Sunday, December 30, 2012

A few more things

I was interested to see this end-of-year charity contest: you tell how you would allocate money between GiveWell's top charities, and they donate based on the responses they get.  They'll be donating based on votes they get by January 15th.

The site, A Path That's Clear, does some interesting games and discussions on decision-making about giving.

And, for your end-of-2012-tax-year edification, the Freakonomics take on how to donate.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Updates

Charity recommendations
My favorite charity evaluator, GiveWell, has announced its recommended charities for the year.

Last year's picks, Against Malaria Foundation (AMF) and the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI), are still highly recommended.  AMF primarily distributes insecticide-treated bednets in the developing world to prevent malaria.  SCI provides medication for tropical diseases, mostly parasitic infections, to children in Africa.

The newcomer this year is Give Directly, which makes unconditional cash grants to poor people in Kenya.  It seems to have two advantages: in a field where it's often hard to tell what charities are doing with your donation, it's clear that Give Directly is giving out the cash.  Also, if you value charity recipients' ability to choose what will most help themselves and their families, Give Directly is especially well suited to that.

The downside to Give Directly is that it's not clear what benefit comes of the cash transfers.  There's evidence that people eat more food for a while after receiving the money, but any long-term effects are unclear.  It sounds like GiveWell is planning to write more about why they chose this intervention, so I'll be interested to see what they have to say.

I think that donating to GiveWell's recommended charities has a benefit beyond the work they will do with your donation this year.  It rewards organizations that can demonstrate their work is effective, which gives other charities an incentive to demonstrate and improve their effectiveness.  I believe in data, and I believe that being more evidence-based will improve the work done by any charity.

Job openings
Giving What We Can, 80,000 Hours, The Life You Can Save, and Effective Animal Activism are all hiring.  Details here.  GiveWell is also hiring researchers.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

False sense of poverty

I'm a social worker in a jail. Today one of the inmates showed an untrained but intricate drawing to my colleague.

"This is amazing," she said. "Do you ever go to galleries to look at art?"

"I never had no money for that kind of stuff," he told her.

Later she vented her frustration: "There are so many free galleries he could have been going to! There are passes from the public library. If only he had known! But poor people just don't find out about these things."

I love museums, and I almost never pay to go inside them. I love books, and I can have almost any book for free through the library request system. There are more free events in this city than I could possibly attend.

These are some of the things that make my life rich. Even on a small budget, you needn't have an impoverished life.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Ways to learn

Last time, I argued that those of us in rich countries can help more by earning money to give than by traveling to poor countries. But what about the understanding you can get from first-hand experience?

Travel is always a learning experience. It's a good way to see things about your own society that you never noticed until you saw a system that worked differently. It's a way to meet people whose lives have been very different from your own.

But most of my learning from living in other countries (Denmark and Ecuador) came from talking to people who had lived there all their lives. Conversations with my host families and teachers there were more illuminating than what I was able to observe walking around the streets. If you're in a place for a few weeks or months, you spend a lot of time getting your bearings. Unless you're going to spend years in a place, most of your learning will be mediated through people who have lived there a long time. And you don't need to leave your home country to meet people from around the world.

Several times when I've been between jobs, I've volunteered for a few weeks at a refugee services organization. I didn't accomplish anything earth-shattering, but I got to know people from places I had only read about: Nepal, Cuba, Ethiopia, Haiti, Somalia.

Instead of statistics, they became real people to me. I admired their bravery, their humor, their work ethic, and their loyalty to their families. When you listen to other people's life stories you get things through their filter, but when you hear enough stories you can piece together a complex picture.

Sometimes I hear “armchair philanthropists” criticized for not getting out there and seeing the situations they are trying to change. But you don't need to go to a refugee camp to hear someone's experience of what it's like there. If you want to meet people from hard-hit places, there are certainly immigrants living in your town.

For that matter, there are hard-hit people who are from your town. As a social worker I meet people who have been through appalling deprivation just miles from my house. But the elements I see missing in my client's lives are usually related to parenting rather than material resources.

Learning about people's experiences doesn't always mean I can help. Learning about what life is like in a Quito orphanage, Kenyan refugee camp, or South Boston doesn't enable me to fix any of it. Civil war and broken families are not problems that I can make much of a dent in. So I focus my donations on lower-hanging fruit.

But I still think there's value in learning from other people's experiences. Sitting down to talk with people from the other side of the tracks or the other side of the world can help us be more aware, more compassionate people.

In your town, there are refugees and immigrants who want to learn more English. There are kids at homeless shelters who want someone to read to them. There are people who want help writing a resume so they can apply for jobs. If you want to see a different side of life, try working with them for a while. No plane tickets needed.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Getting your hands dirty

I was talking to a friend about ways to help the world, and he said something that surprised me: “I sometimes feel guilty about doing little more than donating money to charities without actually getting my hands dirty.”

Actually, I don't think he should feel guilty at all.

If I moved to a poor country to do good deeds, pretty much anything I would do there would be better done by a local person. I would need to learn the local language(s), learn how to function in a new culture, and learn skills that would be useful there.

If you're a nurse, and you think Africa needs more nurses, the answer is not to go to Africa and work as a nurse. Nurses in Kenya earn around $3,000 a year. If you're an American nurse earning $65,000 a year, you could fund thirteen Kenyan nurses and still keep above the US median income. Plus those nurses would be familiar with local culture and language rather than being known as “that nice foreigner who speaks such terrible Swahili.”

The idea that you should help in person is perpetuated by programs like the Peace Corps. (I came within an inch of going to Kazakhstan for two years with them, and in retrospect I think I did a lot more good by staying home and earning money to give.) I do think Peace Corps and similar programs have a positive impact, but it's mostly in the form of cultural exchange and understanding rather than actual development work.

Now, things are different if you have very specific skills. If you're an expert in, say, microfinance or running small rural health clinics, you might be very valuable working in the field. But the rest of us can probably help more by staying home and doing what we do best.  Most jobs will provide us with enough money to live comfortably and still fund good work elsewhere.

Of course, there's value to cultural exchange and hands-on experience, too. Are we doomed to be armchair philanthropists who are clueless about the real needs of people we're trying to help? Hardly. More on that next time.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The lives of children

As a social worker, I hear a lot of stories. Yesterday I sat with a man who told me about the death of his young daughter fifteen years ago. "She died in my hands. I still have flashbacks from those days in the hospital." He stared at his hands, cupping them as though he still held her.  Fifteen years later, the pain was still very real.

I, like many others, tend to use children as examples of the life we can save. I think children represent hope and potential, and we instinctively want to protect them. But there's also a more logical reason: children's lives are easier to protect.

Some of the best health intervention charities (like Against Malaria Foundation and Schistosomiasis Control Initiative) focus on children. Malaria can make anyone sick, but it's most likely to kill children under 5. Children are also more vulnerable to parasitic infections.  Luckily, these things are easy to prevent or treat - much easier than cancer or heart disease, which mostly affect adults.  And because the first five years are the most dangerous, a child who makes it to his fifth birthday is likely to live to see 60, even in poor countries.

When someone dies, I think the worst cost is borne by the survivors. When a child dies at age three, she loses the potential of her life, but her pain is over. But for her parents, the loss lasts the rest of their lives. In most cases, I think the loss of an old person doesn't hurt us as much as the loss of a child.  It is the loss of the future that hurts so much, the loss of someone who was supposed to outlive you.

When I think about saving children's lives, I mostly think about their parents. I think about people like that father, staring at his empty hands.

His child is gone, but there are others we can save.  And it's not just their lives that are spared, but the lives of everyone who loves them.


Photo credit: Ravages / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Ugh fields and big problems

One of my favorite concepts from the Less Wrong blog is the "ugh field," coined by Jennifer Rodriguez-Müller. The idea: if you hate washing the dishes, not only do you leave the dishes unwashed, but you hate thinking about the mounting pile of dirty dishes. The more you dislike thinking about the dishes, you harder you try not to think about them at all. In other words, there's an ugh field around the dishes. (In psychology this would be called some kind of defense mechanism, probably denial or thought suppression. But I find "ugh field" so much more descriptive.)

