Note: This post is part of our League Symposium on Charity. Here is the introductory post for the Symposium. Here is a list of all posts so far.

Synopsis: Charity is mostly self-regarding. It’s not about helping; it’s about looking helpful. Optimally helpful charity would look very different from what we usually do. Such charity is probably unrelated to your personal affinities. It’s probably not glamorous or intuitively appealing.

Yet there is a compelling utilitarian case for embracing optimum helpfulness and abandoning a good deal of self-regarding charity. I suggest ways to do so.

Pure disinterest nonetheless faces limits; both self-regard and other-regard are good to a degree. Do not feel guilty about self-regard. Feel guilty when other-regard turns out to be fake. Your emotions may trick you here.

Charity is mostly self-regarding: In the best blog post ever written, Robin Hanson asserted that charity isn’t about helping. He explained as follows:

When I say “X is not about Y,” I mean that while Y is the function commonly said to drive most X behavior, in fact some other function Z drives X behavior more.

Charity serves mainly to signal within a community that the giver is charitable. The claim sounds both strange and horrible, but it’s absolutely true.

Of course, we wouldn’t call it “charity” if it didn’t at least minimally help others without a material reward to ourselves. That’s definitional.[1] But among the acts so defined, we often make choices that would be indefensible if “helping” were our primary goal. Instead we want to feel, and to appear to others, as if we were helpful.

Consider: You have probably been asked to donate food to a food bank. You might have done it. Feeding another human is a deeply intimate act, and we crave that intimacy. And it’s reassuring to be a provider among a community of providers.

Yet as Matt Yglesias notes, donating food is grossly inefficient:

America, after all, is not a country stricken with famine. There’s no objective shortage of food, in other words, that makes it vitally important for you to draw down the stockpile in your kitchen cabinet. Indeed, many of us don’t even have that much food socked away, which leads to us going out to buy extra food in order to give it away. But having 100 different people go out and pay retail prices for a few cans of green beans is extraordinarily inefficient relative to pooling those funds to buy the beans in bulk.

But it’s even worse than that. All across America, charitable organizations and the food industry have set up mechanisms through which emergency food providers can get their hands on surplus food for a nominal handling charge. Katherina Rosqueta, executive director of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania, explains that food providers can get what they need for “pennies on the dollar.” She estimates that they pay about 10 cents a pound for food that would cost you $2 per pound retail.

Do you want to give food? Add up its retail price. Take that money out of your wallet. Flush 90% of it down the toilet. Send the food bank the rest. You’re still helping more than if you gave the food.[2]

Ignorance may be partly to blame. Not everyone knows that food banks do best with cash. On hearing it, many will give differently. But some will rationalize, and get indignant… and open their pantries yet again.[3] And in so doing, the givers of food signal to themselves and others that they are the sorts who give food. But they’re not doing as much good as they might. (Why do food banks accept it? Because a tiny, inefficient help is better than no help whatsoever. What are they going to do, turn you away?)

Or consider Alex Grass, the founder of Rite Aid. Grass made a fortune in business, not coincidentally doing the world a lot of good. He then gave millions to education and health initiatives.

Hanson finds it a sad denouement; his research and that of many others indicates that we spend way too much on health and probably also on education. We might cut medical spending in half, Hanson estimates, and get the same or even better outcomes. Yet medical charities are perennially popular. They signal fellow-feeling. They are intimate and reassuring, like food. That’s why so many can’t resist them.[4]

Optimally helpful charity would look very different from what we usually do: The Chess in the Schools program introduces hundreds of kids every year to a game that I dearly love. It propagates a wonderful bit of our cultural heritage while teaching critical thinking, discipline, and logic.

Donating money to this program would also be unconscionable. Please don’t. Some kids will never sit down at a chessboard. But it’s not because they don’t have a chessboard. It’s because at age four they will die of malaria. Contrasts like these focus the mind.

Or consider the Make-A-Wish Foundation. By the numbers, it’s horrifying: In 2009, its budget was $203,865,550, and it gave 13,471 children trips to Disney World, shopping sprees, cruises, and chances to meet celebrities. That’s an average of $15,133.66 per kid.

Meanwhile, in Mozambique, the infant mortality rate stands at around 10%. If these kids could be saved, they would be very likely to live full adult lives; young childhood is still a deadly time there, as it was for most societies in most of human history. Children in Mozambique succumb to infectious diseases that could readily be prevented or treated—things like measles, tetanus, tuberculosis, diphtheria, and the like.

That’s where VillageReach comes in:

Between 2002 and 2008 VillageReach ran a pilot program in the Mozambique province of Cabo Delgado designed to improve the province’s health logistics. This program was dramatically successful. One tangible indicator of impact is that VillageReach increased the percentage of Cabo Delgado infants who received the third and final dose of the diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine from 68.9% to 95.4%, yielding a final percentage higher than that of the average in any sub-Saharan African country. When one looks at the available evidence in juxtaposition with the cost of the program and runs through cost-effectiveness calculations one finds that under conservative assumptions VillageReach saved an infant’s life for every $545 donated to VillageReach.

So. One wish for one relatively privileged (albeit distinctly unlucky) first-world kid. Or almost twenty-eight lifetimes — fifteen hundred years of life — for children who will otherwise die. (Are they any less unlucky?)

