The 2020 Winner
We live in a great time for helping others. Thanks to advances in philanthropic thinking and data-driven charity evaluation, a dollar donated today can go further than ever before. Today, donors can be more confident than ever before that the money they give will go to the right place.
That is largely thanks to GiveWell, a philanthropic evaluator that the Butler Kahn has depended on every year that our Giving Project has existed. In his 2013 TED Talk that inspired our Giving Project, Peter Singer referred to GiveWell, and the organization has grown stronger in the years since then. GiveWell was started by a group of friends who walked away from lucrative jobs in the finance industry to help people answer the question, “how can I help the most per dollar donated?,” and its rigorous, data-driven approach to that question has changed the philanthropic game for the better. Dollars go further, and help more people, because of GiveWell.
This year, we are donating to GiveWell. Specifically, the winner of 2020’s Giving Project is GiveWell’s Maximum Impact Fund, which enables GiveWell to make “grants to the highest-value funding opportunities we see among our recommended charities.”
GiveWell’s financial information is available here.
Here is what GiveWell had to say about itself and our Giving Project.
Over the past 13 years, GiveWell has built a reputation as a leading knowledge center for effective giving. We are a nonprofit dedicated to finding outstanding giving opportunities and publishing the full details of its analysis to help donors decide where to give. GiveWell spends thousands of hours vetting charities to make a short list of recommended charities for donors based on how many deaths they avert or lives they improve with each dollar donated. Our nine top-rated charities work on global health and development programs that are evidence-backed and cost-effective.
Our research supports individual donors by finding outstanding giving opportunities that have a very high impact per philanthropic dollar spent. A critical element of our research process is understanding the forward plans of each of our top charities, and the funding gaps they are trying to fill.
GiveWell will use Butler Kahn’s support of our Maximum Impact Fund to support the most cost-effective giving opportunities that we see within our recommended charities. When we allocate Maximum Impact Fund donations, we take into account charities’ funding needs and donations they have received from other sources. We then make these grants to the highest-value funding opportunities we see among our recommended charities. Although we don’t yet know which funding gap we will see as most pressing when we distribute this donation, we think Butler Kahn’s $100,000 donation could save between 20 and 33 lives, based on GiveWell’s cost-effectiveness analysis. Past Maximum Impact Fund distributions are available here.
GiveWell evaluates the effectiveness of all of our recommended charities using high-quality, independent academic evidence; in-depth cost-effectiveness models; interviews, site visits, and budget reviews; and ongoing communication about the funding needs of each charity.
Givewell is devoted to transparency. Their financial information is available here.
More about GiveWell:
Why not here?
Why are yall doing this?
We want to help people. It’s why we got into this business in the first place.
Today, the opportunities to help others are unparalleled. That is because although the problems that people face in the developing world are very serious, many of them have simple and inexpensive solutions. Polluted water causes fatal diseases that minimal filtration could prevent. Parasitic flies cause blindness that simple, inexpensive surgery could cure. Malaria causes deaths that $5 mosquito nets could stop.
We have the opportunity to do something about it. Organizations like the Gates Foundation and Georgia’s own Carter Center have provided insight into what the biggest problems are and how they might be solved. Charity evaluators like GiveWell allow us to give money wisely, where the money will be most effective, and have alleviated concerns over fraudulent charities. We live in a time, more than any other, in which everyone has the opportunity to make a meaningful difference. You don’t have to give like Bill Gates—an extra $5 buys another net that even the Gates Foundation, with all its millions, didn’t buy.
This is too good an opportunity to miss.
We help our clients every day, and that is a deeply rewarding experience. By also giving philanthropically—and doing so wisely, with a focus on results—we see an opportunity to double down.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why aren’t you giving this money away to local charities, or your law schools, or political candidates who will help us right here in the United States?
We do give to those causes, although not in this amount. The reason that this money will probably go to the developing world is that we’re trying to get the most bang for our buck.
Money given to assist people in abject poverty can go a long, long way. In other words, it is the most cost-effective way to make a positive difference. Generally, seeking the maximum return for your dollar means giving money overseas because, for all of the serious problems we have in the United States, the problems in the developing world are more severe and comparatively cheaper to solve. Rampant malnutrition, river blindness, famine, and murderous civil wars are not common in the United States. In other places, they are.
Money goes farther in the developing world because the problems are worse. To use Peter Singer’s example, it costs about $40,000 to acquire a seeing-eye dog, train the dog, match the dog with a blind person in the United States, and train the person to work with the dog. Helping to provide seeing-eye dogs to blind people is good, of course. But we should also think about what else could be done with the money. In developing countries where people suffer from river blindness or trachoma, blindness can be cured for about $50. So if you’re looking to donate $40,000, you can either provide one blind person in the developed world with a seeing-eye dog, or cure fifty blind people in the developing world. We think that Singer made the point well here.
In his book The Life You Can Save, Singer argues that you can save a life in the developing world for $1,000 or less. We don’t mean to diminish the importance of domestic giving, but when it comes to our firm’s big give, we think we can do the most good for the most people by giving abroad. In parts of the developing world, a $5 mosquito net can be the difference between life and death.
I know you, and this is a surprise—are you really so wealthy that you don’t have anything else to do with this money?
We are comfortable, in that all five of the people who work at our firm have roofs over their heads, food on their tables, and no crushing needs. We also have mortgages or rent payments, and some of us have children to take care of. But an income of over $32,400 per year puts us in the top 1% of earners globally, and we think that statistic speaks volumes about the needs of others, particularly in developing countries. Somewhere, a mother is watching her child starve—if we can prevent that, we should.
Nope. We aren’t claiming to be icons of charity or moralistic philosophers, because we’re not.
We are trying to take a step in the right direction. The bottom line is that when we turn eighty and take a hard look in the mirror, we want to see somebody who made the world a better place. It won’t matter then whether we drove Ferraris or stayed in five-star resorts, but it will matter that we took our responsibilities as humans seriously.
We think lots of people have this question, but are afraid to ask it. We think it’s a reasonable question.
First, studies have shown that the best way to reduce population growth rates is by educating women in developing countries, where birthrates tend to be highest. (Click here for Singer’s explanation from his book The Life You Can Save, beginning at the word “Nevertheless . . .”) That is most definitely a type of giving that we would consider with this money.
Second, charities that address health conditions—such as those that address malnutrition, or work to prevent malaria—contribute indirectly to the advancement of education and society as a whole. On the most basic level, that’s because women don’t spend time in classrooms if their children are starving or dying of malaria. So you have to address problems like malnutrition or malaria before you can do meaningful work on education or social structure, which in turn leads to lower birthrates.
Third, some of the charitable causes that we’d consider—such as curing river blindness or repairing obstetric fistulae—don’t save lives directly, but do help people move from being nonproductive members of their communities to being productive members. That helps their communities and societies as a whole. That, in turn, is a good thing from a population perspective because more advanced, more sophisticated societies tend to have lower birthrates.
This is another question that we think lots of people have, but sometimes don’t ask because they don’t want to be impolite. We think it’s a good question.
We do give some time to charitable causes, as noted on our Community page, but we spend far more time practicing law. We think that’s a good decision because we’re better at practicing law than running charities, and by doing what we’re best at, we’re able to generate money that we can donate to people who are best at running charities. Those people can use the money efficiently, and can accomplish more good than we could if we tried to do their jobs.
Peter Singer explained this really well starting at this point in his TED talk (this clip begins at 8 minutes, 38 seconds):