This summer I wanted to learn to play the banjo. In the past, I've quickly lost momentum when trying to learn an instrument. My husband plays about six instruments, so I've used his method for painless musicianship:

- Keep the instrument in plain view where it's easy to pick up for a few minutes in between other activities.

- No scales, exercises, or anything you don't enjoy.

- Spend time fooling around with the instrument, playing whatever you want.

I realize that most of the best musicians do practice scales, etc., but that requires more discipline than I was willing to put into this project. Using Jeff's method means I don't have an ugh field around practice, so I've made decent progress with the banjo this summer.

When a task seems insurmountable, we're less likely to attempt it at all. I think all of us have an ugh field around the fact that there are more problems in the world than we can possibly solve. I don't think our minds can really comprehend that, even if we tried. And most so most people build a very strong ugh field around the topic.

I think it's worthwhile to chip off bits that are more manageable. I can't become a banjo expert this week, nor can I fix the Sahel food crisis. But I can decide that before I go to bed tonight, I'll put in twenty minutes. Maybe I'll read up on different charities, or maybe I'll write an email to a friend about a cause I think is important. If I keep the plan manageable, I'm more likely to actually do it.

I'll go to bed knowing I didn't do everything, but I did something. And that will make it easier to do something else tomorrow.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Upcoming events

The High Impact Network (THINK) is a new group that organizes meetups for people interested in effective altruism. They've got meetups happening this fall in dozens of cities - find out if there's one near you.

Giving What We Can is running groups in several cities this fall. Jeez, those Oxford people are on a roll.

I believe 80,000 Hours will also be running some groups this fall, but they don't have details up yet. The Life You Can Save is looking for leaders for new student groups.

Lastly, Jeff and I are having a dinner/discussion on effective giving September 14th at our house. If you'll be in Boston, let me know.

I've said this before, but I'm totally happy to talk/email/skype with you. Some key people did that for me when I was discovering this movement, and it really made a difference to me. Questions? Arguments? Go for it. juliawise07(at)gmail.com

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Always with you

I don't use religious texts as a basis for making decisions, but I recognize that a lot of people do.

I've heard some of them cite Matthew 26:11 as a reason for not giving. Days before Jesus' execuation, a woman pours expensive perfume on him, and Judas complains that the perfume could have been sold to raise money for the poor. Jesus answers,

The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.

Today I learned that this, like many of Jesus' sayings, was a reference to the Torah. Jesus and his audience would have been familiar with the full Deuteronomy passage:

There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.

Not quite the "don't bother helping the poor" message the Matthew passage is often used to further.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Rooting for your home team

There's a gap between charity evaluators and charity workers. Look at any article on effective charity, and you're likely to see responses from NGO staff voicing their frustration with the evaluation methods:

"You don't understand how hard it is to persuade donors to fund evaluation."

"We're reaching a population that no one else is reaching."

"The type of work we do just isn't measurable by randomized controlled trials."

"It's hard for really small organizations to get noticed."

The thing that worries me about these responses is that it's hard to be objective about your own project. I've been there. When I worked for a nonprofit doing global development and relief work, I was rooting for them. I knew their values, I knew their staff, and I loved both. You see this in devoted donors, too - once you've helped with a project, you want to see it continue. It's only natural, once you feel like part of the group.

But which charity you support is not the point. The point is to help people who need help. Right? That's why we're doing this, remember?

The flaws in any evaluation (and there will be flaws) are bad not because they shortchange charities, but because they shortchange the people who should be getting better help. The question we should be asking is not, "Is the evaluation fair to these organizations?" but "How can donors help the most?"

My home team isn't in an office in Boston. My home team is in a village somewhere. I'm rooting for them.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Letting myself care

Recently I was talking with friends about what role emotion should play in giving decisions.  Some said we shouldn't let emotions muddle our thinking.

"But I want to have an emotional connection to the people I help," another said. I found myself agreeing with both sides.

We're emotional creatures (some more than others).   Personally, I'm pretty high on the bleeding-heart scale.  One thing I loved about Oxfam is that they do a great job documenting their work in articles and photography, so I could feel really connected to the people they work with.  I put their pictures on my wall.  I wanted to see their faces.

Of course,  I don't want to choose a cause based on how emotionally connected I already am to it.  I don't want to pass up an excellent opportunity to help because I felt more  pulled to a less effective cause.  When it comes to choosing a cause, I want to act based on information, not sentiment. At the end of the year I'll reevaluate which charities to support, and I don't want to be muddled when I do that.

But once I've chosen a cause, I give myself permission to fall in love with it.  What I care about, after all, is not the cause itself but the human lives at stake.  (For you, it might be animal lives as well, or the lives of people not yet born.  But you get the idea.)  So I look for a way to connect.


Against Malaria Foundation posts photos of most of its bednet distributions.  It's a way to document that they're doing what they say they are - but for me, it's also a chance to see the human face of the work they do.  The work I help them do.


Seeing her face is a way of overcoming the blind chance that put me in the US and her in Mali.  It's a way of making us neighbors.

It's hard to feel warm and fuzzy about our donations going to dozens of distribution points around the world. We didn't evolve to feel an emotional glow about numbers. It can feel like we're sending money into some kind of oblivion. It's hard to feel motivated about that.

That's why I imagine it going to her.  I imagine how glad her family will be to see her reach her eighth birthday, eleventh birthday, twentieth birthday.  I imagine all the things she can do now that she's not sick.  That kind of glow is what my heart was made for.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

What I learned

I think one reason people want to help locally, and to do something hands-on rather than just writing a check, is that they want to see the situation first-hand. I can see the appeal of this.

I'm finishing up my visit to Ecuador. I wanted to experience a developing country, and to some extent I have. I've seen kids begging in the streets. I've seen people with deformities that probably would have been corrected in the US. I see how nothing is wasted here. Yesterday my host family curiously asked me if it's true that in America we throw out things that are still good. I confessed that it was.

And yet I'm not sure that this experience has changed my goals or how I think about philanthropy. Yes, it hit me in the gut the first time I saw a child begging on the street at night, when I saw her playing with broken glass for lack of any other toy.

But I pretty already much knew that poverty sucks, and that I want to do something about that. My donations won't go to help that girl, because the best organizations I know of don't work in Ecuador. But they will help other people who had the bad luck to be born with few resources.

Some people are more driven by emotion and first-hand experience than others. If you're one of those people, maybe it would make sense to go see the work you think is important. Charities are very happy to tell you about what they're doing, and if you want to pay your own way, you could probably visit their field sites.

I'm affected by the poverty I see here, and for that matter, by the problems I see at home in Boston. But for every person I see who tugs at my heart, there are millions more I don't see. I feel I owe it to them to give the best help I can. Which means giving based on the best research I can find, not who I happened to see.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

When is your help special?

I've heard the argument that we should “think globally, act locally” because we understand the needs of our own communities best. I'm willing to accept this for some situations.

I think it boils down to where your special help would be useful. If you pass a car accident, yes, your your physical presence means you have a unique ability to help.

Likewise, when it comes to personal interactions, people are not interchangeable. Getting a card or letter from a stranger is not so comforting as hearing from someone you love. We evolved to interact with people we know in real life, and this still satisfies us more than some abstract kindness from a stranger.

So recognize the areas where you can be uniquely helpful: being kind with your family and friends. Sudden emergencies where you are physically present. Being a good neighbor.

But here's where I think people go askew with this logic: they feel that financial help should also work this way. After all, don't I understand the needs in my own community better than anyone? So I should fund projects in my own community, and other people should take care of theirs.

