Charity Needs a Scientific Revolution and We Can Make it Happen

Not only is there precious little research on which charitable interventions actually work, but most people in the field, whether donors or workers, aren't seeking it out. Almost everyone involved in philanthropy is thinking with their hearts instead of using their heads to guide their hearts.
09/24/2015 01:09 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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If the medical sector worked like the charity sector did, we'd still be using leeches instead of antibiotics. That's because a few hundred years ago, we collectively decided that the best way to determine what happens in reality wasn't to argue about it from the armchair, but to go out and do experiments and observe the results. As a result, we've gone from useless bloodletting to successful brain surgery. However, half a millennium later, the field of charity still hasn't learned this lesson.

Not only is there precious little research on which charitable interventions actually work, but most people in the field, whether donors or workers, aren't seeking it out. Almost everyone involved in philanthropy is thinking with their hearts instead of using their heads to guide their hearts. As a result, the popularity of charities is largely based on which charities are best at getting you to give them money rather than which charities are actually effective. Further, most charities pitch themselves on emotional appeals rather than pointing to evidence for their effectiveness and we still give money to programs like Scared Straight which demonstrably causes bad outcomes.

Yet there's hope. Groups like the Jameel Poverty Action Lab and Innovations for Poverty Action spend their time scientifically studying promising interventions. GiveWell, a rigorous charity evaluator, has emerged as an organization which systematically reviews the scientific evidence for charities in order to find where donors can get the most impact for their money. As a sort of Consumer Reports of charity, GiveWell scours the world for charities that are backed by evidence, transparent, have room for more funding, and will submit to thorough examination.

They currently recommend four charities, all of which work with the global poor largely because of the huge difference between the cost of living in the developed and developing world means by giving to the global poor you can help many more people with each dollar you give. Many are resistant to this type of cost-benefit analysis in charity. To these people, it seems cold to try to count the number of people you can help. But if you can help twice as many people with a donation to Charity A as you could with Charity B, to say it doesn't matter which you donate to is to say the lives of those extra people Charity A could help don't matter. Few would use this type of reasoning if their own lives were on the line.

If you were in an emergency room and the hospital could either save you and five other people or save a single individual, I don't think you'd say either outcome is equally good and it doesn't matter what the hospital does. This situation is actually quite similar to the one we face when deciding where to give our money. The fact is that when acting as individual donors, sadly, each of us can't single-handedly solve all of the world's problems. So when donating it makes sense to try to do the best we can by giving to effective charities that can do the most good possible with our money.

The good news is that there is strong evidence, which shows that by donating to the Against Malaria Foundation or the Deworm the World Initiative, both of which GiveWell recommends, you can make a huge difference in people's lives. And as the influence of groups like GiveWell grows, we'll hopefully be able to influence the rest of the field to a more evidence-based worldview. This is why I fundraise for and publicize these type of effective charities at Charity Science. More focus on giving to evidence-based interventions means more money to programs that are effective and thus more people helped. This also would likely change the incentives of charities as they begin to seek out evidence to support their actions to get more donations.

In other words, charity could be about to go through what happened to medicine a couple hundred years ago. That revolution towards evidence has brought us improved sanitation, vaccines and drastically reduced mortality rates for practically every condition. If we act now, the possibilities for what a charity sector focused on evidence could accomplish -- perhaps eradicating malaria and ending extreme poverty -- are similarly breathtaking. If we want this future, it's up to us to make it happen by donating to causes that are backed by evidence.