that. I don't think of GiveWell as a charity any more - they are a nonprofit but they're a research organization, not a charity, so I don't really have an opinion of them as a charity. I don't really have an interest in seeing them fail or anything, I just don't agree with the assumptions inherent in their approach or with the essentially faith-based support of people who use the service (I'm sure some subsection of those people runs the numbers themselves, but we're hearing here that it's most useful as a shortcut for people unwilling to do their own evaluation and make their own moral decisions about what's most worth funding). And to answer the question, yes, I have never maintained an idea other than that there are charities which are functioning well, can demonstrate impacts that donors desire, operate legally and ethically, and improve conditions, and some that are less worthy or are in fact corrupt. Where I part company with others is that this particular approach is the best way of determining which charities are deserving of support and can demonstrate valuable impact.

The thrill one gets from personal involvement in a charity cannot morally be used as an excuse for choosing a charity that will cure one fistula over a charity that will cure two fistulas

Let's call "excuses" 'reasons.' Can religious views be used as an reason? Can views about accountability and reportability be used as a reason not to favor a charity that saves more fistula babies in hard numbers, but does it less efficiently per dollar spent? Can corruption or strongarm tactics or religious coercion or colonialist attitudes in the organization be viewed as a reason? I can think of so many reasons the most efficent charity may be a legitimately bad moral choice for a donor. You're proposing a framework that says if it's most efficient, it can never be bad, and always deserves support. In that model, it's pure efficiency, not improvement and alignment with values, that becomes the measuring stick. That concerns me.

I also keep getting hung up on the assertions that some decisions are "morally permissible" and others aren't. I understand this is a separate argument, but it just seems you continue to assume a specific moral framework when arguing that something is or isn't "moral." On what authority are we deciding what is moral?
posted by Miko at 7:25 AM on April 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


Another kind of (funny? interesting?) note is that folks arguing that the supremacy of an approach which favors some causes over others, based on a statement of their relative moral strength, and efficiency as the highest value, are arguing something that is actually much more extreme and rigid than GiveWell's current approach. It's interesting to read their statement on the complexities of international aid and their shortcomings statement "Poorly constructed "causes" led to suboptimal grant allocation."

I don't disagree with a lot of what they've found to be true over time, but I think it's fair to note that these issues were among the very ones raised most prominently in the early criticism of the organization by people more experienced in the world of charitable causes and are related to some of the chronic issues in charity which I'm raising here. It was clear in their initial phase that in promoting a strict dollar-value, ranked approach to giving they lacked much understanding. That they are learning about the nuance of this world as they go is obvious, though it means spending lots of time inventing the wheel. I think they've praised some good charities and increased the feelings of confidence of donors to those charities, but am not sure that means that charities they've neither praised nor evaluated are necessarily always bad places to give.
posted by Miko at 8:33 AM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't think of GiveWell as a charity any more - they are a nonprofit but they're a research organization, not a charity, so I don't really have an opinion of them as a charity.

I think of them as a meta-charity, since their aim is to effect the way that other charities function and to remove some of the real reasons people don't give. In this, I think they are a far inferior meta-charity to things like the MIT Poverty Action Lab or Oxfam, but I do think they serve a purpose. As I said above, I'd be happy for their role to be completely taken over by Oxfam or one of the other aggregators. I've spent more time looking at GiveWell's site as a result of this thread than I've ever done in the past: it's slick, thoughtful, and well-written, but it's not going to change my giving.

As a related statement, I assert that it's an impossibility to know the "best," but that it's not very challenging at all to know the good from the bad.

If you believe this, then I agree with you. This is what I (and I think painquale) have been arguing throughout the thread. I wonder, though: why "good from bad" and not "better from worse"?

I have never maintained an idea other than that there are charities which are functioning well, can demonstrate impacts that donors desire, operate legally and ethically, and improve conditions, and some that are less worthy or are in fact corrupt. Where I part company with others is that this particular approach is the best way of determining which charities are deserving of support and can demonstrate valuable impact.

Though we seem to be in agreement, I wonder whether you've caveated too heavily here. Is the real measure of whether a charity is "good or bad" whether it it "demonstrates impacts that donors desire" or is there some metric or set of metrics outside of the desires of individual donors that we should use to judge whether the donor's desires are "good or bad"? For one thing, a donor could have desires that are contradicted empirically, like wanting to reduce abortions through abstinence-only education.
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:45 AM on April 26, 2011


If you believe this, then I agree with you. This is what I (and I think painquale) have been arguing throughout the thread.

I think you might have been, but I don't think painquale is. To me he seems to be arguing from a specific, absolute, universal ideal of good.

I wonder, though: why "good from bad" and not "better from worse"?

You can use "better from worse" if you like, though of course you start going down the quantification road, so I'm not sure why it's preferred. Quantification is of course not bad in itself, at all, as I've agreed, and I certainly do it in my own work regularly. Yes, there are charities that are arguably "better" than others, but insisting on the comparitive does imply that to there must then be some means of determining which of any two is the "better," which leads to identifying some single primary metric and developing a ranking system, which then begins to leans philosophically toward the efficiency-obsessed and winner-take all giving models.

Recognizing that giving with the intention of producing outcome is so complex means, for me, allowing that there needs to be a free marketplace of choice about giving and that the concern for many people will not logically be a relative ranking based on a specific set of metrics that aren't universal, but being comfortable that the charities they've chosen, based on their individual beliefs about what they seek to promote in the world, are not corrupt or poorly run. I think there is room for a lot of guides to giving that offer evaluation across a set of metrics, like a report card, or even a "stay away" list of charities with poor track records. It's not the idea of a giving guide I object to, though they will of course never be customized to individual interests. Where I part ways is the competitive, zero-sum approach that says there is always one best place for everyone to put his or her money, and if we could just figure out how to develop the right kind of reporting form, we could discover it. I believe that this is something we can never discover, because it doesn't exist.