But rich people live in communities with other rich people, and poor people live near poor people. Your average American probably has several relatives or neighbors who have a few thousand dollars in their bank accounts. Your average Liberian does not know any such people. When both rich and poor people give in their own communities, the opera gets a lot more funding than the maternal health clinic in Liberia.

Of course, lots of first-worlders have given misguided aid because they misunderstood the needs of people in other countries. But you can misunderstand the needs even in your own community.

I'm in Quito, Ecuador right now, and several of my fellow travelers have been volunteering at a local orphanage. The place is in bad shape, and you can't see the kids without wanting to do something. So some Americans decided to raise money for the orphanage from their friends at home. After all, they had played with the kids, seen the need.

Except it turned out the reason the place was falling to pieces was that the owner was embezzling money. That money would probably never have reached the kids. Americans weren't alone in being duped by this guy. Every Christmas he had a big fundraiser and lots of Ecuadorans gave money, clothes, and toys. The locals were just as misinformed, despite it being in their own community, because they hadn't looked at the financials.

I saw a lot of misguided community help the summer I worked in a domestic violence shelter. We had a garage overflowing with blankets, because people had this idea that battered women need blankets. What they actually needed was a child's car seat. The fact that donors were local didn't give them special insider knowledge about the women's needs. It would have been better for them to donate cash so that we could use it for what was most needed (the car seat).

There are good and bad charities working in all parts of the world. Find ones that will use your money well, and that are doing important work. (And if you live in a rich part of the world, the greatest need probably isn't local.) Then donate money, which will help more than your blankets, old clothes, or volunteering.

And then, if you want, find someone you love and give them the hug or the kind word that only you can give.

Friday, June 8, 2012

The way it was

In thinking about problems that currently affect developing nations, I try to remember that the US was a developing nation not so long ago.

Malaria once plagued the American south and Midwest. It's the reason English colonists abandoned the Jamestown, Virginia settlement for somewhere with fewer mosquitoes. In 1946, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) were formed to fight malaria. Five years later, malaria was eliminated from the United States.

In her memoir Little House on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder describes her family's experience with the disease in Kansas in 1870:

Laura tried to get up, but she was too tired. Then she saw Ma's red face looking over the edge of the bed. Mary was all the time crying for water. Ma looked at Mary and then she looked at Laura, and she whispered, "Laura, can you?"

"Yes, Ma," Laura said. This time she got out of bed. But when she tried to stand up, the floor rocked and she fell down. . . . She knew she must get water to stop Mary's crying, and she did. She crawled all the way across the floor to the water-bucket. There was only a little water in it. She shook so with cold that she could hardly get hold of the dipper. But she did get hold of it. She dipped up some water, and she set out to cross that enormous floor again. 


It drives me crazy when people in rich countries hesitate to address developing world health for fear of "overpopulation" or "environmental impacts." Do they wish that for their own families? Do they feel they have too many siblings, too many cousins, and we really ought to get some contaminated water or intestinal parasites in here to deal with the problem? Do they wish we hadn't eliminated malaria from the US?

No one wants that for their family. We want low child mortality and reasonable family size. Developed nations made that transition, but it took a while.

Hans Rosling does an excellent job at making public health statistics understandable to non-statisticians. I recommend his talk on "The good news of the decade”, especially for its comparison of child mortality rates across nations (at 8:40). Rosling notes that his home country of Sweden had a high child mortality rate in 1800, twice as high as anywhere now. Over time, with better education and better public health, the rate declined to its current low level. Most countries are currently on this journey of decreasing family size and child mortality, many of them progressing faster than Western countries ever did. (The site Gapminder lets you play with the charts yourself.)

While it's clear that large family size is correlated with child mortality, I'm not as convinced as Rosling is that lower child mortality is the main cause of smaller families. I gather it's a combination of fewer child deaths, female education, access to birth control, and urbanization.

The Ingalls family were typical 19th-century Americans – they had five children, one of whom died in infancy and one of whom went blind from a fever. I come from a typical 20th-century American family with two children, both still alive and healthy. I'm thrilled we made this demographic transition. My hometown no longer has malaria. I'm educated, I drink clean water, and I control my own fertility. When I choose, I will raise one or two children who will probably also be quite healthy.

We've come a long way.  Now I want this life for everyone.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The sweet spot

Jeff and I are traveling in Ecuador, and this weekend we visited the small town of Mindo. Saturday evening I watched these kids playing with some pieces of wood:


At first I was surprised to see them so apparently happy, because these kids are poor by my standards. I think this is part of what makes people throw up their hands at the idea of redistributing anything worldwide. How can every child in the world live like first-world children, with a Tickle Me Elmo, a bedroom in a big house, and a seat in an SUV?

They can't. There is not enough space, not enough fuel, not enough raw material in the world for every child to live like rich children. Nor for all adults to live like American adults.

But an American standard of living is not necessary for happiness. Despite having higher incomes and higher consumption of goods, Americans aren't as satisfied with their lives as Danes or Costa Ricans (source). That's probably because we're behind in some other things that help us be happy, like social connection. And if everybody consumed at the level of Americans, the planet would be trashed.

One model of global well-being I've seen is a "doughnut" - the sweet spot where people's needs are met but they're not burning through too many natural resources. And it occurs to me that these Ecuadoran kids are probably somewhere in that doughnut. Their house, like most in Mindo, was simply made from cement, wood, and corrugated metal. It has running water and a gas stove. Their town has a health center, a school, and a paved road going to the city. The kids looked healthy and cared-for, and they were clearly having a great time until it started raining and the grownups made them come inside.

I don't know much about these kids' lives, and I don't want to idealize them. I don't know how much education they'll get, or how safe their water is, or what opportunities there are for them in this small town. But I don't think people need to live like Americans to be happy.  Personally, I try not to live like a typical American.

I think it's possible to hit that sweet spot where our needs – health, safety, useful work, good relationships, a functioning society – are met.  Where we can enjoy our lives because we're not distracted by hunger or fear or sickness.  That's the kind of world I'm aiming for.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

An SEP

(In which my dislike of blog posts consisting of pointed quotations is overcome by my love of Douglas Adams.)

"I think," said Ford in a tone of voice which Arthur by now recognized as one which presaged something utterly unintelligible, "that there's an SEP over there." . . . .

Arthur experienced that dull throbbing sensation just behind the temples which was a hallmark of so many of his conversations with Ford. His brain lurked like a frightened puppy in its kennel. Ford took him by the arm.

"An SEP," he said, "is something that we can't see, or don't see, or our brain doesn't let us see, because we think that it's somebody else's problem. That's what SEP means. Somebody Else's Problem. The brain just edits it out, it's like a blind spot. If you look at it directly you won't see it unless you know precisely what it is. Your only hope is to catch it by surprise out of the corner of your eye."

"Ah," said Arthur, "then that's why ..."

"Yes," said Ford, who knew what Arthur was going to say.

"... you've been jumping up and ..."

"Yes."

"... down, and blinking ..."

"Yes." . . . .

The ultra-famous sciento-magician Effrafax of Wug once bet his life that, given a year, he could render the great megamountain Magramal entirely invisible.

Having spent most of the year jiggling around with immense Lux-O-Valves and Refracto-Nullifiers and Spectrum-Bypass-O-Matics, he realized, with nine hours to go, that he wasn't going to make it.

So, he and his friends, and his friends' friends, and his friends' friends' friends, and his friends' friends' friends' friends, and some rather less good friends of theirs who happened to own a major stellar trucking company, put in what now is widely recognized as being the hardest night's work in history, and, sure enough, on the following day, Magramal was no longer visible. Effrafax lost his bet - and therefore his life - simply because some pedantic adjudicating official noticed (a) that when walking around the area that Magramal ought to be he didn't trip over or break his nose on anything, and (b) a suspicious-looking extra moon.

