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Charity: Why It’s the Thought That Counts

  Do we treat giving presents and giving to charity too differently?

We often say that it’s the thought that counts when buying gifts. Sometimes, we’re making up for the fact that the present in question didn’t work out well – the chocolates melted on the journey, but it’s the thought that counts. Sometimes we’re being more optimistic, and mean that a little thought can make a big difference to the quality of a gift. Lack of funds can be made up for by careful consideration of what the person likes, and inventiveness. A second hand book by your favourite author would be far more appreciated than a new hard-cover copy of a book that’s just not your thing.

The point of charity is to help not those you know personally, but those who really need help. Often we don’t give much thought to giving money to charity. We give to the big-name charity we’ve heard of, the one whose employee rattled a tin on our street, the one we’ve been giving to for a while now and would feel guilty about leaving in the lurch. But why don’t we give it more thought?

It might seem that all charity does good, while not all gifts are appreciated. Then maybe it’s more important to discriminate between gifts than between charities. Yet most gifts bring some pleasure – the new gadget is shiny and cool, even if it was expensive and you’d have preferred the book. Despite the fact that almost all gifts are appreciated to some degree, it’s considered important to put in some thought, and try to find one the person will really like. Why not extend that principle to charity? If some charities do much more good than others, it’s much better to give to them. That is so regardless of whether all charities do some good.

The information required to buy a thoughtful present seems easier to come by than information about charities – pay attention to what your friend likes, and maybe ask them the odd subtle question. On the other hand, there are so many charities out there, helping so many people, how could you find out about enough of them to make an informed decision? Since there are many people trying to achieve the same goal through donating to charity, it makes sense for people to band together to get the requisite information. Giving What We Can and GiveWell do precisely that, making available the information necessary to give more thoughtfully.

Perhaps it’s clearer in the case of gifts than charities how one can be better than another. A gift is better if your friend is happier to receive it, uses it more, and gets more enjoyment from it. Charities work in different areas, and help people in different ways. But there are methods of comparison available, particularly within particular areas. With respect to health, for example, we already have a whole system set up to compare different interventions – Quality Adjusted Life Years – used by the NHS among others. Using QUALYs, it’s possible to compare different interventions, and find out how much good could be done with a certain amount of money if it were donated to those different interventions. It turns out there are huge differences between the good brought about by different interventions. Choosing to give a certain amount of money to one charity rather than another could bring about 100s of times more good.

A little thought in buying a gift can make the difference between one which is hardly appreciated, and one which brings great joy. In giving to charity a bit of thought (and research) could make the difference between saving one life, and saving hundreds. So we should encourage thoughtful giving, regardless of whether it’s to friends or strangers.

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20 Comment on this post

  1. Thank you for the post, Michelle. The thought of putting more thought into charitable giving is an interesting one. You rightly indicate that it is thought about your friend and your friend's preferences that makes the difference in whether the gift is a hit or a flop. In other words, it is MATCH that matters. I think you would agree that it would be silly to agonize about the properties of the gift itself – the quality of its materials and craftsmanship etc – or the store from which the gift comes, without also considering the person to whom you are giving the birthday present. Yet this is precisely what you seem to be asking when you suggest we spend more time thinking about charities, for "if some charities do much more good than others, it’s much better to give to them." This is akin to saying that some gifts in general are better appreciated than other gifts, so it is much better to buy those gifts. But even if most people love a nice bottle of champagne, teetotalers, toddlers, and recovering alcoholics will certainly not share this view. Similarly, a smartphone is no good to someone without internet access.

    Surely it makes more sense to find out what the people who you actually want to give to need and then to match with a relevant charity just like you match the friend with the gift?

    If it is the MATCH that matters, the charity that gives the most QUALYs for the money (or bang for your buck) may systematically leave some groups needs unmet. If all you care about is the raw aggregate of QUALYs, you might not think this is a problem (afterall, you get MORE QUALYs). But if you think that inequality is a bad thing and that there is something good in helping those in need regardless of sex, religion, country, or other grouping (internet connections included), then you might choose a few charities that have less of a bang for your buck that address this niches (more people with more QUALYs).

