How to Know If Your Charitable Contributions Are Doing the Most Good Possible

Imagine walking through a farmer’s market in search of some Honeycrisp apples. You’ve come to the right place. Lots of choices. Booth one is selling them for $2.99/pound, booth two for $2.79 and booth three for $2.89. None are claiming them to be organic. They all look beautiful and tasty.

From which booth do you buy?

Without any discernible differences other than price, my choice is going to be the least expensive. Every time. For me, doing anything else would be irrational.

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Maybe this belief that when all other factors are equal I should pick the least expensive explains why I liked this TED talk by Peter Singer so much. He introduced me to effective altruism, and for me it boils down to this. If I want to get my money’s worth when buying things and services, I should want the same thing when donating to charity.

The TED talk made me want to learn more. That’s why I grabbed a copy of Singer’s book, The Most Good You Can Do.

Between the two I had one mind-bending insight after another. Here are the five that will likely have the greatest impact on how I direct my charitable contributions going forward.

Saving Lives Is About the Most Impactful Thing You Can Do

There are no limits on the types of good works people can do for each other. Helping a neighbor with fall cleanup is a good deed. Visiting someone who is lonely is a good deed. Buying school supplies for children is a good deed. Writing a check to the local food shelf is a good deed. If you’re volunteering and donating, you are in all likelihood doing helpful things.

It’s all good. But if your goal is to do the most possible good with your money and/or time, then you have to make tough choices. Clearly some acts have greater impact than others. Can you think of any good deed that tops saving someone’s life? I can’t.

Eliminating Extreme Suffering Is #2

Perhaps you don’t believe you can save lives, but instead you can eliminate hardship that causes intense suffering. Again, most would agree this is a worthwhile cause.

The challenge is that there is so much suffering in our world. How do you choose? Singer argues that in most cases, if you strip away the emotional arguments, it’s often quite clear which opportunity presents the greater need.

Take for instance the cause of food insecurity. People are hungry. Hunger creates suffering. It’s a good cause. Here are your choices:

  1. A family of four who go to your church and who have fallen on hard times and won’t be able to eat a proper Thanksgiving meal.
  2. A homeless family of four who are only eating one decent meal a day at a local shelter.
  3. A family of four in a war-torn country with a famine who on some days don’t eat at all and may die from starvation.

None of us have unlimited resources to contribute. If you want to do the most possible good, you need to make choices.

Extreme Poverty Is More Common Outside the U.S.

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Singer makes a compelling case that regardless of the cause you choose to support, your money will usually go farther when used to help people in the developing world than if it’s used here in the U.S. or other wealthy countries.

The difference between the richest and poorest in the U.S. is shocking. But, Singer points out, even the poorest Americans are usually much better off than the extreme poor in the developing world.

Poor people here are much more likely to have some safety nets. They can walk into an emergency room for health care. They can sign up for welfare benefits. There are shelters where they can sleep and get a meal.

In the developing world, these options often are not readily available.

All Lives Are of Equal Value

The thing that might work against focusing your charitable energy outside the U.S. is the old adage: Charity begins at home.

There may be good reasons for keeping your charitable efforts close to home, but doing the most good isn’t one of them.

Is the death of a child in your community any more tragic than the child who dies on the other side of the world from a bomb, starvation, or diarrhea? The only difference is that we might know one child and don’t know the other.

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Do the Math

The most powerful lesson for me is the way you can do the math to figure out which option does more good.

For example, in his book he estimates the cost to equip one blind person in the U.S. with a guide dog to be $40,000. He compares that to people who are blind due to trachoma, the leading cause of blindness in the developing world. For those who have been blinded by the disease, a $20-$100/person surgery could restore their site.

In other words, for an equal donation of $40,000, between 400 and 2,000 people could see again. The numbers make the choice clear.

And even when choosing between seemingly equally good causes, Singer demonstrates how to use data, probability and a calculator to make more rational decisions.

I’m Torn

Everything I read in this book made me think that I can have a much greater impact with my charitable contributions.

I also found myself feeling sad. Based on what I learned, I may need to stop supporting some causes to which I have an emotional attachment. Getting through that will require a bit of reflection and some rational decision-making. Thanks to this video and book, I now feel more equipped to work through that process.

By Tom LaForce

Tom LaForce helps companies change by creating stronger teams, more effective leaders, and better processes. To discuss a challenge you're facing, use this link to schedule a free discovery call.