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Published on 1/17/2020 additional information available

How to make a charity listen to its recipients

# friend
# impeachment

Happy Friday! Here are some things I’ve been thinking about this week that have nothing to do with impeachment.

1) If you follow GiveWell's "top charity" recommendations — as you should — you're implicitly making a lot of heavy choices about "moral weights."

How valuable is a year of extra life for a small child versus for an adult in their 50s? How valuable is a year of extra life versus doubling one’s income? How valuable is doubling one’s income versus avoiding a painful disease for five years?

These can seem like hopelessly abstract questions but they become painfully real and crucial when comparing whether a dollar of charitable contributions is better assigned to, say, the Malaria Consortium or Deworm the World.

The former trains health workers to distribute drugs for young children that prevent malaria infection. The main benefit of that is that malaria kills a lot of children and the Malaria Consortium’s work saves their lives.

Deworm the World, by contrast, supports government-run programs that distribute medications that prevent parasitic worm infections (as do three other GiveWell top charities). This prevents painful illness in young children, but it also, according to a few studies, increases long-run incomes, perhaps by improving kids’ ability to learn.

So, which of those is better? It depends on the weight you put on additional income versus saving a life. For years, GiveWell staffers have struggled with what weights to use in the massive spreadsheet they use for ranking charities, because these are just such tough, fundamental questions.

Luckily, they now have a lot more data! They funded work by the organization ID insight to survey about 2,000 extremely poor people in Kenya and Ghana to see what they, the people who GiveWell's programs are meant to benefit, think about the relative weight of saving lives versus improving income.

"Survey respondents have higher values for saving lives (relative to reducing poverty) and higher values for averting deaths of children under 5 years old (relative to averting deaths of individuals over 5 years old) than we had previously been using in our decision-making," GiveWell's Josh Rosenberg writes.

It's very cool, important stuff all around.


2) GiveWell’s efforts have me thinking more about the ways in which charities do and don’t reflect the views of the communities they serve, and what the best ways are to reflect those views.

For something like moral weights, a survey makes a lot of sense. There’s no way to determine an objectively right or wrong answer for how to weight more money versus saved lives, so deferring to recipients’ moral judgments makes sense.

But a lot of political decisions that affect people are on issues where they have less firm intuitions and don’t have the time, energy, or inclination to form deep opinions. So in practice, we tend to rely on organizations that represent various communities to speak for those communities, when the individual members aren’t capable or interested in speaking for themselves.


Jeremy Levine, a sociologist at UMichigan, has done a bunch of interesting work on community organizations in Boston: how they’re funded, how they wield political power, and how they speak for the people they claim to represent.


What he finds is that both private funders and government agencies defer to community groups in neighborhoods like Codman Square and Four Corners, even ignoring protests from actual elected officials when those officials disagreed with the community groups.


By contrast, in the neighborhood of Mattapan, a community group focused on development issues folded, and lacking a group to represent the neighborhood, funding and support for projects like new rail stations and affordable housing dried up.


Effectively, these groups, funded by private philanthropy, have in several cases become more powerful than elected representatives. Is that a good thing?


3) But you know what's a good community program? The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program sponsored by the IRS and implemented by community groups around the country.


I recently signed up to learn to be a tax preparer and help people claim the Earned Income Tax Credit and other benefits without getting ripped off by commercial tax preparers. You can sign up too!

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