Op-Ed: Creating a Culture of Effective Philanthropy


The following is an op-ed written by Charlie Bresler, Executive Director of The Life You Can Save (TLYCS). TLYCS is an organization founded by the philosopher Peter Singer and based on the basic tenet of Effective Altruism: leading an ethical life involves using a portion of personal wealth and resources to efficiently alleviate the effects of extreme poverty.  Fistula Foundation is proud to be one of 12 charities recommended by TLYCS, charities they believe can make the most positive change in the most effective ways.


It was just a few cases, but when the Ebola epidemic “came home “it evoked a much more intense and widespread emotional response in our communities, and in the press, than when it was very far away and, therefore, more abstract. Certainly, irrational fear played a role in this amplified response; however, data from a variety of sources strongly suggests that the closer to home victims are and the more like us they are, the more likely it is that they will evoke an emotional response, presumably empathy, that results in our providing financial assistance.

Even when the victims are geographically far away and of a different race, humanitarian crises, like Ebola, yield an outpouring of sympathy and financial aid that is almost entirely absent when there is no salient emergency. The fact is that the devastating effects of extreme poverty – living on less than $1.25 per day – a fact of life for approximately 44% of people in developing countries – present numerous ways to effectively reduce premature death and reduce suffering. Interestingly, non-crisis aid to the most effective charities could save substantially more lives and reduce more collective suffering than the aid we provide during crises when there is very often lack of clarity as to how the aid will reach and benefit those in need.

This contrast between our responses to crises, as opposed to the suffering of everyday life, is consistent with our giving behavior generally. Graphic media attention during humanitarian crises increases the immediacy of the victims’ distress by bringing those individuals into our living rooms. Now our desire to help those in desperate need is activated much like it would be if someone were bleeding profusely or having a heart attack right in front of us. Most of the time though, this instinctive desire to help is dormant. Consider the following facts:

  • 18,000 children die each day from preventable causes associated with extreme poverty. For example, 700,000 children die yearly from malaria. These problems are essentially non-existent in the developed world.
    • Against Malaria Foundation (AMF) distributes insecticide-treated bed nets, which prevent malaria, at a cost of $3 each.
    • Population Services International (PSI) estimates that they spend approximately $17.77 to extend a person’s health and life for one year.
  • 90% of all blindness and vision impairment is in the developing world. 80% of these cases could be prevented or treated successfully.
    • SEVA and Fred Hollows Foundation both offer surgeries in the developing world that can cure blindness for estimates ranging from $25-$125.
  • Obstetric fistulas, serious childbirth injuries virtually non-existent in developed countries, cause young women to be completely ostracized from their communities, leading to hopeless non-productive lives.
    • The Fistula Foundation provides surgeries that cure this condition for $450.

According to the “Money for Good” study, commissioned by the Hewlett Foundation, Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs, The Metanoia Fund, and the Rockefeller Foundation, only 35% of people do any research on the impact of their donations and of those, 75% do less than two hours. More upsetting is that only 16% of individuals surveyed report that their priority is the impact of their donations. So how do we reconcile the outpouring of humanitarian concern and aid during crises and the relative dormancy the rest of the time?

I suggest that there is a useful distinction to be made between “associational” giving and “optimal” giving. Understanding this distinction helps make sense of our behavior.

Most of our giving induces a “warm glow.” This giving is generally familial, personal, local, or at least domestic. While this giving does not produce “the most bang for the buck,” it fulfills us emotionally: we can see the impact of our gifts (or at least imagine the impact), right there in front of us.

Similarly, “crisis giving” occurs when the media brings a crisis into our lives in such a vivid way that it can grab us as if it is right in front of us. This effect does not persist or, unfortunately, generalize to other desperate situations that are ongoing among those living in extreme poverty.

“Optimal” giving, on the other hand, is when a donor wants to get the most “bang for the buck.” Since a dollar goes dramatically further in the developing world than in developed countries, and most extreme poverty and its effects are centered there, charities operating effectively in the developing world are best positioned to achieve optimal results.

At The Life You Can Save (TLYCS), we encourage donors to do two things: 1) move some “associational giving” to “optimal giving” in order to get the most impact for their dollars and 2) consider giving more overall, including taking an income-based pledge. For this Giving Season and the New Year ahead here’s a resolution worth considering: I will investigate the charities I donate to more thoroughly than I have in the past and give more generously to support the charities that deliver “bang for the buck.” We wish everyone a Holiday Season and New Year filled with good giving and good living!