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By Kate Appleton / LearnVest
July 26, 2015
Henrik Sorensen—Getty Images

The world’s population tops 7 billion—and counting.

Spin the globe, and you’ll encounter all types of compelling problems: a health crisis here, an earthquake there.

You want to make a difference, but how? You’re just one person.

Plus, how do you really know that your charity of choice is reputable and impactful?

University of Oxford professor William MacAskill set out to answer these very questions by taking an honest, evidence-based look at how we approach charitable giving.

Through his research, MacAskill found it’s surprisingly easy for each of us to make a major impact if we avoid common assumptions about giving.

It also turns out that the best charities are hundreds of times more effective than the merely good ones. And, he argues, the way we tend to evaluate them is all wrong.

He even has a term for it, effective altruism, and a new book on the topic: “Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference.”

Intrigued, we caught up with the outspoken MacAskill to uncover what it takes to be an effective altruist—and why you may want to rethink that donation to disaster relief.

LearnVest: Why do you discourage people from donating to disaster relief?

William MacAskill: Obviously, disasters are terrible and should get funding. But it’s a question of ‘Should I personally fund disaster relief?’

In most cases, the answer is no.

They already get so many donations and so much publicity—compared to ongoing natural disasters, like malaria or HIV.

When you think about your individual decision, you have to think on the margin: Given how everyone else is acting, what should I do?

The most basic error is that people think about making a difference, rather than the most difference.

What other factors should people consider when evaluating a charity or cause?

The typical way to analyze a charity is to look at the percentage spent on administrative costs—and that’s a completely wrong way of assessing impact. If a charity is working on a lousy program with very minimal overhead, it’s still lousy.

Instead, consider these factors: scale (how big is the issue in terms of suffering or loss of happiness), neglect (how many resources have already been devoted to it), and tractability (how easy is the problem to solve).

In the U.S., criminal justice is perhaps the most promising cause. It’s unusually tractable at the moment because both left and right want to address it politically. And it’s a humanitarian problem because America incarcerates far more people than other countries, so there’s potential for huge impact.

Then there’s education—an important yet overrated cause. People [tend to] think about its scale, but not the factors of neglect or tractability. It’s already vastly popular, and therefore it’s very hard to make a difference.

We also don’t know much about what leads to improved educational outcomes in the U.S., and since institutions vary greatly from one country to another, it’s hard to evaluate what’s translatable.

To donate your money more effectively, I suggest checking out GiveWell, which offers a comprehensive list of vetted charities.

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