Applying The Scientific Method To Charity
Rational and research-based methods of giving effectively!
Posted Nov 15, 2016
“Thank you. I never thought of applying the scientific method to charity. My giving will never be the same.”
I was delighted to hear this feedback from a participant in a Giving Game workshop I ran for a group at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbus, which I attend, in late July 2016. Participants in a Giving Game learn about a couple of pre-selected charities, think about and discuss what methods and metrics they should use to select a charity, and then vote on what charity will get a real donation. The donation is sponsored by an outside party, typically The Life You Can Save, which donates $10 per participant to the charity that wins the vote. So anyone who comes to a Giving Game guarantees $10 being given to a charity without paying a penny, while enjoying discussing how they can enact their values and improve the world through making the most impactful gifts to charity.
Intentional Insights (InIn), the nonprofit organization I lead that popularizes science-based strategies for effective giving and rational thinking, has been collaborating with The Life You Can Save to promote Giving Games to diverse values-based communities, including both secular groups and more recently Unitarian Universalists. Unitarian Universalism is a progressive religious denomination without a central creed, focusing instead on a shared search for spiritual growth. As social justice activism and a focus on truth and reason are major areas of focus for UUs, InIn and The Life You Can Save decided to promote Giving Games to this denomination, which comprise about .3% of the US population, or 900,000 people in the US alone, and many more abroad. This article describes how we presented the Giving Game workshop to the UU group.
How Do We Show Our Care For Humanity?
We framed this workshop in language that would be applicable to UUs. We focused on how UUs care deeply about the fate of humanity. We discussed how using our resources of time and money to make the world a better place - decreasing suffering and advancing flourishing around the globe - is the best way to truly live our values and create heaven on earth. Yet it’s so hard to know how to make the world a better place, a point we emphasized in the workshop.
During the Giving Game at First UU, we got down to the roots of this dilemma. The UUs who came to the workshop all described how much passion they had about making the world a better place, but had so much trouble figuring out the best place to give. One quoted Andrew Carnegie’s well-known phrase, “It’s harder to give money away intelligently than to earn it in the first place.”
After all, there are so many worthy causes and demands on our time, energy, and money! It can sometimes feel overwhelming to decide where to spend our limited resources. Perhaps that’s why most people don’t take the time to evaluate well where they give. Americans donate over $350 billion a year to charity, but shockingly little thought goes into how and where this money is given: 2/3 of gifts are made without any research at all, and only 3% compare the effectiveness of charities before they give.
This creates a huge opportunity - by incorporating reason, science, and evidence into our charitable decision-making, we discussed how UUs can dramatically increase the amount of good their gifts accomplish. We talked about how a Giving Game channels the spirit of the UU 4th Principle, a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, and enables UUs to align values and actions, heads and hearts, to help donations do the most good in the world through applying the scientific method to charitable giving.
The Barriers To Giving Well
Unfortunately, the nonprofit sector is not well set up for us to apply reason to inform our giving, we pointed out. The vast majority of communication from charities comes in the form of stories, rather than hard data about their impact. Charities use stories because they work - they pull at the emotional heart strings of people to motivate them to give. Yet stories tell us close to nothing about the actual effectiveness of a charity.
One example that came up was the work of Make-A-Wish Foundation, which grants the wishes of dying children. Their work allows children to be a pirate, princess, or fighter pilot for a day, at the cost of approximately $7.5K to satisfy each wish. This charity has wonderful stories about helping dying children fulfill their dreams, which get people to give it over 350 million a year.
By contrast, consider Against Malaria Foundation, which saves a child’s life for about $3K from this deadly disease. For the same amount of money as Make-A-Wish, it can save 2 children, giving them 2 lifetimes of stories. However, Against Malaria Foundation does not have good stories to tell, and thus by comparison gets much less funding, despite arguably doing much better work to decrease suffering and advance global flourishing.
This problematic approach to charitable giving relates to how our brain processes information. We are strongly oriented toward believing in stories as true, regardless of whether they are or not, a phenomenon called the narrative fallacy. To counteract this problematic thinking error, we have to use an approach informed by the scientific method to evaluate charities well.
Evaluating Charitable Giving Rationally
After addressing the problems in the nonprofit sector, we talked about how we can evaluate charities effectively. Our discussion turned to the issue of overhead costs, meaning the money spent by a charity on all costs not directly associated with its programs devoted to fulfilling its mission. Several folks indicated they used Charity Navigator, a popular charity evaluator service that uses the finances of charities as its evaluation metric.