The Somebody Else's Problem field is much simpler and more effective, and what's more can be run for over a hundred years on a single torch battery. This is because it relies on people's natural disposition not to see anything they don't want to, weren't expecting, or can't explain. If Effrafax had painted the mountain pink and erected a cheap and simple Somebody Else's Problem field on it, then people would have walked past the mountain, round it, even over it, and simply never have noticed that the thing was there.

- Douglas Adams, Life, the Universe, and Everything

Thursday, May 3, 2012

This little light

Several times I've heard Matthew 6:2-4 used as an explanation for why talking about giving is bad:

Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. . . . But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.

I prefer a different line from the same sermon, Matthew 5:15:

Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.

Of course, neither I nor most of the people I hear referring to these verses are exactly Bible-thumpers. But it goes to show: talking about money has been awkward for a very long time.

I try to talk about it, though, because I figure saving lives is worth looking foolish. I'm aware of bystander effect, a classic of psychology research. If you stage an emergency – say, a person choking – a test subject will usually rush to help. But if a test subject is standing in a crowd of people not helping, the subject hesitates. Often they don't help at all.

Recently in a class session on writing budgets, my professor asked the class what our personal relationship with money was like. People started tentatively calling out: “In denial.” “Scared.” “I'm gonna be in debt for a long time.” The woman in the front row who's always ranting about capitalism made some comment about how money twisting us all in its evil grasp.

I said, “But money can be a tool to do you things you care about. My husband and I give away about thirty percent of our income. It works well for us.”

For a second or two there was silence. Then capitalism-rant woman turned around and said, “Wait, you give away thirty percent of your money?”

“Yeah, about that much,” I said. She blinked and turned back to the front of the room. And that was it. The lesson continued.

I felt a bit like a jerk. I know Jeff and I have a higher household income than most of my classmates in social work school. But most of them also have expenses – cars, houses, fancy weddings – that we choose not to have. We live well below our means, and that means we have no debt. We don't worry about money. We keep our needs small, with the result that we have plenty left over for things we care about more than extra bedrooms.

Maybe I just established myself as a show-off or a nutcase, but maybe I planted a seed.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Just like me

For a school project, I'm helping a local mental health center apply for a grant. In looking through grants, I was struck by how many of them are for very specific demographics.

This foundation only funds projects in the northeastern US. That one only funds projects that serve people with paralysis. Why so specific? Because the founders were from those demographics. They wanted to help people like them. A lot of charitable giving works this way. Disease foundations do major fundraising from people with that illness and from their relatives.

Now, I can see how this problem selection makes sense if you're doing some kind of direct service. If I were going to a support group, I would want help from someone who had been in my situation. But the nice thing about money is that it works the same no matter who gives it. You don't have to have personally experienced another person's affliction to help ease it.

I had epilepsy as a child. When I hear about a kid with epilepsy, I do feel that squeeze of recognition, the memory of what it was like for me. I'm sure the Epilepsy Foundation would love to get my donation to help "people like me".

But I'd like to see a redefinition of who is "like me."

I've never starved, never experienced chronic pain, never watched people die around me. I can't know exactly what it feels like to have those experiences, but I have a guess. It sucks that other people are sick or hungry or oppressed, like it sucked for me to have epilepsy.

When I give, I want to help people like me. People with human loves, dreams, and hurts. We don't have to have the same problems. We're still kin.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The budget

I talk a lot about deciding how much to give, but I want to make it a bit more concrete. I know it's weird to lay your finances before the world, but I think it's helpful to get a feel for what a high-donation life might be like.

Since finishing college, my husband and I have been giving somewhere around 1/3 to 1/2 our income. For the past two years I've been in grad school earning nothing, so donations haven't been on our usual schedule. We've also been in a variety of living arrangements (our own apartment, a large apartment we shared with another couple, and currently living with Jeff's family).

I want to show you numbers from 2009, because it was a year we were both in paid jobs and living in our own apartment. Jeff was a computer programmer and I was an administrative assistant at a nonprofit. Our combined income was around $95K. We were 24 and 25 years old.



“Saving” was Jeff's retirement fund and my grad school fund.

“Allowance” is discretionary spending money, $38 a week for each of us. This covers clothes, shoes, meals out, gifts for other people, hobbies, phones, computers, and entertainment. It also covers feel-good donations. Having separate allowances works well for us because it avoids the argument about "You spent how much on sound equipment?" or "You already have enough shoes!"

Housing was a studio apartment in Cambridge, MA. Rent was $1,100 a month, utilities included. It was small but pleasant:



Some things that helped keep costs down:

We had no car. We chose an apartment near train, bus, and subway lines that took us almost everywhere we wanted to go. The apartment (and living in an urban area) cost more than housing in a less transit-friendly location, but the increase in cost was much less than a car.

At the time, we had one cell phone. It was part of Julia's parents' plan and cost about $15 a month.

Jeff's work paid most of our health insurance costs. We weren't sick, so there weren't a lot of copays.

Food was groceries, not eating out. Occasional meals out came from allowance.

Some things are different now: We've been giving less because I've been in school and not earning money. Our expenses are lower because we're living with Jeff's parents for a while. But our general spending pattern is the same.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Objections to giving

These are arguments I've heard against giving, or against the type of giving I do.

“I have no obligation to solve other people's problems.”

I don't know exactly what to say to this. I don't think there's a report card in life where someone will eventually grade me and check off the “helped others” box. I don't go around thinking everyone around me is a bad person for not giving all their money away. But I do think that if they gave more, or gave more wisely, the world would be a better place. (If you want to get into philosophy jargon, it's because I'm a consequentialist and not a deontologist. I think it's because I'm a social worker and we focus on solutions, not blame.)

So I guess this is true: I don't consider giving a mandate, but rather an option. A really, really good option that will greatly improve other people's lives at a low cost to you.

“Aid just hurts poor countries.”

This is only partly true. Yes, there has been a lot of bad aid out there – aid that amounted to buying food from Western farmers and shipping it to places where it would put poor farmers out of business. Or tying aid to lots of rules about what countries had to do in exchange. Or as Cold War political leverage, or a way to unload useless goods and get a tax break.

We can obviously do better than that. Rich countries need to reform their aid policies, and individual donors like us can make better choices.

"My tax money is already going to foreign aid."

Well, depends on where you live. If you're Swedish, congratulations - your country tops the charts by donating over 1% of its gross national income. The US is down there with 0.21%. Twenty-one cents for every $100 earned is not my idea of generous.

The way the US allots our foreign aid money is pretty ridiculous. The top receiver of US aid is Afghanistan, which seems legit as the place really could use some development. But the next biggest receivers are Israel ($2.2 billion, highly developed), Pakistan ($1.5 billion, somewhat developed), and Egypt ($1.3 billion, somewhat developed). Israel has half the population of Mali (a desperately poor country) and gets 20 times the aid money. In other words, if you're poor and politically unimportant, you're out of luck.

"So much aid goes to corruption."

This is an undeniable problem. A lot of aid money has gone astray, and some has probably made things worse. It's part of why I look for transparency in a charity. One benefit to relatively small, single-issue charities like the ones GiveWell recommends is that it's clearer what your money is going for.

“Saving lives will lead to environmental destruction from all those extra people.”

The easiest lives to save are in developing countries. For example, Against Malaria Foundation gives out more nets in Malawi than any other country. Your average Malawian produces .7 tons of carbon annually. Your average American produces 28.6 tons annually – that's 40 times the carbon output of a Malawian. Yet I've never heard anyone carry this concern to its logical end and advocate letting Americans die to reduce our carbon footprint.

Almost 10 tons of the American's carbon output is from manufactured goods and transportation. If you want to reduce environmental damage, you could buy less stuff and drive less, and use the money you save to save the lives of people in countries with very low carbon footprints. Win.

“Saving children now will just lead to overpopulation, food shortages, and more suffering later.”

