Compassion: The Do’s and Dont’s of Donation

Posted by Joel Bennett on

Compassion: The Do's And Don'ts of Donation This article co-authored by OWLS staff (Gale Lucas and Michael Hudson)

Compassion is a cornerstone of resilience because of how it deeply connects us to others. At the same time, as with other elements of resilience (like confidence), we must be wise in our compassion.

We’re often reminded of others who are less fortunate. We see homeless on the street, and we are asked at various store checkouts whether we’d like to donate to selected charities. Out of compassion, we want to help. But we also might wonder: What percentage of my donation will go to covering administrative expenses? Will my donation actually make a difference in someone’s life? Which charities actually give the most, dollar-for-dollar?

These are important questions and there are some good reasons to be skeptical about where and how you donate. Unfortunately, we know that some charities, despite having the best of intentions, cost more than they give and have even caused harm.

It turns out that some of the most popular ways we give back might not do as much good as we hope. For example, here’s a video explaining why canned food drives tend to have some drawbacks (spoiler: they’re generally not cost-effective). If you want to see how smart you are about charitable decision-making, this game is designed to test how accurately you can assess which charities work and which don’t.

Give, But Do So Wisely

Good news is that some organizations have already done the heavy-lifting in terms of research to help you make informed charitable decisions! We’ve compiled some resources here for evidence-based charity (called “effective altruism”). Now you can be more confident in the impact of your choices. Read on to learn how to give back using this evidence-based guidance!

  • Using research and rigorous analysis, the nonprofit organization GiveWell is committed to identifying charities that make the biggest global impact in terms of lives improved and lives saved. Here is a list of their top charities, which they define as “evidence-backed, thoroughly vetted, underfunded organizations” that are selected based on their overall quality and cost-effectiveness (click here for their full criteria). They also publish discussions of their selected top charities’ strengths and weaknesses so you have more information to evaluate them for yourself.

  • The Canadian-based foundation Charity Science coordinates events to raise awareness and funds for the most effective charities, as identified by GiveWell.

  • Intelligent Philanthropy and Giving What We Can are two other online resources you can use to identify high-impact charities organizations.

  • For effective altruism in your own community, check out websites like Local effective altruism network and Local groups from wiki.effectivealtruismhub.com to find local efforts.

If you’re interested in learning more about effective altruism, we recommend watching this TED talk on the power of charity science by Esther Duflo and reading books by philosopher Peter Singer, such as: The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism is Changing Ideas About Living and The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty.

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