Samuel Shadrach asked

Have there been any studies on the effects of being able to see the effects of your donation to an EA cause first-hand? ... it could matter. if it's not just first-hand but personalised and non-fungible. Like "this specific child or alcoholic is being sponsored by you"

I've thought a lot about this in the past, also considering making this apparent by allowing the donor to 'personalize' the outcome in some un-interfering way, like painting the sanitary facilities blue. I considered work on the impact of 'donor choice' as a tool for boosting effective giving. For example, in a 2014 essay I wrote an essay [1]( ... in which I stated

When the giver retains some use, experience, or control over the gift, she shares in the consumption of it ... Larger organizations like UNICEF have also depersonalized giving, re- moving the connection between giving, empathy, and a feeling of ownership. The [ancient[ liturgy institution may have preserved this while taking away the voluntary aspect. There is evidence that visible impact, a personal connection, and the ability to make choices are important drivers of giving, and that these are crucial to the emotional benefits of giving. [citations removed]


Is this idea special to EA? This may help reduce the "distance" concern by making the gift more tangible? This practice generally comes at the cost of effectiveness. However, if it motivates substantially more giving, it may be worth it. For international poverty relief this is sometimes very hard to do credibly because of the distance and mediating channels, but easier because objects (e.g., a toilet) can be built at relatively low cost.

This also relates to the discussion of identifiable victims, and Peter Singer's discussion in The Life You Can Save (under "Creating a Culture of Giving")

[Plan International] does its best to retain the appeal of the identifiable child by continuing to invite potential donors to “Sponsor a Child” for between £12 and £17 ($24 to $34) per month, and the sponsors can write and receive letters, visit their sponsor child, and send “small gifts.” But potential sponsors are also told: “Your money does not go to the individual child that you sponsor. So that Plan can make efficient use of funds, the money is pooled with contributions from other sponsors to support programs benefiting communities worldwide."

But does the latter part of the message, even if it allows 'more efficient use' of the funds, undermine the emotional impact and reduce the amount donated?

Academic work or other studies?

I recall seeing some academic studies that get at this (pairing potential donors with particular identified recipients), but not in a very meaningful way.[2]. People typically knew they were in an experiment and the amounts were small or low probability, and the designs are often 'weird' in other ways.

"Getting The Rich and Powerful to Give" involves a large field experiment where they give donors the "option to express their charitable giving priorities on the reply card", and find a substantial positive effect, but this is a framing change, not actual earmarked giving. (And this was for an ivy league university alumni fundraiser, perhaps the polar opposite to an effective charity.)

There's also a lot on the 'identifiable victim effect', but these experiments essentially alter the framing, not the actual conditionality or donor-recipient connection.

My take

I've thought about this for a while, and I've long been wanting (someone) to engineer a 'good trial of this'. It's challenging, but might be possible with greater internet access and new payment mechanisms.

*Responding to Samuel's post... Samuel suggested I make this a standalone post. I reprise/excerpt my response below...

The 'two sided market', tangibility and agency

EA donors are special creatures, but to make donations sustainable in the large community one might need to think about both

  • the gains to the 'beneficiaries', and
  • the internal emotional and social benefits for the donor.

I.e., a 'two-sided market'. One needs to consider the 'donor as consumer'. As I allude to above, we might want to consider some reduction in former if it greatly increases the latter.

The latter certainly involves tangibility, the feeling of having done something that you can see changes the world in a visible way, 'agency', and the feeling of having a particular attachment to somebody you can help.

People buy fireworks even when their town has a big show because they get more pleasure from "lighting fireworks and controlling their direction" than from "seeing a display".

Tangibility, incrementally, and donor-choice: turning a weakness of effective charities into a strength?

The problem is that the forms of generosity that you can more easily 'control and see the tangible effects of' tend to be more local to the wealthy (by global standards) donors, less neglected, and thus less effective at the margin.

Furthermore, ensuring and enabling this 'specific donation' can itself be costly in terms of administration and communication. It can also lead to some departure from 'giving to the most needy' if the 'most needy person' is harder to communicate with.

But I think there is potential to try to harness tangibility and incrementally in the effective giving space.

There is the idea of 'sponsor an individual child or family or village'. My impression is that many charities in fact do this in their marketing and communication but the actual donations are not directly tied to particular beneficiaries. And I expect donors realize this. When I spoke with these charities they say that there are both practical and ethical issues making this undoable (see below).

My proposal sketch

...Something like telling people

We are linking each potential donor to a particular household (or village etc). You are linked to the ZJHGUH household in SHMZPLA.

Do you want to donate to provide the ZJHGUH household with education, medicine, and clean water? You are the only potential donor linked to ZJHGUH by our organization.

If you donate to build a new sanitary facility, you will be able to choose which color it is painted, and we'll send photos

The idea is close to what are you are suggesting. Furthermore, technology could allow us now to provide some pictures and feedback directly linked to the beneficiary household.

Objections and responses

The strongly-stated objections to this I have heard:

  1. "This is unethical/unfair to the beneficiary households not targeted"
  2. "This is too manipulative of potential donors"
  3. "This would be impossible to implement"
  4. "This is too 'white-saviour vs victim'-ish"

These objections are somewhat reasonable (but some could also be rebutted to an extent... see below). Anyways, I suspect that if done right, the benefits will outweigh the costs, in terms of generating substantial amounts of donations (as well as bringing connections between people on both sides of the global divide, which may have additional benefits).

Why do I think it could be so effective at motivating donations?

(Repeating the above a bit)

Humans in general (including the global wealthy) devote huge shares of our income to ...

  • our family
  • people whom we interact with, and in our community (see 'parochialism')
  • public goods that we can have a tangible impact on (e.g., fireworks, public art, gardens)

If helping the worlds' poorest people can be made into something that is tangible, incremental, and more 'direct' I think it will leverage our innate desires...

  1. To help those we feel we have an 'obligation to' (because no one else will help them),
  2. To have a connection to people whom we can help, and
  3. To have agency and see the impact of our actions.

You might object to the first point, saying

this is inaccurate ... how can you say 'no one else will help them'

how can you link a single donor to a single beneficiary and otherwise deny that beneficiary the opportunity?

But there is a sense in which the standard charity and aid does this anyways, only in a more probablistic sense. We don't give enough to provide for all the world's poor. Some are going to be denied opportunities, and an individual donation does make this difference. It's just that it is not completely traceable.

By making it traceable and tangible we might unlock a vast "supply of generosity".

  1. Tied to a conference and book on gifts and the 'embeded economy' in the ancient world ↩︎

  2. E.g., this "Truth in Giving" study involves pairing up (lab subject) donors with particular recipients and considers willingness to pay for information about deservingness, but they don't vary the presence of the connection. "Warm glow, information, and inefficient charitable giving" is also marginally relevant ↩︎


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Audio fans/visual foes: I now read this in my podcast here

Fwiw, I read my essay on the Economics of the Gift in my podcast HERE