The global trend is that a lower child mortality rate goes hand-in-hand with a lower birthrate. Correlation is not causation, so if the two changes happen at the same time we can't be sure the lower birthrate didn't cause lower child mortality somehow. Or maybe something else caused both of these changes. But there are factors that appear to really decrease birthrates and increase people's ability to feed themselves. Those are things like female literacy, better access to contraception, and better farming methods.

In the end, if you think overpopulation is the greatest problem, there are charities out there doing that work. Funding them would be better than sitting around complaining!

“There's some more pressing problem (climate change, existential risk, etc.)”

Again, if you've done your homework and you think that's the best use of donations, go for it.

I don't think most of these reasons are people's real objections. I think the real objection is usually "it seems hard." And I am here to tell you: it's not that hard.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Tradeoffs

Economists love to think about tradeoffs (or opportunity costs, as they call them). Any money we spend can't be spent on something else, so if I use $2.50 to buy a strawberry milkshake it means I'm not using that $2.50 to get the chocolate one or the mint chocolate chip one.

That's pretty easy to think about. But it also means I'm not getting a bus fare, a light bulb, or anything else with that $2.50. And if I buy that strawberry milkshake, according to standard economics it means there's nothing else in the world I would rather buy with that money.

I don't think we're usually that rational.

For one thing, it's unpleasant to think about negatives. We like to think about what our money does get us, rather than the infinite variety of things it doesn't get. Also, there are so many alternatives that we can't really consider them all every time we spend money.

I once saw a flippant proposal that we draw people's attention to this in a gruesome way by labeling all prices in Dead Child Currency. If it costs $800 to save a child's life, each $800 spent on anything else . . . you get the idea.

I used to make myself think that way. Before I parted with any money, I'd ask myself what it could do for a woman in Africa. (It doesn't have to be her, but that's who I always imagined.) Did I value my new jeans more than her month's groceries? More than her children's vaccinations or school fees? Could I make that tradeoff?

Sometimes I made it and felt awful afterwards. After spending $2 on a caramel apple in the fall of 2008, I had one such episode of weepy regret that was the last straw for Jeff. He decided that part of his income would go to a spending allowance for us both which could not be given to charity. For several years now this is where our mandolin strings, birthday presents, clothes, vacations, and milkshakes have come from. It's also the source of non-optimal donations we make to public radio, etc. It's not a large budget by American standards, but it's made for a lot less angst.

I recently met a young man who was seriously thinking these things over. “But isn't it right to think about the tradeoffs?” he asked. I think it's good to go through a period of thinking that way. Just like when you live in another country for a while you start being able to understand prices without converting back to your own currency, when you start thinking about all your spending in Vaccination Currency or Mosquito Net Currency it becomes habitual. Your spending habits can't help but be affected.

I also think there's only so much grief we can carry. I cannot go the next 70 years counting dead children on every receipt. I would break.

So my advice is to spend a while really noticing that tradeoff. Notice whether you really do value the milkshake more than a child's vaccination. And then, after a time, make yourself a budget that reflects those values. Set aside money for unnecessary things that make you happy. Do what you think will nurture you to age 100 as a generous and strategic giver. Because that, in the end, is what will help the most people.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Where are the women?

Women donate more than men. They are more likely to give, and they give more money. So why is the smart giving/effective philanthropy/whatever-you-want-to-call-it movement so skewed male?

About a quarter of the members of Giving What We Can and 80,000 Hours are women. At any kind of discussion on efficient giving, I'm usually either the only woman or one of two women there. This doesn't bother me in itself, but it means we're missing people who could have a lot to give to the conversation. I don't believe women are more selfish than men or that they want to help people less than men do. So where are they?

Some of my guesses:

A lot of this movement came out of university philosophy departments. At least in the US, only 1/3 of philosophy PhD students are female - that's more skewed than math or almost any of the sciences. Apparently not that many women want to sign up for five years of having their ideas ripped apart.

There's a good bit of finance and math involved in finding the best charities. I have very little math background, and while I think posts like this are very important, I can't get through them. A lot of women also didn't do much with math or economics. Until recently, there was never anything I wanted to understand that required me to know much about math or money, and I was disheartened to realize I was going to have to learn some.

Lately, there's also an increased emphasis in this movement on careers and choosing a career that will let you do the most good (usually through high pay). I think boys get the message early on that they should optimize for high pay because this is what will impress other men, attract mates, and support their families. As a girl, I never got the message that I needed money to do these things. The emphasis was more on personality, beauty, and accommodating other people. Unfortunately, these things are not especially helpful to me now in reducing child mortality.

As a child I, at least, was told that my interest in helping strangers was somehow unnatural if it wasn't preceded by being extra nice to people around me. Ordinary childhood squabbles with my sister often brought on the question from my mother, “How can you care so much about strangers and so little about your family?” I think I was about as selfish in my everyday activities as other children and teenagers I knew, but to this day if I hurt someone's feelings I get the hypocrisy accusation from my mother. If I were a boy, I'm not sure if this would have happened. I think there's less pressure on boys to make nice, and it's considered more normal for them to care about the big picture more than household emotional politics. Girls get stronger approval if they focus their energy on being nice to those near them.

(To be fair, my parents also tell me they're proud of my giving. But they seem to regard writing a check and refraining from snarky comments as the same skill, and in fact I'm better at the former than the latter. Working on it, though.)

In adulthood, women are still primarily responsible for the emotional wellbeing of the household. In most families I know, the mother is more financially permissive with the children than the father is. Women understand that they will be in charge of distributing family money and time to keep everyone happy. It may be emotionally harder for them to not buy the kids all 17 of the Christmas presents they asked for, or to decide to have fewer kids in the first place, or to work long hours and serve frozen dinners. A man who chooses not to have children, or to raise his children on a voluntarily low budget, probably won't get the same flak a woman would. So the choice to give more may be harder for women.

Non-efficient charity (the food drive, the house of worship, the Girl Scout cookies, the solicitations from the children's hospital and the animal shelter, the cousin who needs a loan) is largely about community connections. Women are often in charge of maintaining these connections on behalf of a family. I think this is why you see higher donations from women. It's true of woman-headed households and not just women acting on behalf of a joint household, but I expect that's because we continue in the patterns we were socialized to even if our later home life doesn't match the conditions we were expecting.

My message to my female readers (there are some? Right?) is: you can do this. You can have a happy family life. You can be analytical and argumentative. You can learn statistics. You can do what you know is the right thing rather than what will make you seem most normal.

Your mother might be annoyed with you, but that's pretty much inevitable.

Friday, March 9, 2012

To Life

I just finished reading Ruth Minsky Sender's memoir To Life. She's a Polish Jew who describes how she and her comrades pieced together new lives after they'd lost almost everything in the Holocaust.

A post-Holocaust memoir was an unusual book choice for me. Reading things like that, I worry I'll get depressed. But even though Sender's book described the aftermath of hell, much of the book is about hope. After being liberated from the camps, she and her fellow survivors were completely focused on rebuilding their families. They spent years traveling around Europe trying to find lost relatives, grieving each time they learned of a loved one who did not make it out of the camps alive and rejoicing when they found those who had survived.

The young survivors were also determined to build new families as they searched for pieces of their past. Soon after liberation, Sender met and married another survivor. She describes the joy of bearing children even in a refugee camp, of bringing new life into a shattered world. As they are trying to leave Germany, her husband tells her:

“We must not give up hope. The place where our children are born does not matter. What does matter is that we are alive. We are a family. We have each other. We are rebuilding.” He holds me close. “Riva, our children are the future. We must live with hope for a bright future.”

The book made me think about empathy. I work in a psychiatric hospital, and in such work you hear about staff who get so worn down they just don't care about helping patients any more. There are always more patients who need our help, and we will never be done helping them. They call it “compassion fatigue.”

