Many people desire to genuinely live out the call to be generous, to care for the poor. However, there are thousands of different charities out there. With all the options, What is the best place we can give our money? I wanted to put together a giving guide to try to help answer this question with some suggestions. This begins with a short explanation of some biblical principles and questions to consider for giving. Feel free to skip to the recommendations if you just want to see my top picks.
In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul said, “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. ” The love Paul is talking about is “agape”, which is the love where we look for the best for others, as if it was our self. Paul is saying that if we give based on our own self-interest without making any effort to actually benefit someone with our giving (and certainly there are ways to give that can even harm others), then our giving has no gain. So I believe this question of where to give in order to bless others most, moves exactly in the direction that Paul is commending us toward with our giving.
Likewise, Hosea 6:6 says “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice”. Again, the goal of our giving isn’t our ourselves, and our own sacrifice, it is to bring benefit to others. This is a compelling statement on how we approach giving.
If all charities were equal in their impact, this question may not be that interesting. However, I believe that the difference between one charity and another can easily be 5, 10, or even 100 times the impact. This can be encouraging. Someone who has an income $50,000 and commits to giving away 10% to the poor, and makes an intelligent and wise selection of recipients by investing some time in research can easily have a bigger impact than a millionaire who indiscriminately gives away the same percentage of their income. We have incredible opportunity to make an impact, even if we are not super wealthy, when we make smart investments.
This giving guide is intended to provide an objective analysis of different types of charitable activities, then recommend types of charitable projects that benefit the poor the most per dollar given.
While my goal is to provide recommendations on what will have the greatest impact, I certainly don’t pretend to know the definitive answer to this question. I wrote this to try to share some thoughts and suggestions based on my own research. There are many ways we can benefit someone, and in general, we often commend many actions of love: rescuing the dying, caring for the sick, loving and comforting the unloved and lonely, educating, etc. And while it is easy to endorse all of these, when it comes down to actually giving our money, we have to make a quantifiable priority on these. The Bible doesn’t give us any tables enumerating precise relative weightings of different values. I am not going to try to delve in the philosophical depths of comparing different (Biblical) values, I will just recognize that each of us may have different priorities and values that we are drawn towards that can influence our giving, and I’ll try to make some suggestions based on many of these values. Also, this is a very numerical approach to comparison, and for some this may be lacking the integration of certain non-measurable aspects of ministry.
First, there are different goals we can pursue in our giving, based on our values. Here are several questions to ask, that will guide you to the best donation choice:
- Do you want your donation to result in an immediate benefit to someone, or would you prefer for it be an investment that may not do as much right now, but could reap much larger benefits years from now?
- Do you want to save a few lives, or improve the quality of life for a large number of people?
- If quality of life, what is most important: Having food, being healthy, having freedom, or something else?
- Do you want proven programs, or unproven (but potentially more beneficial) efforts?
- Do you want the donation to be directly from yourself, or use it to push others to give?
- Do you wish to give to projects with zero harm potential, or prefer projects that have greater positive potential even if some harm is possible?
- Do you want to donate only to Christian organization, or any organization?
Giving Directly: New, Most-Proven
In terms of establishing clear, reproducible evidence of making a difference, the great success story of 2013 was direct unconditional giving. This was a fascinating new strategy partly because it is so non-intuitive. Almost all of us have been trained to believe that giving cash is the worse thing to do. Yet perhaps this stems more from a controlling paternalistic instinct than it does from reality. And if we turn the tables, almost all of us would prefer cash in hand to some other service or product, so we have the freedom to use the cash for what we need most. Perhaps the same is true of the poor, and giving them the freedom and flexibility to meet their greatest need is effective. And in 2013, study after study came out demonstrating and verifying that direct cash transfers really do work, and have a huge impact.
The main charity that is working to provide efficient and direct access to giving directly to the poor is GiveDirectly.
Education: Improve Lives, Proven, Long Term
For the long term poverty reduction, education is key to a productive and thriving next generation. While health services save many lives, education is necessary for the next generation to be able to sustain health services without relying on western aid. The downstream impacts of education are numerous. Children grow to take higher paying jobs, girls are able to become mothers who can focus and do more for their children, and they are able to become greater contributors to society. This economic increases and health knowledge ultimately also lead to lives being saved.
