What is High-Impact Charity?

Most of us, given the chance, would like to contribute to making the world a better place. However, the magnitude of problems facing the world such as poverty and climate change can sometimes seem completely overwhelming.

Every day, we are bombarded by articles and images of all manner of tragedies: environmental disasters, poverty, animal cruelty, and more. If you want to make the world a better place, where do you even start?

Fortunately, there are ways to make an enormous difference at a low cost. The truth is that through careful, evidence-based reasoning, most individuals can actually have a tremendous impact on the world, improving and saving lives.   

This is because reliable scientific evidence has shown that the most effective charities are estimated to be between a hundred and a thousand times more effective at improving lives than the average charity. By focusing on the right charity, you can achieve a greater impact in a few years than you might’ve otherwise been able to do in a lifetime.

Examples of High-Impact Charities

It only costs around five US dollars ($6 CAD) for the Against Malaria Foundation to purchase and deliver an insecticide-treated bednet to a family in a malaria-infested area. Rigorous scientific studies has shown that by sleeping under this net, the family greatly reduces their chances of contracting malaria, a mosquito borne infectious disease which kills around half a million children each year. By donating to a highly effective charity such as Against Malaria Foundation, you can prevent many cases of malaria and prevent children from dying.

In fact, it is estimated that over the last 15 years, bednets have prevented around 450 million cases of malaria, and 6.2 million fewer people have died because of bednets and other anti-malaria interventions

Similar ideas can be applied to animal welfare (and other cause areas) as well. When most people hear about an ‘animal charity,’ they think about ones focusing on protecting and finding homes for household pets. This is a fine and important cause, but well-supported in the developed world. Far more neglected, however, animals in factory farms usually spend their whole lives in cramped conditions in sheds with no windows and often suffer from serious untreated health problems. At Rethink Charity, we challenge the preconception held by many that a cat’s life is worth more than a pig’s, simply because the former makes a better pet. We focus our efforts on factory farming, in which a small monetary donation can make a huge difference. One example of a high-impact charity working for farmed animals is The Humane League, which conducts investigations, education campaigns, and works with companies to adopt animal welfare reforms, so fewer animals suffer in factory farms. It is estimated that for every 1 US dollar ($1.20 CAD) donated to The Humane League, roughly 10 animals are spared from the abuses and poor living conditions of industrial animal agriculture. While this figure is uncertain, it shows that a small amount of money can have an astounding impact.  

Finding outstanding opportunities to do good

It is not an easy task to find the charities with the highest impact. If we just look for the biggest or most well-known charities, these don’t necessarily translate to the most effective organisations. A charity might be excellent at collecting donations, but poor in meeting objectives and making a real difference.

Looking at the financial statements of a charity is also not enough. Some charity evaluators, such as Charity Navigator, rate charities on how the organisation is run, such as how transparent their decision making is and how much of their income is spent on their key programs versus administration and fundraising. However, this also doesn’t tell us whether a charity is effective — if the charity’s main activities do not help the people they intend to help, it will be an ineffective charity, however efficiently the organisation is run.

While charities themselves sometimes advertise how effective they are, citing how much impact your donation will have, often these statement are biased and misleading, and can’t be trusted.

If your goal in donating to charity is to save lives, then we believe we should choose the charity that saves the most lives with a donation, regardless of how that life is saved (or what it’s saved from). We believe that if Charity A saves 10 lives for $10,000 and Charity B saves 1 life for $10,000, then Charity A is better than Charity B, even though they may tackle very different causes of death. Of course, not all choices are this simple. Saving lives may not be the only important factor, so you might also weigh up improving quality of life as well as considering any long term effects of the charity’s work.

Hard data, rigorous analysis, and critical thinking are required to decide which charities are the most effective. Fortunately, there are a number of independent charity evaluators, including GiveWell, The Life You Can Save,  Animal Charity Evaluators, and the Open Philanthropy Project. These groups perform rigorous research into which charities are doing the most good and which cause areas are the most promising.