Saturday, December 24, 2011


"At this festive season of the year, Mr Scrooge," said the gentleman, taking up a pen, "it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir."

"Are there no prisons?" asked Scrooge.

"Plenty of prisons," said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

"And the Union workhouses?'' demanded Scrooge. "Are they still in operation?''

"They are. Still,'' returned the gentleman, "I wish I could say they were not.''

"The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?'' said Scrooge.

"Both very busy, sir.''

"Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,'' said Scrooge.

"Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,'' returned the gentleman, "a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?''

"Nothing!'' Scrooge replied.

"You wish to be anonymous?''

"I wish to be left alone,'' said Scrooge.  "Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don't make merry myself at Christmas and I can't afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned: they cost enough: and those who are badly off must go there."

"Many can't go there; and many would rather die.''

"If they would rather die,'' said Scrooge, "they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.''

- Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Bieber fever

This time of year, there are a lot of donation asks out there. Charity mailings, food drives, clothing drives, toy drives. I saw a newspaper article urging me to “Cure a child's Bieber fever.” For a second I thought this was some tropical disease, but I was actually supposed to donate Justin Bieber-themed loot to the paper's toy drive.

A lot of these drives aren't even helpful. I've worked or volunteered in some of the places that receive the donations. The women's shelter had a garage overflowing with excess blankets donated by well-meaning people. The food pantry had some nourishing food but also a lot of junk like gravy mix and diet drink powders — things the donors didn't want anymore. Well, the food pantry clients didn't want them either.

If you're done with your coat and there's still use in it, go ahead and give it to a thrift store or coat drive. But if you want to help a child this winter, don't buy canned goods or Justin Bieber posters. Try a mosquito net.

See also: Charities need your money, not your random old food

Friday, December 9, 2011

New recommendations from GiveWell

GiveWell, my favorite charity evaluation site, has published its top-rated charities for the year. Their picks: Against Malaria Foundation and Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (please don't ask me to pronounce that).

They explain their process, so you can see if it makes sense to you.

Interesting that both their choices, like last year's top choice, have less-than-great web design. More proof that a good marketing department does not equal a good charity.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Cold research

I just watched a film of Steven Levitt (co-author of Freakonomics) giving a speech at a charity fundraiser.  He explains his personal connection to the organization - he adopted his daughters from China, and this is a charity that aims to improve Chinese orphanages.

After praising the charity's mission, Levitt asks, "Does it work? It sounds great, it's a nice story, but how do we know it really works?" He goes on to explain he'll be conducting a rigorous academic study of the agency's effectiveness.

I can imagine some people's reactions to that.  "Jeez, these economists.  How can he be so cold?  How can he analyze the effectiveness of comforting orphan babies? Can't he just see that it's a good cause and let it be, especially when it concerns his own child?"

But I'm guessing he's doing this study because the topic is so close to his heart. Yes, it's great that some kids out there are getting a better life. But are we doing the best we can? What if there's a better way to help them? If it were his daughter still in an orphanage, Levitt wouldn't just want well-intentioned help for her.  He would want the best help for her.  And that's exactly why research matters.

For another take on this, see Holden Karnofsky's "Reason versus emotion."

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Does altruism matter?

The other day on the subway, I gave up my seat for an older woman. Afterwards, I thought about why I had done it. Some was out of what you might call altruism, an actual concern that her feet probably hurt more than mine did. Some was to maintain my community as one I want to live in. When I'm pregnant or old, I want people to give me seats, so I'd better do the same for such people now. And some was because I want people to see me as a good person, the kind of person who gives seats to old ladies.

Some people like to analyze whether altruism is real. "Aha," they say, "there's no such thing as pure altruism! You're really doing it out of selfishness!" The woman who got my seat on the subway doesn't care.

You can help other people because you think it's morally right, or because it feels good, or for the tax break, or to impress your friends. The result is the same. Do it for whatever reason works for you.