One of the great injustices of today is sex slavery and other oppression of females. Many fighting these battles have turned to education as the best tool to protect women from a life of prostitution or ills that beset those trapped in the economic bondage of poverty.
There is more to education that simply getting children in classes. In fact we are increasingly in situations where most kids have access to education, but that education is sub-par. One organization I have read some great reviews on is Pratham, which has been doing some very innovate work with remedial, community-based education.
Alternately, you may want to consider a health-based approach to improving education. In fact this is perhaps the biggest impact you can make. Deworming not only has immediate health benefits, but is considered to be a critical part of school attendance (many children miss school due to health), giving students the opportunity to succeed on their own someday. This is also a recommended initiative by Givewell and Innovations in Poverty Action (http://www.poverty-action.org/deworming), both major sources of information for this article. Here is the Givewell recommended charity.
Or you can go with a Christian organization, WorldVision has an assortment of health services that have high levels of matching/multiplication, and include deworming, here.
Malaria Prevention: Save Lives, Proven, Short Term
Let’s consider one of the simplest objectives of giving: save lives. Protecting lives is one of the most obvious ways to help others. Rescuing others when we can is clearly Biblical, and certainly there is nothing in life as tragic as losing a loved one.
One group that has done extensive research on various charities, with a focus specifically on how efficient an organization saves live with their funds is Givewell. Givewell has done extremely in-depth reviews of a number of organizations and activities. While they are continuously researching and revising, they have traditionally recommended malaria prevention through bed nets, specifically the Against Malaria foundation (AMF). This year, they have dropped their recommendation of AMF, because they currently have a large amount of funds that they haven’t yet been able to deliver. This doesn’t really represent a problem with AMF, it is just the challenge they face with scaling up their resources. Still I have moved this down in my list a little bit.
Nearly 750,000 children around the world under the age of 5 die from malaria each year. Bed nets cost about five dollars a piece. It is estimated that one life is saved for roughly every 400-600 bed nets. This means $2500 donation is basically equivalent to literally saving some one’s life. This is quite simply a remarkable impact (who wouldn’t give this to save a friend or loved one’s life?)
World Vision partners with Against Malaria, so if you want to contribute to a Christian organization to save lives, you can give directly to World Vision’s bed nets fund here.
Clean Water: Save and Improve Lives, Proven, Medium Term
Water-borne diseases are known to be one of the greatest plagues of poverty. More than 1 million children under 5 die each year from diarrheal disease. Consequently, there has been a lot of focus on safe water initiatives, generally focused on building wells. However, the cost effectiveness of building wells, in terms of saving lives, doesn’t seem to be as good as buying bed nets to protect against Malaria. But, there is an approach to ensuring safe water that does seem to show similar high levels cost efficiency: communal chlorine dispensers. These chlorine dispenser, strategically positioned at water sources, appear to have a similar life saving rate as bed nets. And of course, ensuring safe water has benefits far beyond just saving lives. Safe water provides better nutrition, resistance to infection, growth, and improved performance at school.
Innovations in Poverty Action is leading this innovative approach to safe water. You can donate or learn more here.
Contraceptives: Reduce Deaths, Proven, Long Term
If one’s goal is defined specifically as reducing deaths, I would be remiss to not include the intervention that has shown by far the highest rate of death reduction per dollar spent: improving availability of contraceptives. I am certainly not unaware of the controversial nature of such a recommendation. Many have strong objections to supporting organization working on population control. And we can’t rightly say that these efforts are primarily “saving lives” in general, since the principle means by which most deaths are reduced is by avoiding the birth of those bound to die in the first place. But, the well established and spectacular efficacy of birth control access in reducing abortion rates, childhood deaths, and even maternal deaths (which does fit the more narrow category of “saving lives”) means that a dollar spent on access to birth control in developing countries, reduces death more effectively than any other aid effort, on the range of $7 to $177 per death averted. Nothing else comes close.
The most broad and concerted efforts in the area of access to birth control for developing countries have been undertaken by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). You can donate to them here.
