COLUMN: Charity — utilitarian or personal?

Everyone has their favorite charitable cause. Be it donating to improve literacy, donating to raise breast cancer awareness or pouring ice water on yourself for a good cause. But are all charities equal? 

I was thinking about this, because in the past I’ve often donated to causes I’m passionate about, like mental health and Wikipedia, as well as some that I felt obligated to donate to, for example IU Dance Marathon. But the one thing I’d never really considered was the effectiveness of my dollars donated. Not just in terms of how much of my donation goes toward those in need, I started to wonder what the most effective cause is on a per dollar basis.

When you donate to charity, you need to consider the potential impact your dollars will have.

So I did some research, and what I found was interesting. First, this idea I had isn’t original, in fact there’s an entire philosophical field surrounding this notion, called “Effective Altruism.” It’s based upon Utilitarian principles of maximizing happiness. Further, there’s an entire website dedicated to analyzing charities in depth based on which ones are able to do the most good. It’s called Goodwell.com and it analyzes charities based on their effectiveness in promoting net happiness.

As a result, most of the featured charities are in Africa, the area most in need of aid, with the leading charity being the Against Malaria Foundation. Reading up on AMF, I found that for each $2.50 donated, AMF can prevent malaria in two people for up to five years.

However, not all charities are this effective in using their donations. One famous example is the Susan G. Komen foundation. After some analysis, the foundation was found to spend nearly 40 percent of its budget on education about breast cancer.

Much of this funding is directed toward “awareness,” but given the prominence of the Komen foundation, more awareness isn’t necessary. In reality, all this education does is simply propagate the Susan G. Komen brand. When you take into consideration the significant benefits of this money to researchers or in paying for treatment, it becomes clear that some charities use their funds more effectively than others.

At the same time, donating to charity is something inherently personal. We give to causes that matter to us. As someone concerned with mental health, I tend to donate toward mental illness, despite the fact that I know this isn’t the most efficient use of my money. But that’s because while charity is about other people, it’s also a little bit about ourselves, expressing our ideals and how we want to improve the world with each dollar we donate. 

So whether you donate to a cause because it maximizes happiness in the world, or because you want support people in specific circumstances, donate. But don’t do so just because a charity has visibility like Susan G. Komen, donate because you truly care about people or the cause you’re giving to.

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