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A Very Hard Problem

October 5th, 2014
giving

When talking to people about charity evaluation they'll often say something like:

GiveWell's "product" was always a solution looking for a problem. I have a normal work schedule, a family, and plenty of outside activities, and yet I still somehow find time every year to do a minor amount of research into which charities I want to support. This has never been a problem for me or anyone I know. If I had a much higher income and subsequently wanted to give larger chunks to charitable causes, I can only imagine it would be even easier for me to do this minimal research, or hell, pay an accountant to do it for me. — odinsdream

The idea is that picking charities is easy, so why would we need people to do it for us? But why would you think it's easy? Because it feels easy when you do it? How do you know you're doing a good job?

Choosing a charity to donate to is identifying which of the thousands of organizations working on hundreds of causes will do the most good with your money. Will $200 to Oxfam make the world a better place than $200 to the ACLU? Does it go farther when directly given to people who need it or when providing them the best public health interventions? What are the best public health interventions?

This is a very hard problem, with enough separate questions to keep hundreds of people busy full-time. GiveWell is working on it, but so are J-PAL/IPA, the FHI, ACE, and many other acronyms. GiveWell's "product" is a solution for a real problem, it's just not one people realize they have.

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