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GiveWell: Philanthropic Impact Can Be Difficult to Evaluate

August 11, 2016
By Jarrod Whaley

GiveWell (an awardee of ours) works to identify high-impact philanthropic opportunites, and to provide information to potential donors about the viability of various charitable agencies. The idea is to help individuals and foundations who are interested in maximizing the impact of their donated dollars by examining not only the financial hardiness of a charity, but also the actual, practical impact those organizations make in the real world. The above being the case, it may seem a bit perplexing at first to hear them say that they recommend donating to a charity even though it may not benefit the world that much—and that's exactly the premise at issue in this post about their recommendation of deworming initiatives.

The fact of the matter is that evaluation of a charity's impact is a complicated calculus, and sometimes the outcomes aren't completely clear at first glance. Sean explains:

Because mass deworming is so cheap, there is a good case for donating to support deworming even when in substantial doubt about the evidence. We estimate the expected value of deworming programs to be as cost-effective as any program we’ve found, even after the substantial adjustments discussed above: our best guess considering those discounts is that it’s still roughly 5-10 times as cost-effective as cash transfers, in expectation.

The article does a great job of explaining not only how GiveWell's model works in cases like these, but also shines light on just how difficult it can be to arrive at a useful evaluation of a charitable endeavor. We recommend this post to anyone who's interested in philanthropic activity at any level.