Would you rather help prevent one animal from suffering or 200 animals, if it took the same effort?
Let’s say you recognize that giving to charities can make a profound impact on animals and perhaps you even believe it’s morally the right thing to do.
Some think it inappropriate to compare charities and especially to criticize a decision about which charity to give money to. But it is not just appropriate, it is supremely important. Your decision where to give will determine whether 200 or just one animal gets helped.
You find a US charity that rescues homeless dogs. It’s a commendably austere charity; over 99% of its received donations go directly to its goal: rescuing and finding homes for the dogs. So you make your donation of US$1,000 and are confident your money will be used well. Months later you receive a photo of the dog with its new family and you feel great, knowing you have helped provide a dog with a family.
No one will say you’ve done a bad thing, and you haven’t. But you could have done something better. You probably would have liked to help several animals as much as you’ve helped the lucky dog you’ve rescued – you just didn’t have much money to give. It turns out, you could have done far better; you could have prevented hundreds of years of suffering instead! Let’s see how.
Another organization, which you overlooked because it uses only 70% of its donations on its programs, works on outreach to encourage people to reduce their consumption of factory-farmed animal-products. (Note that this figure is made-up, our top charities spend more than that on programs).
Let’s compare the two charities directly: via the first it costs $1,000 to rescue and place a homeless dog for its 18 years of life.
Via the second $1,000 can prevent 3614 years of suffering in factory farms.
It seems reasonable to say you’ve done at least 200 times worse than you could have – if your goal was to help as many animals as you could.
I think it an important lesson to learn: what matters most is the cost-effectiveness of the intervention, not the overhead costs of the organization.
The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) sometimes comes under fire for spending a lot of money on overhead and fundraising. However, some of HSUS’s legislative campaigns may arguably be among the most cost-effective ways to help animals (we aim to explore this issue in more detail in our future research). Furthermore, as our fundraising page demonstrates, it can make a lot of sense to divert great amounts of resources to fundraising to maximize the impact of an organization.
Since choosing where to give may be even more important than whether to give at all – if your goal is to help as many individuals as possible, you’ll do more good by comparing charities by the effects of every dollar you donate to them.
This post adapted from an 80,000 Hours post.