Help! Where Should I Donate? (The Workbook Edition)

Ellie Czepiel
6 min readJun 17, 2021

If you’re a regular ol’ human who has decided to donate some percentage of your salary annually, welcome to the club! It feels like a pretty darn nice place to be. That is, until you sit down with your credit card, ready to donate, and…? The panic sets in. Where exactly are you supposed to be donating? Does it matter? How can you possibly decide between all the causes in the world that need help? Let’s be honest, you could probably figure it out with hours of research, but it would be so much easier if someone would just give you an answer. A workbook, perhaps, or maybe even a specific portfolio…

Ha. That was how I felt, so I’m sharing my workbook.

Before we start though, a quick warning: this is, like, a real workbook. I’m not kidding. You’ll get the most out of it if you take a moment here (yes, here! now!). Pause, put your thinking cap on, and open up a spot to jot down your thoughts as you read this.

The Workbook

Step #1: Your Vision

What is your ideal vision of the world, 30 years from now?

What is your ideal vision of the world, 10 years from now

6 months from now

Tomorrow?

Step #2: Your Thesis

How do you think change happens? Do you think it’s individuals first, then systems? Systems first, then individuals? Any particular factors that make change easier or more likely? Any common sources of friction?

Step #3: Your Values

How important is it to you to be working towards more than one cause versus focusing on one?

What is your risk tolerance? How comfortable would you be with a high risk, high return donation? How measurable would you want success to be?

Does the time horizon matter to you? How important is it to you to see the effects of your donations, versus knowing the world will be better off decades from now?

How important is it to you to donate to causes that have affected you personally?

Step #4: Your Answers

What issues came up most strongly in Step #1 for you?

What are some solutions (not specific organizations) to those issues?

Okay, now what are some specific organizations working towards some of those solutions? (Don’t worry about finding an organization for every solution. Turns out some things can’t be solved by throwing money at them ;))

Which of those organizations are compatible with your answers in steps 2 and 3?

Boom! There’s your list.

Okay, But Why Do I Have To Do All This Thinking Myself?!

Ah, great question. Glad you asked.

Sidenote: Effective Altruism

Some people will say you don’t have to do all the thinking by yourself. Most notably, the Effective Altruism movement does have lists of suggested organizations and does a lot of great research into how to most effectively save lives and improve quality of life. If you haven’t heard of them, I would recommend checking them out.

However, though much of their framework feels intuitive to me, I do personally have some doubts about it. Because Effective Altruism is about measuring the most effective organizations to donate to, their recommendations tend to bias towards…measurably effective organizations. Though I do believe we should be supporting those organizations, personally I am a huge proponent of trying to solve issues at their root causes rather than treating symptoms, and I think measurably effective organizations are going to skew towards symptom-treating rather than root-cause work. They’re absolutely still useful lists of organizations to donate to, but I personally wouldn’t be comfortable with exclusively donating to that list because of its lack of focus on root-cause work. If donating exclusively to those organizations is your jam, though, then I say go for it.

The Philosophical Reason

Listen, if you want to use Effective Altruism’s GiveWell Maximum Impact Fund and call it a day, go for it. If you want to take the portfolio I’m about to outline below and completely copy me, go for it. However, if any amount of time has passed between when you’re reading this and the publication of this article, I cannot guarantee that I’m still donating to any of them, nor can I guarantee that any of my thesis of change is still what I outlined here.

I am a human. I get things wrong. I change my mind.

You’re a human. So do you.

If we all jumped on this article and used my portfolio of organizations, there would be glaringly obvious, vast blind spots. It does not address everything the world needs, and frankly it might address things the world doesn’t need. I don’t know.

The same thing could be said of an Effective Altruism portfolio, or the one you come up with. These lists all come down to theses of change, and yes, there is some academic research on how change happens, but there is still plenty of room for personal beliefs and values and experiences. It is not a cut-and-dry question.

I’d rather live in a world where we hedge our bets, all have our own theses of change, and make our own portfolios — while, of course, listening to experts and constructively helping one another make educated decisions and do research — than in a world where we all agree on one theory of change and adhere to it. Our theses are all going to skew a little away from one another, but I’d be willing to bet that the outcome based on our diversified theses beats the outcome based on any individual thesis of change.

Appendix: How I Chose Where To Donate

I’m going to walk through how I answered these questions and arrived at my list of organizations to donate to, but honestly I would strongly encourage you to think about these questions on your own before reading this. It’ll probably be more useful as a way to challenge your already-existing answers than as a source of anchor bias for your amorphous thoughts.

Step #1: My Vision

I want to live in a world where no one’s basic needs go unmet for extended periods of time.

I want to live in a world where children have the support they need to thrive in school.

I want to live in a world where we are prepared to help one another through disasters outside our control.

I want to live in a world where we create fewer disasters.

I want to live in a world where people treat each other with more kindness, empathy, respect, and compassion.

Step #2: My Thesis

The best way to sum up my theory of change is this quote by Trevor Noah:

“People love to say, “Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” What they don’t say is, “And it would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod.” That’s the part of the analogy that’s missing.”

I think positive change happens when individual people are empowered by those around them and have access to the resources they need.

Step #3: My Values

It is important to me to diversify cause areas.

I am very comfortable with high-risk, high-return donations, though I don’t want that to be the whole portfolio.

I would rather address an issue at its root cause than address its symptoms, though if those symptoms can be easily alleviated today in addition, I’d like to do that, too.

I do not need to see the effects of my donations, and I don’t want to weight towards causes that have affected me personally (though, of course, by using this framework I am weighting toward causes that are more salient to me in general).

Step #4: My Answers

My answers to Step #1 roughly break down into alleviating poverty; improving access to education (& education itself); preventing and preparing for climate change and other disasters; and breaking cycles of trauma.

Here are some top potential solutions (this is a very trimmed down list, and there’s a fair bit of crossover between issues these things could solve):

  • Alleviating poverty — Providing better public health, in the US and abroad; redistribution of wealth/microlending programs
  • Education — Free early childhood programs; school lunch programs; summer and after school programs
  • Climate change — Policy changes; technological innovation; carbon sequestration for the short term
  • Trauma — Widespread, accessible trauma-informed healing programs; reducing traumatic experience in the first place
  • All issues in the US — Creating a more representative government (here’s why I say that)

Not all of these solutions can be furthered through donations, and not all organizations will be compatible with my answers in the other steps. So, without further ado, my final (at least for now) list of contenders:

  • Kiva
  • GiveDirectly
  • Against Malaria Fund
  • Deworm the World Initiative
  • Sunrise Movement
  • Citizens’ Climate Lobby
  • Cool Earth
  • FairVote
  • FairFight
  • Various bail funds
  • International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

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