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How to Make a Real Difference Giving to Charity

The views of ethicist Peter Singer, author of 'The Most Good You Can Do'

Heartbreaking tragedies like the Nepal earthquake often make us want to donate to a charity and do our part to help. We’re also often touched by TV commercials imploring us to open our wallets for needy pets and children.

But since you can’t afford to help every cause, how should you decide which ones to assist? In his provocative new book, ‘The Most Good You Can Do,’ world-renowned Australian ethicist Peter Singer offers his views about “effective altruism.” (His site, Thelifeyoucansave.org, has a list of charities Singer thinks are highly cost-effective.)

You may not agree with some of Singer’s opinions — such as his belief that you should give money to reduce global poverty before U.S. poverty or his disinclination to support the arts. But this Princeton University and the University of Melbourne professor and author of Animal Liberation may get you thinking.

(MORE: Donating to Charity Effectively)

I know he opened my eyes about when to open my wallet during our recently conversation about the book. Highlights:

Next Avenue: What Is Effective Altruism?

Singer: Effective altruism is a philosophy and social movement uses evidence reasoning to consider how to do the most good you can. [For more on this, watch Singer’s 2013 TED talk on effective altruism.]

The head of the charity rating service, Charity Navigator, calls this “defective altruism” and says it will move us toward a more centralized form of giving where the experts decide where the money goes, rather than individual donors.

You might make that same criticism of Consumer Reports. Their experts decide what washing machines or cars we should buy, but that doesn’t take away the right of the consumer to decide. Who would want to pay twice as much for a washing machine that doesn’t wash as well as a cheaper one? And why give to a charity that’s not effective?

You have a chapter called Are Some Causes Objectively Better Than Others. Are they?

Yes, I do think so.

I’m not saying you can rank all possible causes in an objective hierarchy. But if you compare the amount of good done by the recent $100 million gift to Lincoln Center by [entertainment billionaire] David Geffen to giving that same amount of money to restore sight in people who are blind or will become blind, to me it’s staggering that anyone would think having a nicer concert hall could compare with what you could get by restoring sight for a million people.

(MORE: How Warren Buffett Made Me Smarter About Charity)

Are you against giving money to the arts?

In the present world we live in, I don’t think we should give money to the arts. Yes, it’s fine to help community projects to help kids express themselves artistically; that’s a different matter. But giving tens of millions of dollars to established institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art? I think there are better things you can do with that money.

In your book, you talk about the choices people are faced with when deciding which type of charity to support. I’d like to ask you about them. First: domestic or global?

It’s a question of what do you get for the money. Think of it this way: Suppose you have $1,000 to give away. Would that make a dramatic difference to the life of an American family of four in poverty, making about $23,000 a year? Not really. That’s roughly what they get every two weeks. But for a family in poverty living on less than $1,000 a year, giving them your $1000 is their entire year’s income and makes a huge difference to their well-being.

The charity GiveDirectly does exactly that. Even $400 can buy a tin roof and help a family stay dry for at least 10 years; they could never save enough to buy that.

(MORE: Charity Expert on Giving Wisely)

What do you say to people who say we should help Americans in poverty before helping others in other countries?

I’d be happy to lobby the government to do more for them; it’s the responsibility of the government to provide decent social welfare for its citizens and to be sure they have basic health care. In terms of private philanthropy donations, I think the fact that our money goes so much further elsewhere is a critical factor in defining ways to give.

Should Americans give money to help the people in Nepal? And if so, how?

If people are moved to give now to the victims of the Nepal earthquake, I recommend that they give to Oxfam America, which has worked in Nepal since the 1980s and is on the ground providing food and water.

But I would also remind people that because disasters like the Nepal earthquake receive a lot of media attention, they tend to be better funded than other forms of needs that exist year-round, like needs for safe drinking water and sanitation.

You say there is a straightforward reason for not giving the highest priority to charities that rescue abused animals. What is it?

I think many people give emotionally and they’re emotionally attached to dogs and cats, perhaps horses, but they’re not emotionally attached to pigs or cows or chickens in the same way. Therefore, they give to charities rescuing abused dogs and cats.

Those charities do good work, there’s no question, and I like to see these animals rescued. But it’s a matter of priorities in terms of the numbers involved. The suffering of animals on factory farms dwarfs the number of all dogs and cats in the United States, let alone the minority of those that are abused.

If you’re concerned about animal suffering, it makes sense to address the largest suffering — farm animals —rather than focus on already reasonably well-funded organizations trying to help dogs and cats.

You also write about the importance of having good information before choosing where to donate. How should people get that information and what information matters?

There is quite a lot of information online but some of it is not good. A lot of people go to sites that tell them how much of an organization’s revenue goes to administration and how much to programs and use that as a way to decide which to give to. But when you think about it, that’s not a really good indicator.

Suppose people say they’ll give if a group’s administrative expenses are less than 10 percent. So the charity then hires half the staff it needs, but doesn’t have the staff to decide which programs are likely to be effective or to monitor programs and cut off the ones that aren’t. So 90 percent of the money is going to programs, but only half the programs may do any good. You’d never know that by looking at the breakdown of administrative expenses and programming.

Another group might spend 80 percent on programs, but all it’s programs are effective because it has a good staff. Clearly, it’s better to give to the one with higher administrative expenses in that case.

The information you really want is on the effectiveness of programs. You can find that on the Givewell.org site and, with wider criteria on the site of the organization I founded, TheLifeYouCanSave.org.

Givewell is extremely rigorous in its evaluations. [It currently has four Top Charities and four other “standout” charities.]

We loosen up the criteria; we recommend 14 or 15 this year. Some are quite well known, like Oxfam America, and some are small ones that you might not have heard of.

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