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You may have heard of Effective Altruism.

It’s an approach to philanthropy designed to help ensure that charitable donations are used most effectively.

The Economist magazine describes Effective Altruism as a growing social movement “trying to bring scientific rigour to philanthropy.”

Its basic tenets include:

All lives have equal value

This basic principle is at the core of Effective Altruism. The father of modern Effective Altruism is arguably moral philosopher Professor Peter Singer. Back in 1974, he summarized his thinking when speaking about a major famine in Bangladesh:

“It makes no difference whether the person I can help is a neighbor’s child ten yards away from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away…The moral point of view requires us to look beyond the interests of our own society.”

Effective Altruism asserts that one needs to consider not just the needs we see in our own communities, but also the needs of those outside our borders.

Needless suffering is greatest in developing countries

While there is relative poverty visible in any community in the U.S. and other industrialized countries, the scale and scope of extreme human suffering in the developing world is far greater.

Though living standards have improved dramatically for billions of people over the last several decades, there are still over a billion people who live without what we consider basic necessities of life—things like clean drinking water, adequate food, toilets, or access to emergency obstetric care when delivering a child.

US wealth is comparatively great

Whether or not any of us consider ourselves wealthy, someone of middle class means in the US is likely part of the top 1% of earners globally. A majority of Americans have more yearly income than 99% of the world’s population.

Moral philosopher Toby Ord from Oxford University puts this wealth inequity in perspective, noting: “A single person in the US who earned $30,000 a year (after tax) would be in the richest 2% of the world’s population…Even the US Federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour would be enough to leave a single person with no dependents in the richest 10% of the world.” 

US charity generally does not address the greatest human needs

The US has a tradition, first observed by French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville in the 19th century, of Americans contributing private resources to the “common good.” But, most of this giving stays in the U.S.

Last year, according to Giving USA, Americans donated $427.7 billion dollars to charity. What might surprise you is that only 5% of this went to international organizations.

So, while the most extreme deprivation and human suffering exists outside of American borders, just one dollar in 20 went to the places that arguably need it the most.

The two biggest categories for US giving, garnering 43% of all US charitable donations, were:

  • religious organizations — such as churches, synagogues, mosques
  • and schools, largely universities

GiveWell: Effective altruism's watch dog

GiveWell is an American charity-rating organization dedicated to finding the charities that “save and improve the most lives per dollar donated.”

With the rigor it demands, GiveWell is making the charitable sector more accountable, and that’s a good thing. There are far too many organizations that pull heart strings to open wallets but fail to provide  results, particularly among organizations working in developing countries where donor oversight is harder to achieve.

How did GiveWell start?

It was founded in 2007 by two Harvard-educated former hedge fund analysts, Elie Hassenfeld and Holden Karnofsky, who wanted to bring their deep analytical skills, honed on Wall Street, to evaluating the effectiveness of charities addressing global poverty.

Who does GiveWell recommend?

In their 12 years of operation, GiveWell has analyzed hundreds of charities. Today they currently only recommend eight top charities.

Virtually all of GiveWell’s ‘top’ charities provide commodity-based interventions – such as bed nets to prevent malaria or pills to treat parasitic worms – which can be very effective when delivered efficiently.

Fistula Foundation is currently  participating in GiveWell’s evaluation process.

GiveWell’s interim analysis of Fistula Foundation

In August 2019, following a multi-year engagement with the Fistula Foundation senior team and a careful review of our results, GiveWell published an interim report recognizing our cost-effectiveness.

Our work providing intricate vaginal and pelvic floor surgeriesoften in rural hospitalsis a far more complicated endeavor than the commodity-based interventions Give Well currently recommends.

GiveWell’s interim report on our effectiveness reflects an appreciation of this complexity.

What's Next

In the next phase, GiveWell will take an even deeper dive into our results. Our ultimate goal is that GiveWell’s analysis will continue to bolster our assertion that we are a smart-money investment.

What We Do

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