by Adriano Mannino

meta

Scientific charity evaluators such as GiveWell provide reliable evidence that their top-rated charities help a very high number of people per amount of money donated. In addition to these “direct” charities, REG also recommends several meta-charities. A meta-charity is an organization that doesn’t seek to help people in need directly, but seeks to help many potential donors to start helping people in need directly, and to help them more effectively. A meta-charity’s strategy is thus more indirect: With the donations it receives, it promotes charitable giving and rational, effectiveness-oriented decision-making in general – in order to multiply its impact.

For instance: Donating $1000 towards the staff of a meta-charity may generate several thousand dollars of direct donations that would not have been made otherwise, or would have gone to less cost-effective interventions. Instead of donating my money towards helping people directly and thus creating one additional direct donor, I might be able to create many direct donors by going meta and donating towards the promotion of charitable giving.

Some concrete examples of successful meta-charity include:

1.) Fundraising: How much money do organizations receive per dollar invested in fundraising? High-net-worth fundraising has a return on one dollar invested of about $5-8 according to the Institute of Fundraising, so the “fund ratio” is about 5:1 or even 8:1. In legacy fundraising, the fund ratio can be as high as 30:1!

2.) GiveWell, whose main meta-activity is cost-effectiveness research, tracks their “money moved”. If we compare this amount to all their expenses so far, we get a “fund ratio” that’s in the ballpark of 30:1, too.

3.) The Life You Can Save (TLYCS), which promotes the idea of giving a decent percentage of one’s income to charity among the population at large, has a fund ratio of about 4:1 according to their impact report.

Of course, if we naively calculate the fund ratio for each meta-charity separately, there will be some double-counting, e.g. through TLYCS members donating towards GiveWell recommended charities. Nevertheless, many meta-charities are still plausibly several times more effective than direct charities at this point. This conclusion is a function of how widespread the idea of “unusually high + unusually cost-effective donation” (which REG subscribes to) already is, among other things.

Further reading:

– How meta-charity can dominate direct charity
– The case for giving now – a reply to Rupert Elder