Less Proven Approaches
Justice, Less Proven
Many may wish to pursue a goal of not simply providing poor with alleviation from the problems of health and poverty, but to provide them with justice. Certainly, justice is critical component of society for productive, healthy, free, and happy lives. Justice can be an ambiguous term, with different meanings depending on who you ask. In the broad, social meaning of the term justice, virtually every effort listed here contributes to greater justice, combating the injustice of poverty and inequality. But in a narrower sense of restraining specific individuals and organizations that are engaged in oppression against others, justice is being pursued in very focused way by certain organizations. One group that stands out is the International Justice Mission (IJM), who works in various countries to rescue and prosecute perpetrators.
However, there are some specific reasons why this approach lacks as high of proven credibility as other interventions in benefiting the poor. First, the number of people rescued per dollar spent through IJM is very low compared to other projects that are recommended. If we look purely at rescues, the return on investment is disappointing, dozens of lives can saved through bed nets for the cost of one rescue through IJM. However, the theory behind much of IJM’s work is that the impact of prosecuting one perpetrator will go far beyond that single case, and will be a deterrent or set a standard for many other situations. The impact of setting a standard of justice could in fact be very significant, and be the type of push that bring broader access to justice for many. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to assess this type of impact. Furthermore, many of the activities of IJM are at least partly focused on fighting corruption. However, studies on corruption have found low levels of correlation with reduced economic growth. While donating to IJM could have some significant impacts, there is not enough evidence for this to be a very proven strategy.
Improving Lives, Unproven
Microfinance has become very popular in recent decades. There are a couple of key advantages to microfinance. First, rather than simply being a gift, it empowers an individual to build a business and become more financially independent. This, at least in theory, enables someone to live beyond dependencies, rather than become more dependent. Second, microfinance loans are usually repaid, and donated money can be reloaned over and over. Donations can have a long lasting impact in empowering many individuals, rather than just being a one-time gift.
However, microfinance has come under a lot of criticism recently. In some areas microfinance has had been very helpful in lifting people out of poverty, but in other regions, microfinance initiatives have had little to no effect on poverty. Often microfinance can give a small business a small boost, but moving beyond a single person company to having employees, and creating significant economic activity, can be a very difficult hump to overcome. There are even unintended consequences; another recent study showed that microfinance can increase child labor, as parents attempt to take advantage of the temporary financial opportunity.
Because of these factors, microfinance has potential to make a big impact, and is certainly generally positive, but it is highly variable, and isn’t as solidly proven aid effort as others.
Discipleship, evangelism and other mission efforts focused on spiritual development are obviously integral aspects of the ushering in the Kingdom of God. However, assessing spiritual development can’t realistically be compared using the economic measures used here. This is not meant to give lower weight to or diminish such efforts, the impact of these can be more important. But, it is simply beyond the scope of this article to compare these. However, I would suggest that some of the principles of this giving guide can be applied. We can have a much greater impact on those who are in greatest need. This an important parallel, spiritually. When looking to invest spiritually, we must be resolute in looking to where the greatest spiritual needs are, among the unreached and/or undiscipled.
Some types of efforts may not be aimed at a direct result, but instead be a trigger for a cascade of other indirect benefits, i.e. your giving can act as a catalyst. Catalytic giving (a term coined by the Gates foundation) can have enormous multiplicative effects, potentially producing vastly more impact than the direct giving suggestions above, sometimes tens or hundreds of times the impact. However, this is somewhat similar to unproven or aggressive-growth financial investments, often times we don’t really know if it will work or not, so this may not be for everyone.
Research on what is effective in fighting poverty allows us to develop and fund more effective efforts in the future. This moves us towards a future where organizations are more efficient, we can make more informed decisions about what to fund (so posts like this one are better informed!), and where wasted efforts can be avoided.
My pick for an organization in this area is Innovations in Poverty Action (IPA). This is not a Christian organization, but they are doing remarkable work researching effective efforts, leaning heavily on randomized control trials.
In fact many of recommendations in the guide are based on the fruit of research activity that has given us a much clearer idea of how to truly have a positive impact for the poor. I also wrote a post recently about how important aid research is, and how IPA is such a compelling organization to me as an engineer.
Another type of charitable activity is the “marketing” aspect. Businesses are usually very keen to the important returns that are generated by good marketing. Likewise, investing in efforts to advocate for the poor can generate significant funding as well.