If only it were that easy! Within the nonprofit sector, this is known as the overhead myth, and there’s even a website, overheadmyth.com, devoted to debunking this myth. While in most cases a nonprofit should not spend more than 40% on overhead, anything below that is fine and is not indicative of any issues with nonprofit quality. Nonprofits need to pay their staff a fair salary that enables a decent lifestyle, and invest money into marketing and fundraising in order to achieve their missions. Moreover, some nonprofits fudge their books through questionable accounting practices, such as the Wounded Warrior Project, whose CEO and COO were fired in March 2016 over excessive spending on the organization itself as opposed to wounded veterans. Such accounting practices result in these nonprofits being evaluated highly by Charity Navigator, which focuses on finances as its key evaluation metric. All this makes looking at finances alone a poor evaluator of nonprofit quality.
Instead, we need to apply the scientific method to charity to get our desired outcomes. Our goal is to make the most positive impact on the world in accordance with our values. We have limited resources to accomplish that goal. So the rational approach is to see the maximum benefit we can get from our investment of resources. The key metric, then, is cost effectiveness, meaning the amount of good that a nonprofit does per dollar invested.
Now, it’s not easy to do the research to evaluate this question for each charity that you might consider. Fortunately, there are several charity evaluators that apply this scientific method to provide comparisons of charities based on in-depth research of their cost effectiveness, which we shared at the Giving Game event. GiveWell offers in-depth reports on charities addressing global poverty issues. The Life You Can Save, besides its sponsorship of Giving Games, provides an Impact Calculator that you can use to evaluate the exact impact of whatever donation you might want to make to a number of global nonprofits, and also provides a list of highly effective charities presented in a clear and engaging manner. For those concerned with animal well-being, Animal Charity Evaluators provides rankings of the most effective global animal welfare organizations.
The participants in the UU Giving Game expressed a great deal of interest in these organizations, and some used their mobile phones to visit the websites of these charities during the event itself. Excited about the prospect of using these “consumer report” organizations for charity, they peppered us with questions about how these organizations worked. They came away highly satisfied with the answers about these organizations investigating thoroughly the programs and finances of each nonprofit they evaluated, using the latest data science tools.
Naturally, they asked me whether similar organizations existed for other causes, such as policy reform, education, women’s rights, or local charities right here in Columbus, where the UU workshop was held. Unfortunately, no other organizations of this sort exist, since it’s quite hard to set one up. These consumer watchdogs for charity are all nonprofits themselves, to prevent the obvious conflicts of interest arising from taking money from charities they evaluate - so it required a dedicated group of funders to provide the resources to set one up for any set of issues.
Giving Game Charity Comparison
After discussing the problems of the nonprofit sector and how to evaluate charities using reason and science, we got to the business of evaluating charities.
First, we discussed what metrics had relevance when picking charities. Participants brought up issues such as effectiveness in accomplishing the mission, good use of money, making the most positive impact in the world, serving neglected communities, addressing systemic issues, and solving important problems.
Next, we compared the charities we pre-selected on these categories. These included top-rated charities by The Life You Can Save and GiveWell, such as Against Malaria Foundation, and also GiveDirectly, which transfer money directly to poor families in developing countries. Other charities included Planned Parenthood, which provides various medical services for women, including abortion, and advocates for women’s health rights, and the National Center for Science Education, whose programs focus on defending the teaching of evolution and climate change in the classroom.
The discussion proved intense and heated. Participants made passionate arguments in favor of each. Against Malaria Foundation had proponents for it most clearly matching the humanist values of saving lives, as it saves a life for $3K. GiveDirectly saves a life for $15K, but provides the additional benefit of dignity and freedom for those who get the money, and matched the values of a number of participants. Those interested in women’s rights lobbied for Planned Parenthood, and science education had a number of adherents as well, of course.
In the end, each organization got some votes, and since each person’s vote counted for $10, all got donations. Many folks signed up to the email list to get more information about effective giving.
It was interesting to see that a number of people voted for organizations they never heard of before the meeting, such as GiveDirectly and Against Malaria Foundation, over organizations which they knew and trusted and donated to previously. When I asked them why they chose to vote that way, one person raised her hand and said that she could really trust organizations such as GiveDirectly and Against Malaria Foundation because they were thoroughly evaluated by the most reputable and high-quality charity evaluators.
After the game, we published the results of this Giving Game on the blog of the UU Humanist Association, which unites hundreds of UU Humanist groups within UU congregations. We let them know that any UUs can organize such a Giving Game through using this UU Giving Game packet - whether as a church-wide event or Religious Education classes or Small Group Ministry meetings. We talked about how doing so is an excellent way of advancing reason-oriented social justice work, improving rational thinking around charitable giving, and building community. Hopefully, a number of other UU groups will organize Giving Games as well, especially if Giving Game facilitators reach out with an offer to help out!