There are times when trying to save the world creates this kind of exhaustion in me. In the face of so much suffering out there, some of which I can help but most of which I can't, there have been times when I've written the whole endeavor off as useless. Maybe, I reasoned, people living in horrible circumstances get used to it somehow. Maybe once you've experienced starvation or genocide or a broken society, it destroys your psyche enough that you're barely human anymore. You probably don't have much capacity for happiness. So my help wouldn't really even mean much to those people - I might as well just take care of myself.”


Ruth Minsky Sender and family in Lodz ghetto


Sender's book heartily refutes this kind of thinking. Surviving trauma does not disqualify you as human. Sender writes about the struggles of everyone she knew to rebuild relationships, to create new life, and to give their children a stable and happy life. In short, they were real people with normal human desires despite the extraordinary suffering they had endured. Sender describes arriving in yet another camp, pregnant and exhausted, and meeting the strangers with whom she must share a room.

[Esther Kop] puts her arms around me. “We are alive. I feel you are my family....Now you rest a little. You are an expectant mother. I will take care of dinner. You'll get organized later. Right now, rest.”

My eyes fill with tears. I just met this woman and her husband, and already I feel at home with them, like a family reunited again. I stretch out on the bed, thinking of the Kops, their warmth, their gentleness, their caring. Each time I see these qualities in the survivors of horror, degradation, death, I am awed.


If these people didn't lose their caring and generosity, surely I can manage to keep mine too.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Reaching out

There are a lot of giving pledges out there.
So what is the point of all these pledges?

When I was about thirteen, I got very upset about the fact that I was spending my allowance — $4 a week — on things for myself instead of helping poor people. I spent most of my allowance on clothes, so I vowed never to buy new clothing again. My plan was to wear my current clothes until they wore out, and make new ones from the fabric in my mom's craft room. I requested that lightning strike me down if I broke my vow. (I was thirteen, okay?)

I don't think I made it even six months.

That's why I wish I'd had a community of people who were thinking about these things. People who could have asked me questions like:

Have you thought that if you got a job, you'd have more than $4 a week to give away?

How difficult and crazy-making will this be for you compared to the amount of good it does?

Did you know the clothes at the Salvation Army thrift store on Broad Street are $1 on Wednesdays? Seriously, kid, you're growing out of those sleeves.


A community can help us stick to a well-considered pledge. I'm more likely to keep a public pledge than the one I made alone in my bedroom at age thirteen. And the internet has helped me find people I can ask the questions I have now. Like: is it better to give some money now or more money later? How did you pick a charity? If I want to pick a career that lets me earn more money to give, which ones should I consider?

I'm glad I don't have to think about these things in isolation anymore. A few weeks ago I signed the Giving What We Can pledge, to give at least 10% of my income for the rest of my life. I was already planning on doing that, but now I'll be connected to other people who are doing the same.

So here's an offer: if you're looking for community, I'll try to hook you up. In the Boston area, we have periodic dinner discussions on the topic – let me know if you want an invite to the next one. You don't have to take a pledge - maybe you just have questions or want to chat.  I'm happy to talk with you or connect you to someone who knows more than I do.

juliawise07(at)gmail(dot)com

Monday, February 20, 2012

Value yourself as a donor

I used to work in donor services at a large nonprofit. For low-dollar donors, there was a person who could answer your questions by phone or email. Once you started donating more, you were assigned a “gift officer” whose job it was to stay in touch and be nice to you. They rarely ask you to donate, but they're there to answer your questions and provide you with glossy brochures about the good work you're funding. If you're interested in a particular program, they can get you more information on that. They host receptions for major donors to meet each other.

For its employees, the charity provided an attractive workspace with good coffee and tea. At first I wavered on things like this – did it really make sense for a charity to spend money on courting me as a donor, or free tea for me and my coworkers? Shouldn't it be sending every possible penny to the actual field work?

Well, no. The attractive setting, good benefits, and free caffeine probably reduced turnover and improved productivity. And given that fundraising is a business, I'm sure that the optimal level of sucking up to donors was well-studied.

People love to tell me, “If you give everything away, you'll have to depend on others for charity!” I never proposed to do that. If I did that, I would burn out before you can say “rice and beans.” If my life as a donor is difficult enough that I hate it, I'd quit. That would be a bad outcome for everyone.

Imagine a charity that wants your donation. How would they best interact with you? They probably shouldn't wine you and dine you too much, or you'll think they were wasteful. Nor should they be too pushy or lay the guilt on too hard, or you'll feel used and bitter. But they should be friendly and appreciative and perhaps ply you with your favorite coffee.

If you donate to a good charity, you are doing a good and important thing. You want to reward that kind of behavior - even when it's yourself that you're rewarding.

Of course, you know your own limits better than you know other people's, so you can press yourself farther than you would press someone else. And you know whether you're likely to err on the side of giving too much or too little. But whichever one it is, treat yourself like a valued donor.

So next time you make a donation, celebrate. Give yourself a nap, a croissant, a beer, a long bath, a special meal – whatever would feel good. If you tend towards burnout, a treat after donating will give you some respite. If you tend towards hoarding, it will help remind you that giving can be a pleasure. Either way, positive reinforcement is a good thing.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Our worst subjects

“I prefer to give to local organizations.” I've heard this a lot.

Imagine a high school student who sits down to study for exams. Her chemistry book is lying closest to her on the desk, so she decides to study chemistry. Her father points out that since she has an A in chemistry and a D in history, studying history might help her grades more. “But that book is all the way over there in my backpack,” the student points out; “I prefer to study locally.”

If you were her parent, you probably wouldn't let her get away with this. All things being equal, she would benefit most from studying the subjects where she's most behind. Even though she hasn't learned all the chemistry there is to know, a few hours of studying history will get her farther than spending the same hours on chemistry.

Even within rich countries, we don't have straight As on our report card. Homelessness, environment, prisons, health, schools – we're behind where we should be in lots of areas. As a social work student, I've seen many of these problems first hand. It hurts to see, and I can't help wanting to fix them.

But these are not our worst subjects. The fact that millions of people every year die of easily preventable diseases, and billions live in grinding poverty – that is a much worse failure. Only it's not happening right here next to us; it's happening far away.

The good news is this: the same amount of effort goes a lot farther on our worst subjects. For a few hundred dollars, I can save a life somewhere in the developing world. There’s no local charity (local to me in the United States) where that money will accomplish anywhere near as much.

I'm not saying we should neglect local causes altogether. If our own society falls apart, we’ll be less able to help. But we should put most of our effort – and money – toward areas where we’re failing.


A version of this post appeared earlier on 80,000 Hours.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Sensing our impact

Last time, I wrote about evidence that donating or buying gifts makes people happier. At least on the $5/$20 level, the amount doesn't matter. That means if you have $20 to give, you'll enjoy giving more if you spread your donations out over several days.

How might we arrange things to give ourselves more pleasure from giving? I saw a great idea in a post by "Orthonormal":

This summer, I had just gone through the usual experience of being asked for money for a nice but inefficient cause, turning them down, and feeling a bit bad about it. I made a mental note to donate some money to a more efficient cause, but worried that I'd forget about it; it's too much work to make a bunch of small donations over the year (plus, if done by credit card, the fees take a bigger cut that way) and there's no way I'd remember that day at the end of the year.

Unless, that is, I found some way to keep track of it.

So I made up several jars with the names of charities I found efficient (SIAI and VillageReach) and kept a bunch of poker chips near them. Starting then, whenever I felt like doing a good deed (and especially if I'd passed up an opportunity to do a less efficient one), I'd take a chip of an appropriate value and toss it in the jar of my choice. I have to say, this gave me much more in the way of warm fuzzies than if I'd just waited and made up a number at the end of the year.

And now I've added up and made my contributions: $1,370 to SIAI and $566 to VillageReach.


I love this method. We evolved to respond more to tangible things - like filling a jar - than to numbers on a spreadsheet. We're sensory creatures, and we might as well work with that.