Is the real measure of whether a charity is "good or bad" whether it it "demonstrates impacts that donors desire" or is there some metric or set of metrics outside of the desires of individual donors that we should use to judge whether the donor's desires are "good or bad"? For one thing, a donor could have desires that are contradicted empirically, like wanting to reduce abortions through abstinence-only education.

And yet, it's their right to make that donation and promote that cause, and as we see in reality, all kinds of people do. This is a good example of a donation made because of the donor's beliefs and desire to promote a specific set of values and behaviors in the world.

What you can do, of course, is use your evaluation organization to set up a comparison of teen-pregnancy-prevention programs and rate them on their efficacy, and yes, you can empirically state that some programs seem to perform better at producing this outcome even when controlled for income, region, age, educational attainment, etc, and maybe they're not the abstinence organizations (though sometimes, in some contexts, frustratingly, they are!). Empirically, the outcome might not be what those donors state they want in terms of fewer teen births or what have you, but in truth, empirical outcome is not the sole driver of their giving. This kind of giving is a statement and an attempt to bring an alternative vision of the world into existence. And in fact, it may be that such donors see a few success stories of girls who made it through high school totally abstinent and were in the minority in that way are enough to motivate their continued giving, reasoning that if they didn't give at all, those success stories could also disappear.

When you ask for some higher moral framework from which to judge whether this person's giving is good or desirable from a broader point of view, where do you go? They'll argue that yes, your method might produce fewer teen births, but to argue against abstinence is an abomination in the eyes of God, turning teenagers into harlots and setting them on a path to hell. You're the wrong one, not them. On what basis do you set up an argument against these donors' conception of God that says "what you're doing isn't good?" They will be pretty convinced that it's your favorite moral framework that sucks.

I think mainly it's the "agnostic" givers that don't have these kinds of complex, real-world motivations in mind when looking to make a year-end donation. In my experience, most other donors are seeking to promote something aligned with their values and interests.
posted by Miko at 9:13 AM on April 26, 2011


They will be pretty convinced that it's your favorite moral framework that sucks.

Here, I tend to retreat to political philosophy: reasonable pluralism doesn't require us to put up with every idiosyncratic view of the good. I thought you'd be willing to agree to this, since much of what you've said so far to defend a reasonable pluralism among different charities doesn't require us to recognize every persons' idea of a philanthropic act as an actual philanthropic act. There may be many good answers, but there are certainly some bad answers, too. For instance, some arsenic mitigation efforts may actually increase infant mortality.

This is also one way at getting at the "permissible" language. It's notable that donations to political causes aren't tax deductible when they're directed to a party or politician, despite the fact that many people feel more committed to their party than they do to famine-alleviation. We also refuse to respect racist covenants, for instance in cases where a trust requires that a piece of land given for a public park or monument maintain segregation.

Of course, we should be very careful with such public policy restrictions on charitable giving. But I'm willing to stomach far more of this kind of restriction than the current tax code allows. For instance, I believe we should carefully reconsider the tax-advantaged treatment of donations to ones' own church or synagogue, since these are more like membership dues that pay for the pastoral services and architecture that the donor enjoys. (My gym membership isn't deductible!)
posted by anotherpanacea at 1:40 PM on April 26, 2011


If you believe this, then I agree with you. This is what I (and I think painquale) have been arguing throughout the thread.

I think you might have been, but I don't think painquale is. To me he seems to be arguing from a specific, absolute, universal ideal of good.


Sure, I think that there is a specific, absolute, and universal ideal of good, but I don't think that implies I disagree with you and anotherpanacea.

There are two things one could mean by 'best charity'. There is the charity that will actually do the most good in the world, and then there is the charity that we can expect to do the most good given our information and epistemic situation.

I think the first is probably unknowable. I agree with you there. (I do think there is a fact of the matter about which is best, though.) The second is, nearly by definition, not unknowable. In fact, if you think that we can know that some charities are better than others, then you necessarily think that there is at least one best charity (in this sense of 'best charity'): a charity is best if you do not expect that any other charities will do better.

I'm agnostic about whether there will be ties at the top.
posted by painquale at 12:21 AM on April 27, 2011


Painquale, I get what you're saying, but I wonder whether you're overemphasizing the certainty of outcomes? Take the stock market: we can do lots of analysis of the past performance of all the stocks in the S&P 500 and pick the *best* historical performance, but we can also see that in the past, past performance was not a good indication of future profitability. So instead we might choose to buy an index of all those stocks. In your sense, this is actually the "best investment" since historically it has been impossible to pick the "best stock" with historical data. But this portfolio theory ends up militating against the idea of a "best knowable stock" at all. I think many of the objections in this thread have been motivated by this kind of "margin of error" intuition.
posted by anotherpanacea at 3:01 AM on April 27, 2011


In fact, if you think that we can know that some charities are better than others, then you necessarily think that there is at least one best charity (in this sense of 'best charity'): a charity is best if you do not expect that any other charities will do better.

Computationally, I think it's possible that you can have both circumstances, the ability to compare one charity to another, and the inability to prove that there is a best charity.

