What's the best domestic charity?

by William_MacAskill 6y10th Dec 201311 comments


Here's a very tentative thought: A lot of people respond to effective altruism by saying that they want to give to charities that work on their home country. Insofar as effective altruists (typically, roughly speaking) care about everyone equally, they obviously care about the welfare of Americans (Brits, Australians, Canadians, etc). It's just that, because of diminishing returns, the best opportunities for helping people are very likely to be abroad. However, it wouldn't be that surprising to me if there were very good giving opportunities domestically.  All it would take is for some very cheap but very effective activity to have been relatively overlooked in the domestic charity sector, or for some domestic charitable activity to have high positive externalities or large positive flow-on effects.

So it's at least somewhat plausible to me that the best response to "charity begins at home" is "ok, if that's what you value you should give to [insert good domestic charity]." That response would:

  1. Show people that we're supportive of all attempts to do good, even if there are value-disagreements (a lot of recent criticism comes down to "how dare you be so moralistic and condemn such-and-such cause as unworthy" which isn't what we're trying to say at all).
  2. Make for an easier entry into a conversation about values, and to then discuss why people choose to support domestic charities over international ones. It would show we're on the same side - maximising impact - and are just differing in our implementation of that general maxim. (Obviously, many people might just be trying to come up with excuses for not giving effectively in general. But then giving domestic recommendations would test whether that's the case or not.)
  3. Potentially get a much wider demographic of people interested in effective altruism.
  4. Potentially - if we actually can find great domestic charities (including, perhaps, ones with positive international externalities) - move poorly spent charitable giving to more effective causes.
I know that GiveWell used to recommend domestic charities, and I disagreed with them then for doing so. I would still disagree with them if they were to recommend Nurse-Family Partnership or KIPP Houston, as I doubt that these have the requisite level of good done per dollar to be worth promoting.

But others might do better. [Edit: After comments suggesting that these 'illustrations' are low-quality enough to be actively misleading, I take back the following]. Off the top of my head, these might be contenders:

  • Promoting mindfulness meditation. Reason: Depression is set to soon become the largest contributor to the global burden of disease. Mindfulness meditation seems to have a good evidence base behind it, for reducing rates of depression, anxiety and general stress. It consists mainly of breathing exercises, and could be taught through mass media, which could give it a very low cost per person treated. As well as the benefits to the people treated, it could have significant positive flow-on effects: (i) it has been suggested that mindfulness meditation boosts leads to increased levels of altruism; [NB: I haven't vetted these claims at all] (ii) it would increase productivity of those in the US, and general economic growth is good, including for poorer countries through the increased value of trade; (iii) if successful it could be rolled out to developing countries as well.
  • Paying to support the better political party, such as through Get Out the Vote. (See Carl Shulman's excellent post about this here.) If the party with better domestic policies also has better international policies, then this would have significant benefits for the developing world.
These aren't meant to be actual suggestions, just illustrations of how this could work. I'm interested to know if others have more ideas.