Is There a Better Way to Give?

Where should you spend your charity dollars if you want it to go to those truly in need?. AzriSuratmin/Shutterstock

We all have our ways of giving. Whether it’s tossing your pocket change into the Salvation Army kettle outside the supermarket, putting a few bucks into the offering plate or ladling out soup at the downtown homeless shelter, altruism lives in all of us.

It’s interesting to consider, though: Are we giving the right way? Are we really getting the most altruistic bang for all those bucks we’re giving away?

“It's really important to use the head as well [as the heart] to make sure that what you do is effective and well-directed,” philosopher Peter Singer told an audience at a TED talk a couple years ago, “and not only that, but also I think reason helps us to understand that other people, wherever they are, are like us, that they can suffer as we can ...”

Singer is a major proponent of a social movement — it is, some say, a philosophy — known as “effective altruism.” The idea is not simply to give until it hurts. The idea is “compassion guided by data and reason,” according to And that concept is centered on one big question:

“Of all the possible ways to make a difference, how can I make the greatest difference?”

The question, of course, is easy to ask; every good-hearted giver should ask it. But the answers that those in the effective altruism movement offer can be a little ground-shaking. For example:

  • Socially conscious movements like Fair Trade USA are well meaning, but they may not be as effective as others. Guiding money away from, say, companies that employ sweatshop-type labor is good; but giving it to help buy anti-malaria nets in Africa is better. "People rightly recognize that sweatshops are absolutely horrific places to work ...,” William MacAskill, who wrote a book entitled “Doing Good Better: Effective Altruism and How You Can Make a Difference,” told, “[b]ut the alternatives are even worse. Things like scavenging from dumps, unemployment, prostitution, street hustling, or back breaking farm labour, often all those things are low pay as well as being horrific.”

The effective altruism movement is not without its detractors. The group’s unfailing reason, guided by social scientists and economists, can be off-putting. They use metrics like disability-adjusted life years (DALYs), as Dylan Matthew points out in this Vox piece, to literally build spreadsheets that effectively pit one charitable organization against another.

Effective altruists concentrate on things such as scale (“How much would the world become a better place?”), tractability (“How easy is it to make progress?”) and neglectedness (“How many resources are already being dedicated?”) to weigh which causes to support.

That seemingly cold-hearted way at looking at something so human enraged the CEO of Charity Navigator, which calls itself a “guide to intelligent giving.” Ken Berger calls effective altruism “defective altruism” in this Stanford Social Innovation Review article, co-written by Robert M. Penna:

"Defective altruism is — by the admission of its proponents — an approach that not only unjustifiably claims the moral high ground in giving decisions, but also implements this bold claim by weighing causes and beneficiaries against one another. In this, it is not moral, but rather, moralistic in the worst sense of the word."

Still, it's important to note this encouraging fact: The National Philanthropic Trust says that Americans gave more than $358 billion to charities in 2014, an average of more than $2,900 per household. That’s more than 7 percent more than Americans gave in 2013 and an all-time high.

In the end, then, all the discussion, all the arguing, all the scholarly posturing on how to give and who to give to is good. Because even if we disagree, we’re still giving. And we’re all better off for it.