In the same way that you can compare encryption algorithms and make a verifiable statement that one is better than the other while it remains impossible to state that one algorithm is the best of all.
posted by odinsdream at 7:32 AM on April 27, 2011


Paradox may be a strong word for it, but I bet there's a name for this type of situation.
posted by odinsdream at 7:33 AM on April 27, 2011


There are two things one could mean by 'best charity'. There is the charity that will actually do the most good in the world, and then there is the charity that we can expect to do the most good given our information and epistemic situation.

I think the first is probably unknowable. I agree with you there. (I do think there is a fact of the matter about which is best, though.) The second is, nearly by definition, not unknowable. In fact, if you think that we can know that some charities are better than others, then you necessarily think that there is at least one best charity (in this sense of 'best charity'): a charity is best if you do not expect that any other charities will do better.


I'd love to believe in a way to do this, to identify a best charity and feel confident I'm doing the most good I can in the world with my donations, given the knowledge I have. But to do that I would need:

1) Some single universal definition of good which gives you a "conversion factor" for the value of saving a life vs. relieving physical pain vs. mental/emotional quality of life (etc etc)
2) Reasonable knowledge and predictability of outcomes and effects

I can't wrap my head around #1 at all, but even if we leave that aside, I don't see how you get past #2. Sure, there are some things that are easily measured (how many lives saved with how much money?) but how do you measure quality of life? How do you predict the impact of education or experiences on all of the complex actions and interactions of a person for the rest of their lives? How do you know that investing many times over for repeated near-certain "small" payoffs (not that any one life is small or meaningless) is better than investing in much less certain but much larger payoffs? In theory there's technically an answer and you can mathematically calculate it (let's say that, all else being equal, spending $1000 on a certain educational/self-esteem/whatever program for a child raises the chance by 0.001% that she will grow up to discover/develop something that will save 500,000 lives... so you would expect that if you did this for 100,000 children at a cost of $100,000,000 it would lead to 500,000 lives saved at a cost of $200 each... so if your best previous way saved lives for $250 each then this would be better)-- but practically speaking you're never going to really ever figure it out.

Maybe you're agreeing with that when you're saying that the absolute best charity is unknowable. But don't the same issues bias your assessment of the expected-best-charity, too? When you can cleanly define, measure, and compare X and Y but you can't easily define, measure and compare Z, you can figure out that X is better than Y and decide not to give to Y, but how does that tell you anything about how X compares to Z? It doesn't, yet there's still the tendency to be biased towards X and against Z. It seems to me that while these kinds of comparisons can be helpful in knowing which Ys to avoid-- they just give you a false confidence about how the Xs compare to all of the rest of your options.

I can't imagine being truly agnostic about where my money goes as long as it's doing the most good, and yet giving it all to the same place-- that would require an incredible amount of confidence in my assessment of the right place to give! If I really wanted to, say, prevent malaria, then sure I'd research the best darn malaria-preventing organization and give all my money there. But I want to do the most good in the world, and it's unknowable how to do that, so I always split mine up on a handful of different choices that I've researched and thought about and feel best about.
posted by EmilyClimbs at 11:30 AM on April 27, 2011


Man, a charity index fund is an interesting idea.
posted by Miko at 12:48 PM on April 27, 2011


Man, a charity index fund is an interesting idea.

Oohhh!
posted by odinsdream at 12:56 PM on April 27, 2011


You guys are giving me some food for thought. Let me think about this for a little while. My initial reaction is that we tacitly give subjective probabilities to various outcomes, even though they seem impossible to practically measure. So, EmilyClimbs says, "In theory there's technically an answer and you can mathematically calculate it (let's say that, all else being equal, spending $1000 on a certain educational/self-esteem/whatever program for a child raises the chance by 0.001% that she will grow up to discover/develop something that will save 500,000 lives... so you would expect that if you did this for 100,000 children at a cost of $100,000,000 it would lead to 500,000 lives saved at a cost of $200 each... so if your best previous way saved lives for $250 each then this would be better)" -- this is a perfect example of the sort of cost-benefit analysis that I support. But then she says, "but practically speaking you're never going to really ever figure it out. " I don't think its impractical. My contention is that we tacitly do calculations like this all the time! Whenever you deliberate over anything, or choose one charity over another, you are doing some nascent calculation of this sort. (Or your reasoning process can be modeled this way.) That's just how practical reasoning under uncertainty works. Not having perfect information, and not being perfect calculators, are impediments to our reasoning out the objectively best possible course of action. But they aren't insurmountable barriers.

There are neat issues here about the difference between reasoning under uncertainty and reasoning under ignorance (I think Keynes came up with the distinction). Reasoning under uncertainty occurs when you only have probabilities to go by; reasoning under ignorance happens when you don't even know what your subjective probabilities are, or don't have any. I'm in the camp that thinks there's nothing special about reasoning under ignorance. Because we have tacit degrees of confidence that we can pull out of ourselves by introspecting about what we'd be willing to bet on various outcomes, e.g., there's just reasoning under uncertainty.

Anotherpanacea: Take the stock market: we can do lots of analysis of the past performance of all the stocks in the S&P 500 and pick the *best* historical performance, but we can also see that in the past, past performance was not a good indication of future profitability. So instead we might choose to buy an index of all those stocks. In your sense, this is actually the "best investment" since historically it has been impossible to pick the "best stock" with historical data. But this portfolio theory ends up militating against the idea of a "best knowable stock" at all.

Neat. I don't think this is true though. The expected utility of an index of stocks is just the weighted average of the expected utilities of the individual stocks. (Note: I'm ignoring Simpson's paradox. I don't think this affects my line of reasoning.) Simply choosing the stock with the highest expected utility is expected to be better than the index, which is full of other stocks that bring the average down. The reason for bundling is not that the bundle gives us a higher expected utility than any individual stock in the bundle: it is to reduce standard deviation. It's to make it so you don't lose your shirt.