    But this takes knowing about BOTH the Gift and the Recipient.

    1. Michelle Hutchinson

      Thanks Matt! I definitely agree we need to think about the recipient as well as the gift. In the case of giving to charity, it seems clear that a malaria net, however well-made would be useless in an area without mosquitoes, and a TB treatment wouldn’t help someone without TB. Luckily, in this respect charities usually do the work for us – they don’t give malaria nets to people living in Alaska, and they don’t treat TB in people without TB. I think the same is true on the scale of QUALYs – charities don’t force people to be cured, they offer treatments to those who want them. But I think that to make a QUALY (rather than an individual intervention) analogous to a gift is problematic, since health is usually reckoned to be a good to everyone, unlike champagne.
      It’s not clear to me that if you care just about doing the most good, rather than equality of goods, you’re thinking less about the recipients. It’s more that you’re thinking about them differently. You look at all possible recipients, and find which you can help the most with the resources available, rather than looking at which are currently worst off. These are two different ways of considering the recipients.

      1. thanks for the quick reply, Michelle! I am not trying to compare a gift to a QUALY, but to the specific treatment. The idea being that only those that are properly matched get the QUALYs from intevention or the happineness from the gift. This has the potential to systematically leave a lot of people out.

        If the charity that works against TB is the one that gives you the most bang for your buck in terms of QUALY's, and people were to say 'I can help the most by giving to this TB charity," then what happens to those individuals with other issues (and these people may or may not be the worst off, all things considered), for example, those with the "neglected diseases" as outlined on the Giving What We Can website?

        To draw another example, let us imagine the Joe reasonably believes that education, over the long run, is important in escaping poverty and improving quality of life. And although effectiveness of education, as mentioned on the GWWC website, is very difficult, Joe reasonably believes that giving to a charity that increases educational access to boys in Pakistan will produce more QUALYs for these boys and their families than giving to a charity that increases educational access to girls, or both boys and girls; education for girls may lead to increase in quality of life, but because of social obstacles put in their path, Joe reasons, the increase will very unlikely be near that of educating a male counterpart. so Joe, after considering the possible recipients and calculating which he can help most with the resources available, decides to give to the more effective charity, which happens to be more effective precisely because it is concerned with male education only.

        I imagine I am not alone in thinking there is something dodgy about Joe's Calculus. Who gets the QUALYs, even though they are a good for whoever recieves them, is an issue with which we should engage. Even though Joe can "help most" by giving to the all male educational enterprise, there is a good argument for "helping less" (ie less aggregate QUALYs) in order extend educational access to both sexes. (of course this argument is open to the objection that Joe is shortsighted in his calculus, for increasing educational access to women may well produce more QUALYs over the long run).

        1. Michelle Hutchinson

          Right back at you with the quick replying 🙂
          With regard to your first point, I think it would definitely be problematic if this were the case: The choices are helping both those with TB and those with something else (NTDs are not necessarily the example we should use, as they are the most cost-effective and hence highest ranked on GWWC), maybe HIV, and helping just those with TB, because the latter is most cost-effective. But at the moment, that isn't the case. There is nowhere near enough money given to charity to help everyone. So the choice is actually more like that between helping 10 people with TB, or one with HIV. What I'm saying is that if we face the latter decision, we shouldn't be indifferent to the numbers. It should also be noted that concentrating on one disease at a time, rather than treating one person with x, another with y, and leaving lots of others with both untreated, is that many of these diseases could be eradicated. If all the people in a certain area are treated for SCI for 5-10 years, for example, it will die out in that area. Unfortunately, we can't simultaneously help everyone. But if we are thoughtful about who we help, we can help far more people in the long run than by randomly selecting a few inviduals from many different groups.
          With regard to Joe, as I said, I'm assuming in my post that the aim is to maximise goods, rather than caring about the equal distribution of the goods. I agree, many people care about equality. That's a whole other debate. Having said that, I also think there is "something dodgy about Joe's Calculus". What's dodgy is Joe's belief that educating boys will be a more cost-effective way of helping the community than educating girls. Most of the evidence I've seen shows that educating women is more cost-effective, because they're less likely to leave the community, and because there is sometimes decreasing marginal utility to education. Hence this is an unfair example, because you invite the reader to agree with you that the conclusion is implausible and hence the reasoning is faulty, when actually people's feeling that the conclusion is dubious may stem from an incorrect premise instead. Note that people might be less inclined to disagree with the conclusion if you swapped the genders (which would leave the reasoning untouched but to my mind make the premise more plausible).

