Don’t donate to Kony 2012, donate to GiveWell’s top charities instead

Link to I’m sort of surprised to some people in the atheist/rationalist community being so eager to support the Kony 2012 campaign. This is a pretty good test of rationality, specifically your ability to avoid known cognitive biases and do what will actually be most effective for accomplishing your goals. And if you’re giving your money to Kony 2012, you’ve failed that test.

It’s well known (among people who follow such issues, anyway) that the psychology of charitable giving is completely fucked. For example:

Aid recipients who are identifiable evokes more empathy than recipients who are not. In one “dictator game” study, where people could choose to give somebody else some amount of money, giving was higher when the recipient was identified by last name. Small et al. (2007) note that people often become entranced with specific, identifiable victims. In 1987, one child, “Baby Jessica“, received over $700,000 in donations from the public when she fell in a well near her home in Texas. In 2003, £275,000 was quickly raised for the medical care of a wounded Iraqi boy, Ali Abbas. And in one case, more than $48,000 was contributed to save a dog stranded on a ship adrift on the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii.

Because of this, if you actually care about doing good (for just about any sensible definition of “good”), you need to step back, resist going with your first inclination, and try to figure out how to make your charitable $ actually do the most good. Give Well tries to do that figuring for you, and from what I can tell appears to do reasonably well at it. Not that Give Well is the last word–in particular, Give Well doesn’t have a way to rate charities whose activities have a highly uncertain payoff (i.e. what are the chances that the Singularity Institute or the Future of Humanity Institute will actually avert a major catastrophe?) But it’s a huge improvement over most people’s approach to charitable giving.

If you are considering donating to Kony 2012, it is almost certainly because the people behind it ran an unusually effective fundraising campaign that made very good use of social media. Now it’s possible that in this case “unusually effective fundraising campaign” and “actually the most efficient use of your $” coincide, but it’s a priori unlikely and there’s good reason to think that in fact they don’t.

The stated main purpose of Invisible Children (the organization behind Kony 2012) is not to directly help Kony’s victims, but to “raise awareness,” and it doesn’t appear that there’s any shortage of awareness about Kony on the part of people who matter. Kony was indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2005, and the US government has supported efforts to capture him. You can read more criticisms of Kony 2012 here, which questions the wisdom of the particular solution Invisible Children backs. But I don’t think it’s necessary to get in to that to see that there’s no particular reason to back this campaign.

I wouldn’t want my blogging to decrease anyone’s total amount of charitable giving, so I’m going to suggest that if you’re considering donating to Kony 2012, you take whatever money you would have given to that campaign and donate it to one of Give Well’s top-ranked charities instead. I hadn’t been planning on resuming my charitable giving until I got my first paycheck for my current job, but I’ve got a bit of extra money in the bank so I just went ahead and donated $180 to the Against Malaria Foundation via Give Well. (Jesus would disprove of my telling you that, but I’m doing it anyway to make it more likely you’ll give.)

P.S.–I’m trying to avoid moral exhortation here, because morality doesn’t motivate much. Instead, my point is that if your goal is to help people, there are better ways to do it than donating to Kony 2012.

Slavery abolition and animal rights: the biggest problem
Feeling good vs. doing good
Bart Ehrman’s “blog for charity” concept
Notes on Robert Fogel’s Without Consent or Contract
  • Eric

    Just thought I’d mention that because of your post here, I wrote a post on my blog about Kony, and (more importantly) ended up donating $150 to Against Malaria because of you.

    Thanks for posting this, I appreciate it.

    • Chris Hallquist

      Glad to hear it!

  • Bertil Wennergren

    Perhaps the reason so few have commented, is that your reasoning and message are so clear and strong, that nobody has anything to add, and instead go away to find a good charity.

  • Peter Hurford

    Because of you and this essay, I was inspired to write “Joseph Kony and Malaria: Why Rationality Matters”

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