Reducing risk at the expense of expected payoff is rational in the stock portfolio case because of the declining marginal value of personal wealth. Your first dollar is worth a lot more than your millionth dollar. With charities, this is not the case. The millionth mosquito net is just as likely to save a life as the first mosquito net. If anything, charities become more efficient the more money they have, so later dollars have increasing marginal utility!

Odinsdream: In the same way that you can compare encryption algorithms and make a verifiable statement that one is better than the other while it remains impossible to state that one algorithm is the best of all.

Interesting. Is this true even when you are comparing a finite number of algorithms? Is 'better than' transitive? Can any two algorithms be compared? I'm having a hard time seeing how this can be the case if the answer to all questions is yes.

EmilyClimbs: Maybe you're agreeing with that when you're saying that the absolute best charity is unknowable. But don't the same issues bias your assessment of the expected-best-charity, too? When you can cleanly define, measure, and compare X and Y but you can't easily define, measure and compare Z, you can figure out that X is better than Y and decide not to give to Y, but how does that tell you anything about how X compares to Z? It doesn't, yet there's still the tendency to be biased towards X and against Z. It seems to me that while these kinds of comparisons can be helpful in knowing which Ys to avoid-- they just give you a false confidence about how the Xs compare to all of the rest of your options.

This is interesting. If by 'expected best charity' I mean the charity that an ideal agent who is perfect at reasoning would expect to do best (or, equivalently, the charity that the evidence objectively suggests will most likely do best), then yes, because we are not ideal agents, the expected best charity may well be practically unknowable. If by 'expected best charity' I mean the charity that I actually expect will do best, then it's obviously not unknowable; I just need to introspect. But I clearly don't mean that. Something between the two might be: the charity that a responsible agent who collects evidence and reasons well will expect to do best. But this is not obviously knowable, and it's not obvious that different responsible agents will come to the same conclusion, even if they share an end goal they are trying to maximize.

I think what I mean is something like: the charity that is objectively expected to do best according to the evidence you have and other evidence that is "obviously" relevant and easily obtainable. And yes, this might be unknowable. I guess I'll concede that. If you reason well enough though, you should expect to be somewhat close. We are better than chance at determining outcomes of events, after all.
posted by painquale at 1:06 PM on April 27, 2011


I don't think its impractical.
Whenever you deliberate over anything, or choose one charity over another, you are doing some nascent calculation of this sort. (Or your reasoning process can be modeled this way.)


This is one of the assumptions that I don't think are safe to make regarding all charitable giving. Not everyone is doing a calculation of any kind when choosing a charity. Some people are making a purely values-based decision without calculating at all. Some are giving because their friend asked them to. Some are giving because a guy with a boot and a First Aid Squad t-shirt was standing at the red light. Etc.

In any case, I think that it is at all practical to be able to measure anything like the educational outcomes which result in increased lives saved over a lifetime for a charitable intervention. The sort of example you and EmilyClimbs were working with is a great example of something that you can argue is theoretically possible for mathematicians to tackle, but it is pragmatically impossible and not going to inform giving in any conceivable world. First of all, how long do you want to take to amass this data? Second, who will pay for this tracking, data storage, calculation, and reporting? Third, will your results be replicable enough for you to build a charitable plan enduring into the future on it? Probably not, because by the time you have sufficient data, the conditions of society will likely have changed sufficiently that engineering educational strategies for distant outcomes will have to be done differently anyway. We educate people to become more humane because it's a good idea, makes life better today, and we have a good hunch that it is working to make life better in future.

Because we have tacit degrees of confidence that we can pull out of ourselves by introspecting about what we'd be willing to bet on various outcomes, e.g., there's just reasoning under uncertainty.

That's what I'm calling a "hunch," and it seems like this is now pretty far from arguing for data-supported analysis to determine a "best" charity. You're basically saying here that our hunches are good enough to achieve good outcomes. I'm kind of saying the same thing, and I agree that we're reasoning about certain outcomes which we don't even know the probability of when we don't interfere with them through charity, let alone when we do. That's what points me away from a granular-analysis approach to charity or an argument that we need perfect knowledge of monetary efficiency to make good charitable decisions. So we seem to agree: we don't.

If anything, charities become more efficient the more money they have

Whoa whoa whoa, I'm not sure that's at all true! I'm really not sure that more dollars to a charity = greater efficiency. More dollars could just as easily dilute efficiency. It entirely depends upon how these are spent. Also, short-term expenditures - to expand staff, say, or build new facilities - could temporarily reduce efficiency, only to increase it five or ten years down the line. But that wouldn't matter if you were being judged on one year's performance, rather than relative to your longer-term arc of planning. If you've just made the expenditure and have yet to see the return, you look kind of fiscally terrible and inefficient in the intervening years.

Anyway, I start to get lost when we start talking about ideas from mathematics. One of the key points is that human relationships aren't entirely reducible to mathematics. And very long-range, divergent outcomes are at least not reducible to any kind of mathematics we are able to perform today. When we talk about whether we can compare two charities or a finite group of charities and determine one "best," we're again back to the assumption that there can be two identical charities with two identical purposes to compare - or even two charities whose idiosyncrasies of leadership, mission, method, history, style, and knowledge base are ignored in order to consider them on the basis of some broad outward similarity, such as "saving lives." One such charity might save lives in sub-Saharan Africa with mosquito nets and by mostly funded by Christian missionary organizations, another in India by cleaning up the water supply in public-private partnership with the Indian government, a third in Haiti by providing medical care to the poor (in a sometimes financially incredibly inefficient way) supported mainly by people in the first world who have read a particular book. All might even be equally efficient overall or even save the exact same number of lives, but that doesn't make them identical. And non-agnostic givers may have legitimate and defensible reasons for making distinctions among them and preferring one over the other. There is no "best" in this situation. All are good. And we might - no, we do - find donors who are willing to continue making these distinctions even if their chosen charity is not the most efficient with dollars or the biggest saver of lives.