          1. Michelle, thank you for the thoughtful response. The point about concentrated fire power to eradicate a particular disease is well taken, and perhaps should be given more attention in debates like these. Especially when we consider that social technology and sites like giving what we can are potentially able to mobilize huge numbers of people.

          2. Though, as you eliminate the parasitic worm from the more of the population in an area, it might be reasonable to think that the effectiveness of giving to the charity in charge would also decrease (because fewer people would need treatment but the charity would have many fixed costs). This is an empirical question and if it turns out this way might act as a good negative feedback system on the whole enterprise or it could mean that you don't eliminate the disease… Unless you incorporate a value of the elimination in the effectiveness criteria to keep things going. And then you still have to decide when to stop: once the disease is eliminated from the town? Country? Region? World? Not insurmountable questions, but tricky ones.

            Then the other important empirical question is will a comparison website like giving what we can encourage innovation in charities in order to make addressing different causes more cost effective(making charitable given overall more effective)? Or will it crowd out not-immediately-the-most-effective charities?

  2. One aspect that seems to be missing from this discussion is the important of the personal connection. The gift is appreciated in part because it is an act of love by someone you know. A donation to charity is totally anonymous. The recipient of charity does not know the people who made the initial donations.

    This is not to say that giving to charity is somehow less important than making gifts to friends and charities. But we do need to clarify our thinking a bit about who actually does "really need help". What does it even mean to "need help"? Once again I'm going to argue this from a utilitarian perspective and suggest that those who "really need help" are those who can most benefit, in the long run and all things considered (to the extent that it's possible to do so), from the gift/charity. But it is precisely here that the personal connection becomes important. Strangers may "need help" more in the sense that they desperately need some form of material support, but that won't necessarily make such a different to their levels of happiness as we might think.

    In a sense this is the opposite of what Matt is saying. Neither of us are interested merely in "the raw aggregate of QUALYs", but while Matt emphasises the need to reduce inequality I emphasise the important of the personal connection in enhancing the value of a gift. But it's not really opposite, I would rather say it's complementary. Another point to make is that the extent to which the gift or donation makes the giver feel good is also a legitimate consideration, from my utilitarian perspective. Some people may prefer the mathematical satisfaction of maximising the raw aggregate of QUALYs. Others may welcome an opportunity to help those that are most in need, regardless of whether this is giving the best "bang for the buck" in terms of QUALYs. Still others may prefer to let the strangers look after themselves and focus on friends and family. All of which is fine with me.