Currently one organization that we have been working with is Live 58. They have produced an excellent film on tackling poverty, and are doing great work to encourage churches to become involved in fighting poverty. This organization isn’t an actual aid group themselves, they have a number of organizations that they recommend and funnel money towards. You can give to one of these organizations through Live58, and a percentage of the funds will go towards the continued advocacy of Live58.
International Aid and Justice Advocacy
International aid from governments far exceeds private funding, and in many areas certainly represents the bulk of the effort. Advocacy efforts can have a big influence on our representatives willingness and commitment to continue these funds. In other sectors, such as energy, pharmaceutical, and defense companies invest in lobbying because the simple (and probably unfortunate) reality is that the evidence indicates these investments pay off in spades. Some studies suggest hundred fold returns on lobbying/advocacy efforts. While we may bemoan that politics are so affected by finances, should not the poor have at least a fraction of the advocacy as oil and drug companies?
It is extremely hard to precisely determine how much influence a dollar towards a campaign may make, but the potential here is very large. A dollar invested could easily result in $100 more going to the poor, and with advocacy that pushes USAID to investing in high-return health projects, a $50 could very well multiply and equate to a life saved.
Here are some recommended organizations:
Jubilee – This organization is based on the Biblical principle of Jubilee, and thus focuses specifically on the issue of debt injustice. Third world debt is well-known to be a major factor in keeping countries in poverty, and this movement’s focus on this issue has helped them to have influence in rather spectacular victories in debt cancellation, freeing billions of dollars for development. They also address a number of other important systemic injustices like tax havens and vulture funds.
RESULTS – This organization does fantastic work by focusing on training and empowering members to meet with and interact with representatives and media themselves to advocate for global health, education, and microfinance initiatives. I have been a part of this group for a while, joining in a few meetings with congressmen.
Bread for the World – This is a distinctly Christian organization with strong focus on Biblically driven values, and seems to be very productive and influential. I wish that they were more narrowly focused on international issues. While they do advocate on international issues, they spend a lot of their focus on domestic poverty that has lesser returns.
Micah Challenge – This is a UK-based organization, that is also a Christian organization (their name comes from Micah 6:8). I love their strong focus on international issues, advocacy for the millennium development goals, which cover the range of important poverty issues. They have also done a good job focusing on injustices that have received relatively little attention, including tax havens, and their impact on developing countries. There were chosen by Live 58 as their advocacy organization to support. However, this is a UK-based organization, and I haven’t found much evidence of their influence in US policy.
(or you can donate to them through the Live58 site)
It is also worth noting that while I have been primarily doing comparison in financial terms for consistency, in comparison to other efforts, you can easily have a powerful impact in advocacy with your own time and effort and minimal training. Becoming an effective missionary can take years of theological training and language acquisition, other aid workers often require similar levels of training before they become fully capable workers. On the other hand, with a little bit of research you can instantly start emailing and calling your representatives to affect change.
In addition, there are many aspects of fighting poverty are not simply matters of injecting more money; sustainable change really requires policy changes in areas like trade injustice, debt relief, tax havens, immigration constraints that cost the poor billions of dollars every year.
Gift matching is another catalyst, encouraging others to give to cause by increasing the incentives and potential to attract other donors. This is a great strategy for those that are well-researched and have significant funds to offer. Note, this generally requires some coordination with charities to start such an offer. You can also take advantage of gift matching with donations that have matched offers. Many charities offer multiplicative donations, based on existing donor offers for matching. However, be aware that the actual impact of gift matching can easily be overrated. Typically the donor that offers the matching funds has minimum and/or maximum amounts and the offered matching funds may likely be released by other donors regardless of whether you give, making the multiplication level an illusion in many cases.
Aggregate or Diversified Giving
A common strategy with financial investment is diversification. This is not as important with charitable giving since the variety of donors naturally diversifies recipient benefits. Being focused on a specific area can be perfectly fine for donors, and can help you to learn more about the specific cause. However, you may still enjoy investing in various types of efforts, and being a part of different approaches to fight poverty. Naturally, you can donate to different groups. You can also donate to organizations involved in more holistic efforts. For example, we have helped fund raise for a group called Love146, who fights child slavery with a smart combination of investment in research, aftercare, justice efforts, and advocacy. Another organization that we have been connected to for a long time is Next Generation Ministry, which is doing great work in Uganda, and recently put together a small Christmas catalog. There are many other groups that combine effective strategies for a high aggregate impact.
