Singer says it's more important to give to charities that benefit the world’s poor instead of elite institutions, but it's not that simple

In a new book, Peter Singer contends that donors should cut back on support for elite institutions and instead give more money to programs that help the world’s poor and oppressed. Singer is a philosopher and professor best known to many for his TED talk on “effective altruism.”

The heart of his argument is that there are effective charities out there saving lives. He believes it’s a moral imperative to support them before we give to concert halls (he makes much of the $100 million Geffen grant to rename Avery Fisher Hall).

Some things are not possible to ignore in his argument, starting with the magnitude of the problem. The Borgen Project offers some stark reminders of the profile of global poverty. Seven countries contain 65 percent of the world’s underfed and hungry: India, China, the Congo, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan and Ethiopia. In developing regions, 148 million children under age five are underweight. Worldwide 2.5 billion people lack basic sanitation.

Another thing Singer is right about is the flow of major gifts to major institutions. Alumni gave their colleges more than $9 billion in a recent year. Six out of ten high net worth households say that “giving back to the community” is the primary driver for charitable giving, with education and the arts among the top five charities for their gifts. Three out of every 10 charitable dollars in the U.S. went to churches and religious institutions.

U.S. private giving (foundations, corporations, individuals) to international causes and organizations was about $19 billion a few years ago, slightly lower than the record $21 billion just before the 2008 slump in the economy. That same slump affected the individual donor portion of the total, with large numbers of high net worth donors shifting their concerns to struggling local communities.

But here’s where the Singer prescription runs into trouble. Individual donors are much more likely to give because of personal reasons, emotional ties to a cause, a “good feeling” that comes from making a large gift. Singer argues that we should give on the basis of the impact of the organization, not on the basis of an emotional pull.

A few things need to be thought through here. One, major U.S. donors who give internationally are (according to studies) highly likely to have traveled internationally. They have made emotional connections with the places, circumstances and people of regions, villages, precincts and towns of the countries that they decide to help. It’s the emotional connection that drives the giving.

Second, Peter Singer wants to see private giving go to solve world poverty before it turns its attention to the symphony or the ballet. World poverty is only partly affected by too few billions of dollars in assistance from abroad. There are many forces and factors at work that create the dismal conditions in dozens of countries.

Just to name a few: countries whose spending on military might outweighs the expense of domestic needs (three of the seven leading hunger nations, India, China and Pakistan, belong to the nuclear weapons club.) Traditions of corruption and official theft (Democratic Republic of Congo’s Mobutu Sese Seko may have pocketed $5 billion while he presided over what he decreed would be called Zaire). Cultural traditions that create obstacles to health, growth and thriving (Ethiopia’s widespread female genital mutilation, e.g.).

Finally, to the matter of which organizations to support: Singer would have donors give to those organizations that demonstrate their effectiveness. He is an advocate of the charities rated highly by GiveWell, a charity rating program that measures (among other things) the scalability of a program – how much more it can grow with more funding. GiveWell doesn’t pay much attention to overhead vs. program ratios, but concentrates on transparency and measures of impact.

Here I am in complete accord with Peter Singer and I believe the approach has much to say about charitable support for all kinds of nonprofits, foreign and domestic. We ought to be willing to ask questions about the benefits derived from last year’s $335 billion given to charity.

We ought to be willing to examine the actual outcomes of a program and not just its intentions. I don’t want to single out an organization or judge it by its website, but I will for a moment. Literacy for Incarcerated Teens works with juvenile justice detention centers to create library collections “inside,” bring authors to read and “encouraging enthusiasm for reading in young people.”

On the site, LIT talks about its accomplishments: program or programming is mentioned seven times, services and resources a total of six. This is input data, not outcome data. There is no mention of changes in literacy rates, no readership figures, no utilization data, no evidence whatsoever that anything has changed other than the delivery of lots of books. Maybe these things are in evaluations carried out by independent monitors, but maybe not.

Of course I understand the inference. If there are books, and some adults to encourage it, reading will probably happen and if reading is available, there will be a stretch toward literacy. The project will perhaps “facilitate their literacy skills.” But to Peter Singer’s point: wouldn’t it be good to know something about the impact of the book project, the efficacy of literacy courses, if one is considering a grant or a gift? Or is it enough to say “oh, yeah, books for kids in juvie, it couldn’t hurt, maybe they’ll straighten up.”

Somewhere there must be a happy medium. Somewhere between knee-jerk emotionalism and hard-nosed analytics is the right formula for deciding on charitable giving. Peter Singer’s done a real service in pushing the pendulum the way he has. Perhaps development professionals can add weight and clarity to the matter by pushing it back.


  1. I’m in accord with Pallotta. If overhead is another way of describing what it takes to run the organization and if the organization is producing truly beneficial results, more power (and money) to them. Enthusiastic embrace of “scalability” shouldn’t belong only to the for-profit sector.

  2. On a related point, there is a movement a-foot to stop demonizing excessive “overhead” as being the litmus test of worthy charities in the world. Dan Pallotta, founder of Charity Defense Council, will tell you that big problems as reported on by Peter Singer, require big solutions. We don’t punish “overhead” in for-proit organizations that are bold about reaching their goals; why are we so quick to dismiss charities–flat-lined for years now in growth projections–that think similarly but for the “greater good”? Here is a Ted Talk by Mr. Pallotta:

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