  3. Michelle Hutchinson

    Thanks for your comments, Peter. I agree that personal connection, and the feeling the giver gets, are both to be taken into account. In my post I was only really comparing giving to certain charities against giving to other ones, and was assuming that the recipient didn’t know the giver in either case, so that the ‘personal connection’ was not relevant. However, as you rightly point out, there is a sense in which giving presents and giving to charity are on the same playing field, and can be directly compared, in which case the grateful feeling from knowing the giver personally is relevant. To be able to compare directly, take some numbers. Say that £10 could buy your friend a book they really want. Alternatively, if donated to a charity which treats parasitic worm infections in developing countries, £10 would bring about 4 QUALYs. Such infections don’t typically kill the person. For example, some cause elephantiasis, some malnutrition preventing children from growing properly etc. Therefore, the 4 QUALYs gained aren’t actually 4 extra years of life, but more like improvement in an existing life for about 40 years. So, your argument seems to run:
    We should maximise happiness/utility.
    Giving gifts to friends increases happiness because they like the gift, because they feel a personal connection to me, and because I feel a personal connection to them.
    Giving to charity increases happiness, because the recipient appreciates what has been done for them.
    Therefore, the two are (approximately, as far as we can tell etc) equally good. (I take it that’s approximately what you mean by “All of which is fine by me”.)

    This argument seems to me to require a dodgy empirical premise:
    Happiness of receiving book + Happiness of receiving present from a friend + Happiness of giving present to a friend =(approx) Happiness of being cured of elephantiasis for 40 years.

  4. I think that comparing gift giving and charitable giving in a too simply quantified way is a mistake. one could do this "£10-calculus" for almost everything in our lives (especially if we translate time into money and then consider the cost of posting on this blog). In each individual calculation, the elephantitus may come out on top, but I wonder if we are not creating a sort of Sorites paradox:

    Perhaps what is couched in Peter's argument about personal connection and mine about inequality is that there are certain things (love, fulfilling relationships, or social equality) that emerge (and errode) slowly, nebulously, and do not fit nicely into the raw QUALY calculus. Many utilitarians argue (Peter Singer among them) that there is a moral responsibility to help those in need unless one has to sacrifice something of equivalent moral worth to do so. Although plucking a single hair will not make you bald, giving that £10 to the parasitic worm infection charity will not destroy your relationship, and giving a single gift to the all-male education effort will not magnify gender inequality, continuing the process may very well do all three… and then the equivalent moral worth question (or indeed question of new harms by magnifying gender inequality) becomes more difficult. It is therefore important to incorporate these more nuanced arguments into the raw aggregate QUALY

    1. Michelle Hutchinson

      I entirely agree that when considering how to live your life there are many more factors which need to be taken into account than I included in my equation. I was merely responding to Peter's very specific point about the feeling of the giver and receiver on a particular occasion.

  5. It may sound callous, but my impression from reading popular accounts of empirical psychology (such as Jonathan Haidt's excellent The Happiness Hypothesis) is that chronic health conditions play only a very minor role in actuall levels of happiness. You just get used to it. So yes, surprisingly, the equation you suggest Michelle may not be so far off the mark as it might appear. Just look around you at all the people suffering from affluenza, material well off but spiritually broke, neurotic and chronically anxious, seeing pedophiles behind every lamppost waiting to molest their children. And then observe the stoicism of people living in abject poverty, and basically just getting on with it.

    So I think Matt is right: we need to treat *naively* utilitarian calculations with great caution. Which is not to say they aren't useful – by all means let's prioritise *some* of our charitable giving (and government aid) to maximize QUALYs, you can certainly do a lot worse. But let's not kid ourselves that we are doing something absolutely marvelous by curing someone of elephantiasis for 40 years. Practical empathy with ourselves and those around us is probably more important. Apart form anything else, that kind of giving is less addictive and dependency-inducing than cold charity.

    1. "chronic health conditions play only a very minor role in actuall levels of happiness"

      I think this is true to an extent; there is always a degree of adaptation. However, it depends what health conditions are being considered. One that involves chronic pain is not something people easily adapt to. Also, if they are health conditions that prevent people from engaging in behaviour that is strongly associated with happiness (e.g. socialising), then this again would reduce a person's long-term happiness. In the latter case, it may not be the health condition per se that reduces happiness, but rather the way society is set up to deal with people with such conditions.

