Charity Needs a Scientific Revolution and We Can Make it Happen
If the medical sector worked like the charity sector did we’d still be using leeches instead of antibiotics. That’s because a few hundred years ago we collectively decided that the best way to determine what happens in reality wasn’t to argue about it from the armchair but to go out and do experiments and observe the results. As a result, we’ve gone from useless bloodletting to successful brain surgery. However, half a millennium later, the field of charity still hasn’t learned this lesson.
Not only is there precious little research on which charitable interventions actually work, but most people in the field, whether donors or workers, aren’t seeking it out. Almost everyone involved in philanthropy is thinking with their hearts instead of using their heads to guide their hearts. As a result, the popularity of charities is largely based on which charities are best at getting you to give them money rather than which charities are actually effective. Further, most charities pitch themselves on emotional appeals rather than pointing to evidence for their effectiveness and we still give money to programs like Scared Straight which demonstrably causes bad outcomes.
Yet there’s hope. Groups like the Jameel Poverty Action Lab and Innovations for Poverty Action spend their time scientifically studying promising interventions. GiveWell, a rigorous charity evaluator, has emerged as an organization which systematically reviews the scientific evidence for charities in order to find where donors can get the most impact for their money. As a sort of Consumer Reports of charity, GiveWell scours the world for charities that are backed by evidence, transparent, have room for more funding, and will submit to thorough examination.