I do feel like this is getting super repetitive. I'm not sure how many different ways I can present the argument against a "best charity" concept, but I'm reasonably sure it's not a factually incorrect argument, and also that it's not a morally incorrect one, either, except when judged from one specific stance. And we seem to agree that perfect knowledge isn't necessary, so that's why I see it as mainly a vanity pursuit and distraction from efforts just to broaden the base and increase giving overall.
posted by Miko at 1:58 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


Simply choosing the stock with the highest expected utility is expected to be better than the index, which is full of other stocks that bring the average down. The reason for bundling is not that the bundle gives us a higher expected utility than any individual stock in the bundle: it is to reduce standard deviation. It's to make it so you don't lose your shirt.

Ok, I know we're only using stocks as an analogy, but I think this is wrong: first, if markets are even weakly efficient, then a stock's price is going to contain all the information about expected utility, such that there simply is no "best" stock. Thus, indexing is better because it reduces transaction costs. If we reject the efficient market hypothesis, there *is* a "best stock" but most investors are too irrational to see it. This probably includes you and definitely includes me, and I'm also probably too irrational to pick a good stock picker, which is why indexes are better than actively managed mutual funds.

Right, so that seemed totally irrelevant, but I think I can make the analogy work. For one thing, we're already engaged in indexing when we choose a charity rather than mailing a check to a poor person: if there's a knowable best charity, then there's also a knowable best charitable recipient. But we don't bother trying to figure out who that is, because we're more likely to get it wrong and waste lots of resources on information gathering that could be more efficiently spent spreading the charitable benefits over a large group. Here, we're targeting transaction costs like an index does.

Of course, charities aren't a part of markets, but that actually makes them more like investing rather than less. Like most investors, you can't short-sell a charity. You're always long. That means that when a charity gets oversubscribed, it's possible for it to become a lot less effective, but not be able to switch to the new "best use" for its resources. You write that:

The millionth mosquito net is just as likely to save a life as the first mosquito net. If anything, charities become more efficient the more money they have, so later dollars have increasing marginal utility!

But of course this isn't true! Singer and GiveWell both acknowledge that today's best charities may not be tomorrow's best charities, and we know that only about 50% of the population needs to be mosquito-netted to get almost all of the health effects. So at that point, it's time to redirect the resources to a new cause, from malaria to diarrhea, say, or else new dollars could have no utility at all. If we're constantly analyzing the productivity of a charity, like GiveWell does, we're likely to catch it. They also try to limit their recommendations to the maximum amount of need. But if we're sitting back and receiving the reassuring development letters from the charities' staff, we're likely to irrationally remain committed to the "less-than-best charity" for long after our donations have stopped having the optimal utility.

Perhaps my "index" approach is also a little bit lazy: I don't want to be constantly analyzing stocks, and I don't want to be constantly analyzing charities. One brand of indexing would then just to be your method: give to GiveWell, and let them direct the cash. If this has added benefits, like helping to direct other money to the "best use," that's a bonus, like an act of arbitrage that makes markets more efficient and also makes a profit. But since I'm not a good mutual fund picker, there's also the possibility that I'm not a good meta-charity picker. In this, again, I might be better off giving to a more respected charity like Oxfam with the risk of lower returns because I have information about my own biases in selection, and I know not to trust myself when somebody hits me with the charts and graphs and "smartest guys in the room" palaver.
posted by anotherpanacea at 2:09 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


There are neat issues here about the difference between reasoning under uncertainty and reasoning under ignorance (I think Keynes came up with the distinction). Reasoning under uncertainty occurs when you only have probabilities to go by; reasoning under ignorance happens when you don't even know what your subjective probabilities are, or don't have any. I'm in the camp that thinks there's nothing special about reasoning under ignorance. Because we have tacit degrees of confidence that we can pull out of ourselves by introspecting about what we'd be willing to bet on various outcomes, e.g., there's just reasoning under uncertainty.

I just saw this. This is the problem, in a nutshell. I'm really looking to invoke the principle of insufficient reason, here. Among a set of generally well-regarded charities, even if there is a charity that will turn out to have been the best in hindsight, we should at least consider the possibility of simply weighting a batch of them all equally given present information. Though we may have some priors about which ones are likely to be better, I think in many cases we should treat these as "uninformative priors" I know from past experience that my priors may be worse than a coin-flip, so I should simply assign uniformly equal weight to each of them.
posted by anotherpanacea at 2:18 PM on April 27, 2011


I'm not sure how many different ways I can present the argument against a "best charity" concept, but I'm reasonably sure it's not a factually incorrect argument, and also that it's not a morally incorrect one, either, except when judged from one specific stance.

I try not to foist meta-ethics on folks, but I think you might like to look at moral particularism. Here's Jonathan Dancy discussing it with Craig Ferguson, which is pretty much the best introduction you'll find on the internet. (Starts at 1:31) Here's the SEP entry on Moral Particularism. It seems to me that this is the view you're espousing.