If I’m right, we should probably be ashamed that the Make-A-Wish Foundation is even a thing. Can you imagine arguing for it in Mozambique?

There is a compelling utilitarian case for embracing optimum helpfulness and abandoning most self-regarding charity. Nearly all of it is an appalling waste when compared to what it might be.

This is not to say that you should stop giving, however. If all this is new to you, I suggest not changing anything immediately. If you are so moved, give as usual. An inefficient gift still beats nothing at all. Just consider adding something more efficient as well.

We all know that doubtful charities exist. Some are startlingly inefficient at fundraising. Others have high administrative costs. (And yet that may not be the best measure of a charity; at times, increased administrative costs yield a big improvement in a charity’s effectiveness.) And as we have just noted, some charities might pass these tests yet offer good feelings rather than help.

But there are also some excellent charities, and the Internet makes finding them easier. GiveWell is my favorite charity evaluator. Here is GiveWell’s evaluation process. This week they published a very short list of the best charities around. It’s just three names, and here they are:

#1 Against Malaria Foundation (AMF)
#2 GiveDirectly
#3 Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI)

All have room to grow. None are glamorous. None have anything to do with me. Probably not much to do with you, either. So much the better.

The first fights one of humanity’s oldest scourges, malaria, using effective, low-cost anti-mosquito bed nets. The second is sort of like the international equivalent of giving cash to the food bank — except GiveDirectly gives small, lump-sum cash payments directly to poor households. It trusts that they know best what they need, and it makes sure the money isn’t diverted to middlemen or governments. (I confess a slight personal affinity for this one. I find it appealingly antipaternalistic. You may therefore discount my advice.)

The third fights schistosomiasis. It’s a horrid disease that I can barely spell, that I’m at no risk for, that has affected no one I know, and that is common in a country for which I have a frank disdain.[5]

But every December, my husband and I decide where to send our charitable contributions for the year. When he asked me my thoughts, I gave him these. I recommend them to you as well. These will help. Lots of other things won’t help as much. If you’re looking for a big change, consider them.

Both self-regard and other-regard are necessary to some degree. I ask a difficult thing. Humans find self-regard easiest. This isn’t normative; I am not urging you to be selfish. I am asserting that you are selfish. So am I.

Much selfishness is rational. Managing a self is hard work, and if we were not powerfully motivated to do it, someone else might do it for us. If they were anything like most charities, we would suffer atrociously. No one knows your own needs as well as you.

Even selfish charity is rational, up to a point. I’d certainly spend my time more wisely by teaching kids to play chess than moving to Mozambique and trying to cure the sick. I’d have fun with the chess, and it would offer (a very small) help. Long live self-regard, as long as we’re honest about it.

But: How can we make a decent society out of self-regarders?

As you all know, I think part of the answer lies in hitching our self-regard to the market process: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest,” wrote Adam Smith. When we work to earn our keep, we typically do that work for others, but with regard to ourselves.

That mixes self- and other-regard in ways that are hard to sort out. So do most other things we do. I don’t think I can dictate the right ratios between them or delineate the boundaries. (Hanson’s latest post on charity suggests a theory of how self- and other-regard can work together productively in helping others.) Here we have examined some instances of near-total other-regard, of near-pure help. Some of them are worthy acts, and understanding what other-regard really looks like is important in itself, just for the sake of thinking clearly about it.

Even in a mostly selfish world, there is still benevolence, and there is still a surplus beyond what we need or even what we vaguely sort of want. And there are still great needs beyond our self-regard. Out there, we’re awful at matching the means to the ends. That means that if I’m like most people, I’ve probably gotten a lot of things wrong in this essay. I look forward to being corrected. But so much good is left undone. Isn’t it?


[1] One way of helping others — while also helping yourself — is to invest in an honest, successful business. That’s not charity, but it’s still a good thing, and if you’re certain that you can do it, then it may be a better use of your money than many charities, particularly some that we’re about to discuss.

[2] You could also take 90% and invest as per [1]. It would be better than the toilet.

[3] If you’ve grokked what I am saying here, you will also be a long way toward understanding why market institutions tend strongly toward efficiency. Giving cash gives the food bank a choice , and choices are valuable. They can buy nonperishable food, which is often cheap. Or they can buy perishables, which are only sometimes cheap, but generally healthier and tastier. They can tailor their needs to their clients’ allergies or cultural sensitivities. They can bargain hunt. They can save for future disasters. They can do lots of things with cash that you or I can’t even predict, let alone match.

Some will likely object that they weren’t going to eat the food in question anyway, so giving it to a food bank recoups the cost, at least a little. The problem is that the unwanted leftovers of an entire city’s pantries won’t add up to a nutritious or balanced stock of food. They’ll add up to a giant disposal problem. If you really want to recoup your loss, just suck it up and eat the food. Then make a list; never buy the offending products again.

[4] Is it good to keep some people around who cultivate a cheerful contempt for appearances? Perhaps in a sealed enclosure, so they won’t scare the horses? They — oh hell, We — counter an obvious bias in the rest of you. That, in turn, might cause you to think that we were… helpful! And you would love us, if only in a meta sense, and that would be meta-wonderful. In short, you should have seen the first draft of this post. And thanks, Burt and Tim.

[5] Uganda. If ever I’d wish a pox on someone’s house… but here is proof that I don’t. Please help Uganda.

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