The jar method gives us a sense of doing something. But it doesn't let us sense our impact. On my last post, Orlando Weber commented that grouping donations with buying presents is a bit unfair, because buying a beer for friends is probably more enjoyable than buying a mosquito net for somebody you'll never see. Like her:

Source: Against Malaria Foundation

We're social as well as sensory creatures. Buying gifts for people we know is fun because we get to see their pleasure and thus experience some of it ourselves. If every day we saw cute kids in danger of dying from something stupid like malaria, we'd probably feel a lot more motivated to help them. (Sponsor-a-child charities work on this principle, but in reality you're not sponsoring a particular child. Which is fine, because it's more efficient to fund a program than an individual.)

So what if we did actually see these people every day, or every time we donated? I want a nonprofit to offer an option where your donation receipt includes a picture of a person being helped — not that your money is literally going to that person, but it will go to help someone in a similar situation. Or maybe every week you would be able to access a new photo or video (Oxfam does some nice ones). Or, maybe you use it as a kind of digital chip jar - every time you want an altruism hit, you pledge to donate a certain amount, and you get rewarded with a picture or video. Every year you add up your pledges and make your donation.

Someone with better programming skills than mine could write something like this — it would keep track of your pledges, and after each pledge you could access some new piece of content. You'd need to get content related to the various causes people could choose, either from the charities themselves or images of a similar population. (SIAI would have the perennial problem that all its photos are of guys standing in front of a blue screen.)

If any of you programmers want this project, please, run with it!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Does giving make you happy?

Psychology has traditionally focused on mental illness and other problems.  The field of positive psychology focuses on how to be healthier and happier.

One example is the study "Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness". It looks at how personal spending (paying bills or buying things for ourselves) and prosocial spending (donations or gifts for others) affect us differently.  The findings:
  • People with higher prosocial spending report being happier than those with low prosocial spending. The amount of personal spending, on the other hand, has no effect on happiness. Of course, this could just mean happy people are more generous, or they're happy and generous because they're rich.  But the second half of the study addresses that. 
  • Researchers asked people to rate their happiness in the morning, then gave them either $5 or $20 and told them to spend it by 5 pm.  Half the participants were told to spend the money on themselves and the other half were told to use the money for a donation or gift.  When the researchers called participants that evening, the people assigned to prosocial spending reported greater happiness.1
  • Participants predicted that personal spending would be more enjoyable than prosocial spending, and that $20 would make them them happier than $5.  They were wrong on both counts - they were happier after prosocial spending, and the amount didn't matter for either kind of spending.
For me, the takeaway points are:
  • Our intuitions about what will make us happy are sometimes wrong.
  • If a transaction (spending or giving) makes us happy, but a larger amount doesn't make us happier, we should go for smaller transactions.  In my experience, this is true - I like buying things, but buying a pastry or a few flowers makes me as happy as a larger purchase.  And I enjoy two small helpings of dinner more than a single large one.
  • Giving $5 is not the same as giving $5,000.  And it may be more fun to give researchers' money than your own.  Does the pleasurable effect still apply?  Maybe.  I know I get pleasure out of giving large amounts, but probably not as much as spending them.
  • It's most efficient to give large amounts every year or so, so that the charities don't have to process a lot of small donations.  But it's probably more enjoyable to donate small amounts often.
1. Someone's probably going to ask, "What's the effect size on that?" and the answer is "[F1,41 = 4.39, P < 0.04, effect size estimate (ŋp2) = 0.10]". Unfortunately, I have no idea what this means. If you know, do tell.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Fear of poverty, part 2

There are lots of ways to measure poverty. In the US the poverty line is $10,890 for one person. The global figure often used is $2 a day. There are a host of other ways to measure it, either in absolute terms or compared to other people.

Numbers can help us approximate what people's experiences are like, but ultimately what matters is the experiences themselves and not the numbers.

Jeff and I together spend about $20,000 a year. If we actually earned that much, we would be below the United States poverty line and would have more spending money because we'd get free health insurance and food stamps. On paper, then, our spending makes us look like poor people.

So how does our subjective experience compare to actual poverty?

The World Bank did an interesting study on the experiences of poor people around the world. Their findings:
"Experiences of illbeing include material lack and want (of food, housing and shelter, livelihood, assets and money); hunger, pain and discomfort; exhaustion and poverty of time; exclusion, rejection, isolation and loneliness; bad relations with others, including bad relations within the family; insecurity, vulnerability, worry, fear and low self-confidence; and powerlessness, helplessness, frustration and anger. . . . Illbeing includes mental distress, breakdown, depression and madness, often described by participants to be impacts of poverty."
If that's what poor people experience, what about us? Does spending like poor people carry the same effects as actual poverty?

No. Jeff and I experience a few of the inconveniences of a small budget (mostly related to not owning a car). But we have most of the benefits of the money we earn without actually spending it all. We always have plenty of good food. We never worry about whether we can make our rent. We enjoy good relationships with family and friends. We have savings. We got good educations and have similar social status to what we would have if we kept all our money.

Some people are afraid to give because they're afraid of being poor. Which is a reasonable fear – real poverty is an exhausting, humiliating, painful experience. But it is not what you will experience as a result of giving away a lot of your money.

Real poverty is not a choice. Living frugally is a choice Jeff and I make freely, and one we find worthwhile.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Fear of poverty

Last spring, my husband Jeff found that walking to work barefoot helped his knee problems. Once he built up callouses, walking on city sidewalks was no problem. One day as he was walking a pair of teenage girls, perhaps Brazilian or Cape Verdean, shouted, "Where are your shoes?"

"They're at home," he answered.

"Aren't you ashamed?" they asked.

This story still stuns me. Jeff and I grew up in situations where going barefoot was a marker of summer relaxation, not poverty. But to these girls, who had perhaps grown up in places where not everyone had shoes, going voluntarily barefoot was crazy.

People have told me, "You obviously didn't grow up poor." It's true - I might not want to live on a small budget if I had always had to do it. In a way, it's easier for Jeff and me to live simply because for us it's always been a choice, not a necessity. We grew up knowing that our parents could provide for all our needs, so we don't have a built-in fear of deprivation.

Here's the thing: you don't have to care about the same status markers other people do. Other people can be ashamed about secondhand clothes or whatever they want, but they can't choose what you feel ashamed of.

I know this confirms me as a total sap, but I love Dolly Parton's song "Coat of Many Colors." She describes her classmates' scorn for the coat her mother had pieced together from rags:

And I couldn't understand it
For I felt I was rich
And I told them of the love
My momma sewed in every stitch
And I told them all the story
Momma told me while she sewed
And how my coat of many colors
Was worth more than all their clothes.


Although Parton is now a multimillionaire, she really did grow up in a mountain cabin with no plumbing or electricity, and the coat story is apparently true. I find her message - that family love mattered more to her happiness than material goods - an important one.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Happy thought for the day

Today I learned that Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, inventors of the polio vaccines that saved millions of people from paralysis and death, refused to patent their inventions. They could have made an enormous profit, but instead the vaccines were their gift to the world.

When asked who owned the patent, Salk answered, "No one. Could you patent the sun?"

I'm totally charmed.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

My pick

In the last weeks, I've been working on the decision of where to give money this year.  Recently I:
  • Met with staff at Oxfam America from their monitoring and evaluation team (full disclosure: I used to work there as an administrative assistant)
  • Met with staff at Poverty Action Labs
  • Spoke with Holden Karnofsky from GiveWell
After hearing three different perspectives, I have a lot of thoughts.

One concern Oxfam raised, which I hadn't thought about before, is that basic health work really ought to be the concern of governments or local organizations, not international charities. GiveWell notes a similar concern. One Oxfam staff member pointed out that Americans would be upset if the Swiss started coming in and building roads or laying pipe, because we pay our government to do those things. Oxfam does some nice work encouraging government and corporate accountability, pushing for transparency so that citizens can ask their governments, “This money was budgeted for services to us – where did it go?”