I have some reservations about this view, but many very smart people have been to advancing it, including Martha Nussbaum, whose work on development has been super-helpful to my own thinking about charitable giving! So since you seem to be game for digging into the meta-ethics on these issues, pehaps you willl enjoy those links.
posted by anotherpanacea at 2:53 PM on April 27, 2011


Though that kind of writing wears out my brain fast - I don't bring a very learned background to discussions of philosophy - I agree that I seemed to have stumbled along through life into something very much like that view. Interesting stuff, thanks.

But even if that does describe my view, I think there's a separate point to be made in that I don't even need to argue for myself that this is the appropriate approach to moral questions. What I think is more important at the empirical level is to point out that, in fact, probably 80% at least of donors think this way. I come from a behavioral point of view that emphasizes recognition that most people have zero patience for the sort of discussion taking place here and are making more personal and intuitive decisions.

Quite pragmatically, if we want to increase the frequency and value of donations, we need to know how and why people donate, not whether or not it's right or wrong under this or that system of moral reasoning to donate and to what kind of charity. To me, that's a separate discussion. And if you want to change the way people donate to be more philosophically based, that's even a third discussion: how do you do this donor education, how successful is it, and with what audiences is it likely to be effective, and with what audiences is it likely to fail? And finally, I think you have to accept that no matter what you do, not everyone is going to donate all of their disposable income to a few global lifesaving charities. Very, very few people if any are ever going to do this, even if you are rhetorically successful in every way. And ultimately, giving might not even be the best way to solve the pertinent problems.
posted by Miko at 9:08 PM on April 27, 2011


Man, I was really hating this thread when it was full of self-righteousness and swears and people claiming that I couldn't possibly know any ethicists who support GiveWell, but I've gotta say that it's become awesome. Lots of interesting things to think about all around.

I think I should yield to you guys on the point about charitable donations having increasing marginal value, but I'm still personally undecided. Obviously there will be some point when a charity is so overfunded that the marginal utility of a dollar goes down, but just given that charities have start-up costs, there is also a period when it will have increasing marginal value. (For instance, a charity gets enough money to buy another truck and bam! suddenly each mosquito net can be delivered more efficiently and it costs fewer dollars to protect a family.) Maybe it is more likely for donations to small, new charities to have increasing marginal value? Anyway, whether it goes up or it goes down: I'm not sure that an individual donor (other than Bill Gates or someone like him) will ever donate enough in one spate of giving for there to be a significant change in the utility of the first dollar donated and the last dollar donated.

then a stock's price is going to contain all the information about expected utility, such that there simply is no "best" stock. Thus, indexing is better because it reduces transaction costs.


Are you saying that the only benefit to indexing is reduced transaction costs? This benefit wouldn't exist when giving to a portfolio of charities. Transaction costs would be higher, in fact, because there would be multiple transactions. If you weigh a whole bunch of well-run charities equally because of the principle of insufficient reason, you should still just dump all your money into one, because there will be less of a transaction cost, no?

I thought that earlier you were implying that the expected profit from an index is higher than the sum of the expected profits of each stock in it (ignoring transaction costs). I can't see how this would be true. Did I interpret you wrong?

For one thing, we're already engaged in indexing when we choose a charity rather than mailing a check to a poor person: if there's a knowable best charity, then there's also a knowable best charitable recipient.

I agree that it's better to give to a charity instead of individual people in need, but I don't think that giving to a charity means that we're already engaged in indexing (if indexing means diversifying one's portfolio). Why do we donate to charities rather than individual people in need? First, transaction cost is way lower; second, the infrastructure that charities build mean that they can use each dollar more efficiently and hence each dollar represents more utility; third, charities have a lot more knowledge and a lot more evidence about who needs our help than we do: we are essentially using part of our dollar to buy evidence about where the rest of the dollar should go.

I thought the index analogy was meant to show that there's something good about a diversified portfolio. But none of the reasons above have anything to do with diversification. You should give all to the charity you expect to make the best choices for you.

The suggestion about uninformative priors is really cool. It's a neat idea. This is going to get complicated, fast. I need to think about this. The suggestion "Though we may have some priors about which ones are likely to be better, I think in many cases we should treat these as "uninformative priors"" sounds very odd to me. If your prior in charity X being better than Y is higher than your prior in Y being better than X, even just a little, then that means you think X is better; I don't know if it is rational to ignore that. Things get super tricky when you say that we should just treat the priors as uninformative because we have reason to think our priors are no better than coin flips. The other day I was thinking about what Bayesians would say meta-cognitive beliefs about one's priors (I was thinking about cases of delusions where a person knows he is deluded, specifically). It seemed like a super hard topic and I really do not know what to think about it. I haven't really studied this though... maybe there's a well-worked-through literature on the topic.

(I was wrong about the names of the forms of reasoning that I attributed to Keynes, btw. It's not 'reasoning under uncertainty' and 'reasoning under ignorance,' it's 'reasoning under risk' and 'reasoning under uncertainty.')

Quite pragmatically, if we want to increase the frequency and value of donations, we need to know how and why people donate, not whether or not it's right or wrong under this or that system of moral reasoning to donate and to what kind of charity. To me, that's a separate discussion. And if you want to change the way people donate to be more philosophically based, that's even a third discussion: how do you do this donor education, how successful is it, and with what audiences is it likely to be effective, and with what audiences is it likely to fail? And finally, I think you have to accept that no matter what you do, not everyone is going to donate all of their disposable income to a few global lifesaving charities.

Totally agreed.
posted by painquale at 1:20 AM on April 28, 2011


Are you saying that the only benefit to indexing is reduced transaction costs? This benefit wouldn't exist when giving to a portfolio of charities. Transaction costs would be higher, in fact, because there would be multiple transactions.