Some Comments on Projects I Didn’t Recommend
Fair trade or charity-connected products
Fair trade organizations have done a great job of providing more socially responsible products. However, in comparison to directly giving, fair trade has limited impact (and in some cases can create market distortions that are actually counter-productive). Charity-connected products combine marketing and charity in ways that simply are not as effective as directly controlling where you give. If you are faced with the isolated decision to buy a fair trade produce vs a standard product, than yes, buy fair trade. But, if you are truly interested in doing the most good, buying a cheaper product, and giving the difference to a high quality charity will typically have a larger impact (I wrote about this in greater depth here).
There are caveats. Buying certain products can have a side-effect in raising awareness. While the economic benefit may be dubious, buying a product that raises awareness of poverty or trade injustices can further the social movements that working towards real policy reforms that do make a difference. Other products have enabled the development of projects that go beyond just economics, like the creation of safe houses for women coming out slavery.
Making donations for the purchase of livestock for poor families is common way to contribute. While this is a good idea, and has benefits, there is also concerns about whether the benefits are big or long-lasting as the other projects recommended. The complications and concerns of giving animals has been expressed with more detail by Givewell.
Still there are a couple of reasons why giving animals is not a bad approach: such donations can be a good entry way to encourage people to start thinking about third world poverty (with a gift that appears quite tangible), often highlighted by Christmas gifts. Charities also often use much of the money on the important and beneficial details of community development and education that are sometimes more productive than the animal gifts themselves.
Making Your Own Evaluations
I have made several recommendation, but you may want to make some of your own assessments. Hopefully these recommendations demonstrate some key ideas of researching the cost and benefits of different approaches. In addition I wanted to share a couple more ideas for assessment:
Follow the Foundations
Often people use program expenditure percentage (low administrative and marketing costs) to evaluate an organization. This is a natural inclination since it is one of the few objective measures that we can really directly compare between any charity. However, it is also one of the poorest indicators of the value of the work a charity is doing. First, the difference between the different activities carried out by charities can easily vary in efficacy by hundreds of percentages points, thus the different in program expenditure is usually negligible in comparison. Second, non-program expenditures can be very valuable in growing in charity. Spending more on marketing doesn’t necessarily indicate ineffectiveness, it can easily prove to be an investment in the future of the charity that will pay off in the years to come (charities frequently vary greatly from year to year in percentages). For-profit companies know this is a wise investment, we shouldn’t expect otherwise from non-profits.
Instead, If you really want to look at a simple objective numerical indicator, here is what I recommend: look at how much of their funds come from foundations. The unfortunate reality is that success in acquiring funds from individuals is based on the quality of marketing, how well a charity tells it stories, and has little relation to the actual quality of their work. Foundations, on the other hand, exist to make more in-depth evaluations. Foundations pour through statistics, assessing the efforts, sometimes do interviews and read papers on different programs. Therefore foundations have a huge advantage in accurately directing their funds towards organizations that are actually doing good work. If you want to a suggestion of a foundation to follow, the Gates Foundation is probably the most well-researched on the planet. While it is not always true, in general, organizations funded by individuals are good at marketing, programs funded by foundations are good at helping the poor.
The advantage of foundations is found in their extensive knowledge of the charities that fund. It is worth noting, that sometimes we can alternately achieve this same level of knowledge by investing in small organizations where we can personally meet workers and discuss and even influence the details of charitable activities. Of course, some understanding and research in development is still important with this route.
The most effective giving is directed to those in the deepest global poverty. Not only is it a morally logical to help those in greatest need, it also is most effective. Numerous factors like exchange rates and opportunity for impact, and combine to make dollars spent internationally towards developing countries result in the greatest benefit (I described this in more detail here).
I hope this giving guide will provide some useful insights and suggestions for you, as you look to obey the moral call to help the poor, bringing them the greatest benefits, driven by love that looks to the interests and needs of others. I intend to continue to update this page as I learn more and as research gives us new understanding on what works. Thank you for reading!