My charitable giving advice from 2007

I had a chapter on this topic in my 2007 book Discover Your Inner Economist, with much of the material based on blog posts from 2004-2006 or so.  No, I was not recommending particular charities, but rather considering how to think about giving more generally.  Since that time there has been so much discussion of the topic in EA communities, I thought it would be interesting to see how well my earlier recommendations have held up.

I argued for the following:

1. Do not give money to beggars, it only encourages rent-seeking for further transfers.

2. Accordingly, many donations should be surprise donations.  In the meantime, limit the ability of people to invest resources in donation-seeking.

3. Give to causes where your giving will have a positive contagion effect upon others.

4. The promise of matching grants is not always very effective in stimulating larger donations.

5. Many forms of ostensible charity in fact have negative effectiveness.  For instance parachuting for charity can lead to a good number of injuries and not bring much positive attention to the charitable cause, at least not relevant to alternatives.

6. I endorse cash transfers, provided you don’t encourage people to work too hard to receive them.

7. There is a cautious endorsement of micro-credit.

8. A fundamental problem is that a lot of giving is driven by motives of affiliation rather than effectiveness.

#8 seems more true than ever before and it is now widely recognized.  #3, while discussed in the current literature, still seems an undervalued point.

On the revisions, microcredit has lost some status since that time, though it still seems modestly effective and it has the further virtue of being self-sustaining.  Cash transfers remain a popular and reasonably effective option, although a) sometimes they are much more effective with mentoring, b) some recent Chris Blattman results suggest they may wash out in the longer run, and c) sometimes cash transfers raise expectations without making the recipients happier in the longer run (a recent paper measures this, does anyone have the link handy?  From Ariella, link is here).

Overall I overrated the dangers of charitable rent-seeking, and underrated the dangers of the bureaucratization of altruism?  In any case, it was interesting to go back and read my earlier thoughts on the question.

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