Well, there are two benefits to indexing on a weak efficient markets model: lower transaction costs, and it properly reflects the impossibility of "alpha" or benefits from supposedly-informed trades. So you're forced to remain agnostic about the best stock. In charitable terms, I'm not sure how this increases transaction costs, except at a place like GiveWell where you're paying for the infrastructure and administrative costs. But GiveWell, being run by hedge-funders, is much more on the active-investing mutual fund model, which basically rejects efficient markets and depends instead on arbitraging the irrationality of other investors. Even on this model, the real concern is that retail investors are no better at picking stocks than we are at picking stock-pickers; similarly, retail donors are no better at picking charities than we are at picking charity-pickers. (Put another way: charity-pickers aren't much better than chance, once you subtract their fees.)

If you weigh a whole bunch of well-run charities equally because of the principle of insufficient reason, you should still just dump all your money into one, because there will be less of a transaction cost, no?

I think this is an interesting suggestion. I have to think about the calculation a little. You're saying choosing at random is better than diversifying: I wonder whether that doesn't turn into a kind of diversification, anyway, since all the retail donors choosing at random would produce the same result as all the retail donors diversifying. But there would be biases in the donors' choices (overinvesting in Africa, for instance) that might be reduced with the selection of the right institutional charity. There are similar problems in the stock market, of course: the herding and stampeding behaviors are what militate against the strong efficient markets hypothesis in the first place.

As you point out, we don't need to worry about the kind of mispricing risks that show up in the stock market, On the other hand, we might worry about undiscovered fraud or unintended consequences, like the arsenic mitigation that increased infant mortality due to increased bacterial infection previously staved off by the arsenic.

we are essentially using part of our dollar to buy evidence about where the rest of the dollar should go.

Yes, exactly. At some point, though, you reach diminishing returns in terms of the evidence-costs versus the marginal utility gains. That's one reason I prefer larger institutions as informal "indexers": administrative/information costs are higher, but smaller as a percentage of total expenditures, while new money is always redirected to the best-informed current needs. That's something Oxfam can do but VillageReach can't.

If your prior in charity X being better than Y is higher than your prior in Y being better than X, even just a little, then that means you think X is better; I don't know if it is rational to ignore that. Things get super tricky when you say that we should just treat the priors as uninformative because we have reason to think our priors are no better than coin flips. The other day I was thinking about what Bayesians would say meta-cognitive beliefs about one's priors (I was thinking about cases of delusions where a person knows he is deluded, specifically).

Apparently assigning uniform probabilities can generate some weird results algorithmically, but it never seems to hamper my ordinary cognition. I'm probably doing it wrong. When Bayesians talk about this, they seem to think we ought to actually let our priors and our "meta-priors" fight it out, discounting priors that lose to others.

I access this problem through implicit racial bias. Faced with two people, one white and one black, I can examine my priors about, say, their trustworthiness or intelligence. But I also know that as a white man my priors are biased by the way my brain processes faces. So in that case, I might prefer to use random selection, because I can't know in advance the effect-size of my bias. That doesn't mean I can't use any other factors, but I should be careful when evaluating close calls.

Phillip Tetlock's work on expertise is very illuminating here: in some fields, the avowed experts actually are no better (and sometimes worse!) than a coin flip. In that case, even the Bayesians would say that you should prefer the coin flip: you have concrete historical evidence of its superiority, just as we have concrete historical evidence of the superiority of index funds to stock picking at the retail investor level.
posted by anotherpanacea at 5:13 AM on April 28, 2011


Why do we donate to charities rather than individual people in need? First, transaction cost is way lower;

I don't think this is true in itself. Processing donations is a lot of work and eats up a certain amount of staff time and cash resources. Donations to a charity have to be opened, reviewed, accepted recorded, sorted, bundled, deposited, tracked for IRS purposes, tracked for donor-recognition and cultivation purposes, and tracked for budgetary purposes. Also, thank-you letters and tax documents are often composed and sent. And finally, most charities make at least an annual fund appeal that involves a large mailing with some designed material to pull in year-end donations. I think there's much more transaction cost in giving to a charity than in giving to a poor individual.
posted by Miko at 7:41 AM on April 28, 2011


I don't think its impractical. My contention is that we tacitly do calculations like this all the time! Whenever you deliberate over anything, or choose one charity over another, you are doing some nascent calculation of this sort. (Or your reasoning process can be modeled this way.) That's just how practical reasoning under uncertainty works. Not having perfect information, and not being perfect calculators, are impediments to our reasoning out the objectively best possible course of action. But they aren't insurmountable barriers...

I think what I mean is something like: the charity that is objectively expected to do best according to the evidence you have and other evidence that is "obviously" relevant and easily obtainable. And yes, this might be unknowable. I guess I'll concede that. If you reason well enough though, you should expect to be somewhat close. We are better than chance at determining outcomes of events, after all.


Okay, but I still don't see how this stuff suggests that GiveWell helps substantially with picking the "best" option for an agnostic giver. We may be able to introspect about how likely we think it is that a certain program will have rare effects and how substantial we guess those effects will be (although you seem to have a lot more confidence than I do that our instincts will be anywhere close to right!)-- but that doesn't seem like what GiveWell is (or should be) doing. Again, it seems to me like at most it can identify places that are poorer choices than others (kind of a perverse incentive for charities to participate, huh?) without being able to tell you anything substantial about how its best picks compare to all of your other options. And while a perfectly rational person should be able to avoid becoming biased against unranked charities, practically speaking I'd suspect that tends to happen, which then raises the question of whether they're doing more harm than good...
posted by EmilyClimbs at 9:59 AM on April 28, 2011


Obviously there will be some point when a charity is so overfunded that the marginal utility of a dollar goes down, but just given that charities have start-up costs, there is also a period when it will have increasing marginal value. (For instance, a charity gets enough money to buy another truck and bam! suddenly each mosquito net can be delivered more efficiently and it costs fewer dollars to protect a family.)

