Given the large increase in the standard deduction in the tax reform bill just passed by Congress, some Americans may be less likely to itemize for charitable deductions in the 2018 tax year — a prospect that has some nonprofits worried that donations will go down. You might want to donate more this year, before the new rules take effect. But how can you be sure you’re giving to the right cause?
We talked with Charlie Bresler, who thinks the way you donate money is probably all wrong.
Bresler left his job as president of Men’s Wearhouse several years ago to dedicate his life to philanthropy and the concept of effective altruism, which means maximizing the overall social good instead of giving to a charity you may have an emotional connection to. He is the volunteer executive director of The Life You Can Save, a charity that encourages people to donate to certain nonprofits that save and improve lives in the developing world.
Bresler talked about wealth inequality, and why he advocates for the concept of using your head sometimes more than your heart when you donate your money. There’s a calculator on the website that allows you to select a dollar amount and see how far it can go. For example, if you give $30 to the Against Malaria Foundation, it will buy 12 bed nets to protect an average of 18 people from malaria for three to four years.
Q. Are we actually donating our money wrong? What does that mean?
Bresler: Yes we are definitely donating our money massively incorrectly, and we can do a tremendous amount of good by shifting how we give. Of the $250 billion given by individuals on an annual basis in this country, 94 percent of that is domestically and just 6 percent is overseas. Think about how much more good you can do in the developing world where the dollar goes a lot farther. We give to ineffective charities all the time. Only 35 percent of people do any research before they give. People will generally only look at the overhead ratio of a charity, not the impact of the charity. It’s important to look at outcome measures, the number of years added to someone’s life or the improvement in quality of life.
Q: Is it presumptuous of you to tell people how they should donate their money?
Bresler: Perhaps it is presumptuous, but everybody is telling you where to give your money, directly or indirectly. There are incredibly clever ads telling you to buy things they say you need. You should evaluate: Is this the person you’re comfortable getting guidance from? You’re going to listen to someone’s advice whether you know it or not.
We use highly scientific gold-standard methods for evaluating charities. You can read about them and digest the information. You can be sure your money will get there and will do the good it’s supposed to. You don’t see the malaria net or the mom taking her kid to the hospital because of diarrhea. But if you care you can read about it and even go visit.
Q. Why should people donate to charity in the first place?
Bresler: The selfish reason is there is evidence it makes people feel good. Donating money effectively or ineffectively is demonstrated to make people feel better about themselves and gives people a sense of connection outside of themselves. People benefit when they stop looking at their own navels and look at the rest of the world.
The other reason is if you give money in a highly effective manner you can reduce a tremendous amount of suffering and save people from premature death. You can make an impact. There are 7,500 children around the world who die every day of mostly preventable conditions associated with poverty such as malnutrition, malaria and diarrhea. They’re not what people die of in the west.
Q. Why should we care about people across the world when there is suffering in our own communities?
Bresler: A child under five 5 in South Sudan is the moral equivalent of a child in Washington D.C. One can’t make an ethically relevant argument as to why an individual in Chicago or New York is more worthy of our help than helping a child in Uganda or Thailand. Children are children regardless of where they are. People need to challenge themselves about what is emotionally relevant and morally relevant.
Q. What do you think about giving a homeless person you see on the street $20?
Bresler: It’s a human reaction to want to do that, and it’s great people have that immediate desire. I give money to people on the street even though it’s not something a traditional effective altruist would endorse. People need to bottle that instinct to give, and realize ‘that felt good, now I should think about the really great thing I should do, how can I do even more?’
Q. Philanthropy in part comes from an emotional place. Why do you advocate using your head more than your heart to donate money?
Bresler: What we say is people should use both head and heart. You have to engage in an analytic exercise like you were investing your money. Once you make that decision to donate your money, how do you do it more effectively?
As an example, it takes $40,000 to train and provide a guide dog for one individual for seven years. One person uses the guide dog. Guide dogs are great, but if you take that same amount of money you can buy surgeries for 800 people in the developing world to restore their sight from glaucoma. One surgery costs about $50. It doesn’t have to be either or, but it’s important for people to understand the magnitude of effects.
Q. Is there one takeaway fact you want people to know?
Bresler: If you look at the diseases people are getting sick and dying from, they’re preventable. It takes just 15 cents for someone in extreme poverty to have access to adequately iodized salt (to prevent developmental delays) for their lifetime.