"In the "Buy A Brushstroke" campaign, eleven thousand British donors gave a total of £550,000 to keep the famous painting "Blue Rigi" in a UK museum. If they had given that £550,000 to buy better sanitation systems in African villages instead, the latest statistics suggest it would have saved the lives of about one thousand two hundred people from disease... Most of those 11,000 donors genuinely wanted to help people by preserving access to the original canvas of a beautiful painting. And most of those 11,000 donors, if you asked, would say that a thousand people's lives are more important than a beautiful painting, original or no. But these people didn't have the proper mental habits to realize that was the choice before them, and so a beautiful painting remains in a British museum and somewhere in the Third World a thousand people are dead." Less Wrong article on efficient charity

There are a million and one apparently urgent causes in the world, all clamoring for funds and volunteers. According to maximizing utilitarianism, we ought to choose the actions which will cause the most good overall. Even according to forms of consequentialism where we don't maximize overall good, then it is generally held that when we do set out to help others, we should do it in the most efficient way possible. But we don't. There are some charities working in Africa which are 1,000 times more effective at saving lives than other charities working in the same area. There are enormous gains to be had from distributing money among efficient charities.


We run into various problems when trying to assess which charities are the most efficient. The most obvious is the problem of how we measure efficiency. A few suggestions would be QALY's added, DALY's prevented or suffering reduced. The measure used by Givewell, a charity evaluator, seems to be dollars required to save a life. For example, the top ranking charity investigated by Givewell is VillageReach and that saves a life for around every $550 donated.

Another problem is that of how much we care about various beings. Some people don't care about animal welfare at all, and so wouldn't count charities which benefited mainly animals as very efficient. Others might not put any value on the lives of future persons, and so wouldn't care about risks to the existence of those future persons. Not everyone identifies the same charities as efficient.

Finally, we face the problem of evaluating charities whose focus is on the far term, for example research charities of various kinds, charities working to reduce global risks etc. Some would say that these charities are the most efficient as they are working on the biggest problems, but their effects are difficult to quantify.

Time or Money?Edit

When thinking of how to make a charitable impact, people's minds most often turn to volunteer work, helping out at an animal shelter or giving out food to the homeless (or editing a wiki). Less often do people think of giving their money to a charity. It doesn't seem to be strongly believed that giving money is as good as giving your time, whereas in fact giving your money is likely to be better. This is because of professional specialization, namely you do what you are best at and get paid for it, and attendant economic ideas I won't go into.

In general, if you have the capacity to work an hour at your job (overtime) or work an hour for a charity then you should choose work, followed by giving the money you earned from the hour's work to the charity. This is likely to be of greater net benefit.

Arguably then, utilitarians shouldn't be working in charitable institutions, they should be focusing on making money, at whatever they're best at, and then donating lots of money.

Where should money be given?Edit

It is important for utilitarians to know where money can be placed to generate the greatest utility. If a strategy has much greater utility than all others, it is the dominant one. How much utility do proposed strategies produce?

Further ReadingEdit

Purchase Fuzzies and Utilons Separately: Suggests that people can't give only to the most efficient charities as these don't feel like they have enormous benefits. So, give to charities optimized to make you feel good about yourself, and set a different budget for charities optimized to do good.

Nothing Wrong with Selfish Giving: Givewell also going for the different budget concept.

Giving What We Can: Organization full of people giving large amounts of their income to the most efficient charities they can manage.


  1. Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence
  2. How Much it Matters to Know What Matters
  3. Future of Humanity Institute
  4. Toby Ord's Giving What We Can


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