Also, I still think you're thinking really abstractly and idealistically about money translating directly to action with so little friction. It just doesn't happen this way. There are a lot of charities that have managed to cripple themselves with an inflow of new money. If you have to expand too quickly, if you start working in another region where you have fewer connections amongst people in power, if you have cultural and language expertise that doesn't translate to a new setting, if you encounter corruption or bribery or increased risk of embezzlement, if you have to hire a number of new staff and don't give adequate time to vetting and enculturating them into the organization, if you set up too ambitious a set of facilities and can't maintain them over the long hall -- you can create such tremendous lack of utility that the organization might even have to fold, or vastly scale back, or at best, spend some time in reorganization and perhaps enduring a drop in efficacy while learning to manage a jump in order of magnitude. It happens and it's not all that rare of an animal. Some interesting case studies from the arts and culture sector include the Poetry Foundation, which was sent into convulsions by a surprise $200 million gift that shattered the board after giving rise to a lot of cockamamie ideas; . It's all about the management. Outsized donations to a charity unprepared to absorb the donations in a wise way creates inefficiency (that's one of the reasons GiveWell considers the charity's plan for spending any gains and whether it's realistic). But even though the demonstration of a well-though-out spending plan might increase confidence, it's still not a guarantee of increased efficicy for increased dollars, because all these risks increase, too.

Today while considering growth and the impact of large gifts I ran across this great piece about how nonprofits grow and some of the attendant challenges, which discusses some of the problems - and potential diversions and inefficiencies for your donated dollar - which frequently accompany growth:
Many leaders of high-growth nonprofits experienced a pivotal point when they needed to bring in new talent. Typically, there was a strong tension between promoting internal, often program-oriented employees and hiring external candidates with deep experience in areas like marketing or logistics. Introducing new blood into critical roles, though vital, is usually trying.
Also, the article points out that when you begin taking in serious cash, the board will often determine that its fiduciary responsibility is to direct some or much of that cash to increase endowment or investment in order to build greater long-term security and stability for the organization. This can reduce dollars to direct action, as well, but you have to ask the question about whether it's better to ensure that the organization stays around long enough to complete its work or whether it's better to blow all the cash on the need until resources are gone and then fold (extreme ends of a spectrum, but that's the essence of the debate). This decision is arguably ethical, moral, responsible, and increases long-range good, but it doesn't always sit well with front-line crusaders - or dollar maximizers:
When Patrick Lawler arrived at Youth Villages in 1980 as the new chief executive officer, he was just 24 years old. “I’d been a probation officer,” recalls Lawler. “I’d never seen a budget. I didn’t know anything about management. What I knew about was how to take care of tough kids. For my first two or three years, I acted like we were a charity and we had to take in just enough money to pay the bills. Around 1982, one of our board members told me how we had to have margins or we couldn’t run our business. Not a charity, a business. We were running on extremely limited resources and raising money via yard sales, car washes, and garage sales. That board member opened my eyes to a broader future.”
The article also talks about how thought trends can drive growth, but when fashion moves on to another topic, that can mean that income to these organizations starts to decline and that can require scaling services back, as well:
Timing can have a major influence over a nonprofit’s ability to raise money and to grow. Some nonprofits have the good fortune of being founded during a period of heightened interest in their mission. Take environmental and international aid groups, for example. About 70 percent of all U.S. environmental groups over $50 million in size were founded in or after 1970. And about 40 percent of all U.S. international aid groups were founded since 1970. By contrast, only 15 percent of all educational groups and 16 percent of all arts and culture organizations of that size were founded during that period.
I think these things are worth thinking about, and help illustrate why this isn't just a math problem - it's a cultural problem, a human resources problem, a management problem. It's nowhere as simple as more dollars in = more outcomes out. These are the kinds of reasons why I'm not confident the winner-take-all, here-s-the-giant-pot-of-money award is a good approach to charitable contribution. A business plan that looks like a charity has some ideas about how to implement monies recently gained is not the same as an up-close assessment of whether this charity has the management competency, leadership and oversight, and fine-grained understanding of its working area to make that plan as it was written a concrete reality, or give a donor full confidence that pitfalls don't lie ahead.
posted by Miko at 12:29 PM on April 28, 2011


I've been following this whole discussion quietly, and in the end I have to agree with this as the conclusion:

...this isn't just a math problem - it's a cultural problem, a human resources problem, a management problem. It's nowhere as simple as more dollars in = more outcomes out.

You can't just apply theoretical maths and philosophy to the problem of poverty and injustice. You need to look at entire wholistic systems, not abstract efficiency/utility graphs or hypotheticals. And ultimately, as Miko said earlier, private charity is probably not the most efficient way to solve these problems in the first place. Efficiency questions about charities are applying an abstract economic theory that the majority of people don't fit into to a problem that should really be tackled by structural changes in government or industry, or even global social changes.

That is the main reason I don't trust GiveWell - they've wandered into the non-profit area and tried to apply economic rationalist (neo-classical economics? not sure what it's called in the US/UK) principles to it without any idea about whether or not they're the best tool for the job. What's good for stockbrokers and Goldman Sachs isn't necessarily what's good for people who are dying of malaria, but they're unable or unwilling to look beyond their own work experience.
posted by harriet vane at 9:24 PM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


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