And yet Oxfam and others do step in when a government's irresponsibility leads to disaster – as when a breakdown of sanitation systems led to a cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe in 2008. The government was obviously at fault – they had failed to maintain existing hospitals, or to buy enough chlorine to treat the water system – but international NGOs stepped in rather than watch millions of people die.

This happens on a slower, less obvious scale all the time. Whether from incompetence, corruption, or generally being screwed over by colonization, many nations do not meet their citizens' basic needs. If there were a charity that seemed really effective at getting governments to shape up, I might well support it. But I'm not convinced that most governments are going to get their acts together anytime soon, so I'd rather take action now.

If I could design a perfect nonprofit, it would be one that empowers local people to have more control over their lives. This might be through lots of means – gender equality, education, safe water, good nutrition, sustainable land use, access to healthcare, access to markets, government accountability, an end to violence, an end to economic policies that disadvantage poor people. The ultimate goal, after all, is for people to be able to take care of themselves and their families. Also, this perfect nonprofit would be monitoring its progress and learning from its mistakes.

I think Oxfam and others are doing good work on many of these problems. But at this point, they're also doing a lot of other things that I don't think are as worthwhile – disaster relief, work in the US, projects that haven't really been evaluated or whose evaluations aren't released.

So for this year, I'll be donating to Against Malaria Foundation. They're highly recommended by both GiveWell and Giving What We Can. I have mixed feelings about the decision, since I would prefer to fund something with a broader strategy. Malaria prevention does seem to help development in some ways, since kids who aren't sick or dead from malaria can grow up healthier, and adults can be more productive at whatever they're doing if they're not sick. But the bottom line is that bednets are a cheap way to prevent sickness and death of a lot of people.

I think this is a good choice, and that there are other good choices out there (including Oxfam). I expect to reevaluate this every year, so maybe next year there will be a better one out there.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

A day in the life

Recently Anatoly Vorobey asked his audience for opinions on the essay I wrote for Bolder Giving. Surprisingly to me, it got hundreds of comments. (If you don't read Russian, you may find a rough translation helpful.)

Commenters' opinions ranged from “Commendable” to “Excessive fanaticism” to “Behind such altruism usually lurk serious problems, lack of meaning in life, and great tension” and, my favorite, “Most likely the extreme result of brainwashing or disease.”

The part they found most shocking was that I said Jeff and I weren't sure about having children. This, apparently, indicates a really twisted mind. Someone nominated us for a Darwin award, commenting that at least we wouldn't pass on our altruistic sickness. Some were more pragmatic (“If you give birth, let's see you deny your child ice cream for higher goals.”)

I found this all pretty amusing. And so I want to give you a taste of the twisted life we fanatics lead. Yesterday, for example:

Saturday, January 7

We lay in bed for a while and then took down our Christmas tree. I made blackcurrant muffins for breakfast.

Later in the morning, some of Jeff's musician friends came over and they played music for a few hours. I made lunch and we ate with them.

In the afternoon, Jeff went to the grocery store while I took a long bath and read a novel. (Like most people in the world, we don't have a car, so we chose an apartment within walking distance of a grocery store. We carry the groceries in a wire cart.)

We took a nap.

In the evening, Jeff's parents came over to dinner. We spent a while admiring our housemates' baby, then we ate and talked for a few hours. After dinner we had tea and tiramisu.

After they left, Jeff did the dishes while I read aloud from a book of Sherlock Holmes stories. Then we lay in bed reading for a while and went to sleep.

Yes, it is into this perverse life of self-deprivation that we may someday bring a child!

Monday, January 2, 2012

Picking a cause

As you can tell, I'm a fan of GiveWell and Giving What We Can because they're the only people I know of evaluating charities' effectiveness. One problem I have with their method is that it's very measurement-focused, so any type of work that isn't easily measurable just doesn't get considered. People like to point out that the GiveWell approach would have had us medicating polio forever rather than funding research for a cure.

I think there may be causes it makes sense to fund even if we're not sure how effective they will be. Here are some types of charities I've seen advocated by people who are serious about effective donation. In no particular order:

Animal charities
I've seen arguments that if we care about reducing suffering, we should think about the planet's most numerous beings that can experience pain – that is, animals. The charities I know of in this focus on convincing people to stop using animal products or researching how to grow artificial meat. I put some weight on animals' suffering, but less than on people's, and I don't know how to compare the two. So my hunch is I should probably eat less meat, but that this is not the best place for my donation.

Direct health work
The charities recommended by GiveWell and Giving What We Can are all doing public health work in developing countries. As far as definitely saving lives for cheap, this is as provable as it gets.

There's an argument that public health work speeds economic development, because people can do everything better when they're not sick.

International development
I think there's a good argument that development (putting in roads, improving water systems, etc.) is more helpful than more direct medical interventions. This has the appeal of the whole “teach a man to fish” thing.

However, it's hard to tell how effective this is. And the charities that do it, like Oxfam, also do a lot of other stuff that's probably less effective, like disaster relief. So you can't really fund it by itself.

Existential risk
Some people are most concerned about risks that might wipe out the entire human population. This might be things like asteroid strikes, nuclear war, pandemics, or super-smart computers taking over everything. This last one, called a "technical singularity", sounded very far-fetched to me at first, but I've learned more about it and I do think it's a real possibility. Some of these things (like nuclear war) aren't necessarily “existential” in that some people might survive them, but would still be very bad.

There are some sensible measures that have been put in place, like seed banks and telescopes to look for asteroids. There's certainly more we could do. The problem with this type of work is that it's hard to guess how likely the risks are, and it's hard to know how effective we might be at preventing them.

The people I know who fund artificial intelligence research believe a friendly and super-intelligent computer would be especially good because it could not only help us solve current problems, but could also make life much better for people. Their argument goes: “A small chance of a really, really good future is still worth funding.” A counterargument goes, “We have no idea how likely any of this is, so it's better to fund something we understand better."

I don't know how to think about this.

Research
A vaccine for malaria or HIV would be pretty awesome.

Even on a smaller scale, research is essential to knowing how programs are going. For example, there's been a lot of excitement about microfinance, but how well does it work? How could we do it better? Having data on this sort of thing helps charities know what to do and helps donors know what to fund. Innovations for Poverty Action and Poverty Action Lab are the two organizations that I know of.

GiveWell and some existential risk charities could also be considered research charities.

Activism and politics
Changing policies has huge potential to help people who need it. In developed countries, everything from crop subsidies to wars have life-or-death consequences for people around the world. But it's so expensive to swing an election or hire lobbyists that it's unclear whether this is a good use of charity dollars.

A fairly technical look at this question

Saving money
I've heard a few serious donors say we should save money in case a really excellent cause becomes clear. I find giving is a habit that's pretty easy to maintain once you're in the groove, and I don't want to hoard money only to find I've grown unwilling to give it up once a golden opportunity comes along. So I'm not keen on this one. But I could see donating some to keep in practice and saving/investing some money.

Some more thoughts on this

Outreach
I can donate money to the best causes I can find, but if I convince other people to do the same, that's even better! (Obviously, that's my goal on this site). Organizations like GiveWell, 80,000 Hours, and Giving What We Can are devoted to getting people to give more, and more effectively. I'm glad they exist, but I'm not sure what they would do with additional funding.

The upshot
Thinking about these causes is hard. I don't know for sure which is best, and I don't think anyone else really does either. But even thinking about this stuff is moving us in the right direction. Recently, parting at the subway after an evening of discussing optimal charity, a friend's exhausted summation was “People should think and be nice.” And I do believe more thinking and more trying to help will lead us in the right direction. If one of these options, or a new option, becomes more clearly a good choice, we'll be readier to recognize that and pursue it. We should be willing to change our minds.

In the meantime, I intend to make a donation sometime in January. I'm most strongly considering a direct healthcare charity (Against Malaria Foundation) or a research charity (Poverty Action Labs). Do you have thoughts about why I should pick one of these, or something else?