So what do you need to do to hold a Giving Game?
During the Giving Game your group will learn about, and choose between, three or four charities: Against Malaria Foundation, Give Directly, and any other one or two charities of your choice. You can put up a well-known international charity such as Red Cross, or a local one - as long as it’s not affiliated directly with your group, it’s fine. The Life You Can Save will sponsor the donation, contributing $10 per participant in the Giving Game.
The outline provided below will give you a sense of how to structure your session. It assumes a 75 minute Giving Game, though you're free to tailor the time to fit your needs. You can do it by yourselves or with the help of a trained facilitator from TLYCS, in-person or via videoconference.
1. Introduction (5 minutes)
2. Learn about the 3-4 charities (10 minutes)
3. Group discussion about where to give (45 minutes)
- If you have more than ~15 participants, consider splitting into smaller groups of 5-10 people for the discussion period. You can have people form new subgroups once or twice during the session to expose people to more points of view.
- Possible discussion topics include:
- Are we more obligated to help some people than others? What factors (e.g. Geography, scope of need, ease of helping) play into these obligations?
- How strong is the evidence supporting each charity?
- What goals could donors be trying to accomplish with their gifts? Which of these goals seem most important?
- What metric(s) should donors consider when choosing which charity to give to?
- How should donors balance a desire to help in targeted ways against a desire to let beneficiaries assess their own needs?
4. Voting (5 minutes)
- Voting is typically done via private paper ballots, with a winner-take-all structure. However, if you'd like to make the voting proportional (so that the donation is split with the same percentages as the votes), that's fine too.
5. Recap (10 minutes)
- Announce results of the voting
- Brief group discussion about what people learned from the experience
- Circulate signup sheet for The Life You Can Save and the Intentional Insights newsletters so that participants can stay informed about great giving opportunities and about using science-based strategies to achieve their goals, in effective giving and other life areas. Please take a photo of the sheet and then send it to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
- Brief discussion about charitable pledges for those who want to do more
After the Giving Game, please fill out a post-game report card that will instruct The Life You Can Save on which donations to make. You will receive confirmation of the donations with two weeks, and you're free to share the confirmations with your group.
An activity like this can be put together fairly quickly, if needed. Though we encourage you to plan at least a few weeks in advance.
- Begin planning your Giving Game by picking 1-2 people to serve as facilitators who will introduce the session and the charities and help guide the discussion.
- Then pick a time and place to hold your Giving Game and notify the members of your group, encouraging them to invite friends. Remember, the more participants the more money will be donated, as each participant adds $10! Be sure to allow enough time for the facilitators to familiarize themselves with the charities, practice their presentations, and review the resources linked to below.
- If you're planning to use presentations, make sure to have a projector or another way to display them. If not, you'll probably want to use handouts so that participants can easily access information to help them make their decision.
- It can be helpful to have a few laptops (and wifi) available so that people can investigate any questions that come up that the facilitators are unable to answer.
Resources and links
- General information about Giving Games.
- Tips for facilitating a Giving Game.
- Introductory powerpoint, as well as power-points for Against Malaria Foundation and GiveDirectly
- If you have any questions or would like to talk through your preparations, please email GivingGames[at]thelifeyoucansave[dot]org.
- You can also pose questions to a group of experienced Giving Game facilitators.
- Check out more information about the movement dedicated to using evidence, science, and reason to make the most impact on improving the world, Effective Altruism.
Video of a Giving Game
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Bio: Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is an author, speaker, consultant, coach, scholar, and social entrepreneur specializing in science-based strategies for effective decision-making, goal achievement, emotional and social intelligence, meaning and purpose, and altruism - for more information or to hire him, see his website, GlebTsipursky.com. He runs a nonprofit that helps people use science-based strategies to make effective decisions and reach their goals, so as to build an altruistic and flourishing world, Intentional Insights. He also serves as a tenure-track professor at Ohio State in the History of Behavioral Science and the Decision Sciences Collaborative, and published over 25 peer-reviewed articles. A best-selling author, he wrote Find Your Purpose Using Science among other books, and regular contributes to prominent venues, such as Time, The Conversation, Salon, The Huffington Post, and elsewhere. He appears regularly on network TV, such as affiliates of ABC and Fox, radio stations such as NPR and Sunny 95, as well as internet-only media such as podcasts and videocasts.