        1. Michelle Hutchinson

          Contracting elephantiasis often leads to people being ostracised, and hence unable to socialise. Neglected Tropical Diseases in general, if contracted during childhood, prevent people from going to school and hence severely limit people's options.
          The empirical studies in psychology I've seen have indicated that although people do bounce back to some degree from the unhappiness of first contracting a medical condition, health is still one of the biggest things affecting people's happiness. Also, it's worth bearing in mind that the QUALY measure was reached in part by talking to people who had the conditions in question, and asking them how bad it was to have it / how much less life they would be prepared to have in order not to have the condition.
          "Practical empathy with ourselves and those around us … is less addictive and dependency inducing than cold charity." This strikes me as a very implausible claim. Everyone loves to do benefit themselves, and most seem to very much enjoy helping out their friends. But very few seem to really care about giving much to charity. It seems to me very much the other way round. It's addictive help ourselves and those around us, because we feel and see the benefit. With charity, almost all the pay-off is to someone else, so we're much less likely to get addicted to it.

          1. On addiction I was referring to the recipient getting addicted/dependent rather than the giver. But I take your point: receiving love from those around us can be addictive as well. I'm sceptical about the self-reporting basis of QUALYs, given how bad we are generally about knowing what really makes us happy. But I've probably overstated my case. I just have the feeling that there's something more authentic about giving motivated by direct empathy than by cold calculation. But maybe it's just that the idea makes me feel better.

  6. Michelle Hutchinson

    Matt – I agree, taking the cost-effectiveness of eradicating a disease is vitally important, and not entirely straightforward. A lot of work is still needed.
    The question of whether charities will become more innovative is also an interesting one. Some hopeful evidence is provided by the fact that certain of the de-worming charities recommended by GWWC sprang up because of the research done by the World Health Organisation and the Diseases Control Project, showing deworming to be cost-effective, and the interest shown by charities such as Oxfam in having discussions with GWWC.

    Peter – yes, it's very important to make sure that charities don't get people addicted. That's another reason why it's important to give thought to which charities you give to, and whether they are looking at the long-term picture. I don't think it's a reason against giving to charity.
    There also seems to be something to the idea that giving based on empathy, not just calculation is important. I think Peter Railton was right in this respect, in saying that utilitarians must be careful to avoid alienation. But that can be avoided, while giving to charity, and to the most cost-effective charities. For example, use a calculation to find out which is most cost-effective, and then try to get yourself emotionally involved with that cause – seek out information on the plight of people that disease, so you can feel genuine empathy with them, join a community of people giving to that cause, try to meet people who have directly seen the work the charity does etc.

  7. Interesting. The morality of Kant vs. Mill recast as gifts vs charity. Is the good an objective thing, independent of its effects, or do ends alone justify means? Is the value of a gift measured in intent or effect? What about charity?

    What is needed here is a little Aristotle. We must ask what the purposes are of gifts and of charity and there, we will find our answer. If the purpose of a gift is to send a message that says, "I care" then it is the thought that counts. If the purpose of charity is to bring about physical change, thoughts count for nothing.

    But what if my decision is to effect a lot of change for one person, or to effect less change for more people? How do I perform such a computation? The difficulty with Mill is the problem of transforming quality into quantity. What is the algorithm here? I am not convinced that calculators can solve moral problems.

    1. Michelle Hutchinson

      Thanks for your comments, Peter. My point was that while we often think that because charity is about bringing about physical change rather than sending a message of 'I care', it seems plausible that thoughts count for nothing, but that in fact thoughts can make all the difference. That is because with a little thought we can produce far more physical change than we would by unthinkingly giving money to the whatever charity happened to first catch our attention.
      While it is, as you say, in many cases very difficult to compare helping different people, that does not mean we should give up hope of doing so. For example, when it is a choice between curing one person of Karposi's Sarcoma (a complication of AIDS), or preventing hundreds of people from contracting HIV (and hence AIDS), the decision is not so much whether to effect a lot of change for one person or less change for more people, but whether to effect the same amount of change for just one person or for many people. (For a comparison of the various effective ways of preventing HIV spread, see )

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