Should charity begin at home?

A principle tenet of effective giving is that your money can often do more good when you donate it to the world’s poorest places. For example, Will MacAskill, a co-founder of effective altruism and Giving What We Can, estimates that your money will do about 100x more good to “benefit the extremely poor” than to “benefit typical citizens of the United States” (MacAskill 22) due to the stark income differences between lower and higher income countries. And the charity evaluator GiveWell agrees that each dollar has more power when donated internationally.1
Yet this analysis is sometimes met with resistance, with questions like: Shouldn’t you help out members of your own community first? or Don’t you have a special obligation to the people near you? It’s understandable that some of us may feel a strong pull to give locally. After all, while higher-income countries don’t face poverty on the same scale as lower-income countries (in which it’s far more extreme and far deadlier)2 there is no shortage of suffering, inequality, and illness in high-income countries. And these are the problems that are right in front of our eyes; we may even know people affected by them. But I think it’s worth more closely examining the idea that our obligations to people in need change based on our proximity to them. Where does this pull towards giving locally come from? How do we weigh it against the desire to maximize our impact and do the most good we can? Is there room for both types of giving within the effective altruism framework? These are some of the questions I’d like to explore.

The pull to prioritize giving locally: evolutionary explanations

For much of history, our world was limited to those who were in the same location as us. Humans have been living in permanent settlements since the Agricultural Revolution, which happened a little more than 12,000 years ago. While the jury is out as to when exactly globalization began, many places it around the time of Columbus’s voyage to America (only about 530 years ago), and others date it much later, starting in the 1800s or even after World War II! (Of course, some also date it earlier, but National Geographic considers “the most well-known early example” of globalization to be the Silk Road, which still dates to less than 3,000 years ago.) So it seems likely that for the vast majority of our time living in communities, we certainly didn’t know much about what was going on outside our local bubbles. And even when we started to, we couldn’t do much about it. Only very recently have we developed the infrastructure to affect change in other parts of the world. Thus, our acts of “doing good” were limited to helping out those in our immediate surroundings. Since this limitation was lifted only fairly recently, it’s unsurprising that our moral impulses (which likely have at least some basis in evolution) may still be lagging behind. Now that we can help those in other countries, however, there’s a very good case for doing so. In fact, according to an estimate from The Lancet, it would cost about $9 billion to provide “full coverage of basic WASH and waste services [clean water, sanitation, hygiene, and waste management] in existing public health facilities in the 46 UN designated least developed countries.” That’s under 2% of the total amount Americans donated to charity in 2021. Directing money to high-impact causes abroad can do a tremendous amount of good.

The pull to prioritize giving locally: psychological explanations

If we are evolutionarily primed to prefer giving locally, though, then why do international disasters strike our moral chords so intensely? In other words, why are many so motivated to give internationally after disasters, but not motivated to fund organizations increasing stability in lower-income countries in non-disaster times? Perhaps we need to examine this disconnect further. Here’s one possible explanation: It seems likely that we are more emotionally affected by the unexpected, especially when the unexpected shakes our personal sense of safety.3 This “surprise factor,” along with the sense of urgency and magnitude created by extensive media coverage, perhaps explains why events like the war in Ukraine, Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico, the massive earthquakes in Haiti and Japan about a decade ago, and similarly brutal international disasters often motivate substantial influxes of donations from around the world.
In contrast, extreme poverty in low-income countries is a consistent and ongoing problem. It falls within our paradigm of “normal,” and as such, does not trigger the same type of emotional response (though it should if we really think about the fact that thousands needlessly die every day from preventable causes, just because of where they happened to be born.) I would argue that our response to international disasters underscores that we do feel a sense of compassion and responsibility for those outside of our local communities; it’s just that for some, it can take a shock to the system (and/or the sense of extreme urgency/magnitude facilitated by media coverage) to access that compassion.4 When we understand how our psychology works (and that it isn’t always rational), perhaps we’ll be more equipped to extend our compassion to people who aren’t experiencing suffering and risks to their health and safety because of an unexpected disaster, but rather on an everyday basis — simply due to a lack of funding for global health and development where they happen to live. It is, in a sense, a disaster of the largest scale that the suffering in certain areas of the world is often thought of as “par for the course” when many of us are actually in a pretty good position to prevent it.

Cosmopolitanism: What does “local” mean, anyway?

Another way to challenge this preference for helping out your “own” community first is to expand the definition of what your “own” community is. In other words, do you think of yourself as a member of just your particular town, or do you also think of yourself as a member of your country? What about a member of your particular region of the world? Do you consider yourself a member of humankind more generally — a citizen of the world? What about a member of an ecosystem that includes non-human animals as well as humans? Where we decide to draw the borders of what we consider to be “our community” is somewhat arbitrary; there is no clear place to draw the line. The philosopher Peter Singer popularized a similar idea in his book The Expanding Circle, in which he notes that the project of deciding who warrants our “moral concern” has changed in scope throughout history. He writes: “The circle of altruism has broadened from the family and tribe to the nation and race, and we are beginning to recognize that our obligations extend to all human beings. The process should not stop there…The only justifiable stopping place for the expansion of altruism is the point at which all whose welfare can be affected by our actions are included within the circle of altruism” (Singer) This gradual expansion of our altruistic intuitions shows that we are slowly beginning to think of ourselves as citizens of the world — with a responsibility to all we can impact. So perhaps it’s time to expand the definition of community.

Finding our global ties through the “veil of ignorance”

In addition to the arbitrariness of deciding where our “own” community ends, let’s also acknowledge the arbitrariness of where it begins — in other words, the “luck” of where (in both time and space) we happen to be born. In A Theory of Justice, philosopher John Rawls advocated for choosing principles of justice “behind a veil of ignorance.” In essence, he proposed that in order to remove the biases that might negatively affect our ability to reason in a fair and just manner, we should pretend that we don’t know anything about our “place in society, [our] class position or social status, nor [do we know our] fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, [our] intelligence, strength, and the like” (Rawls 11). So let’s embrace Rawl’s thought experiment and imagine for a second that we don’t know what “community” we will be part of. Will we be born into a high-income country where we won’t have to worry too much about clean water and sufficient food, and where we’ve already largely eradicated killers like tuberculosis, diarrhoeal disease, and malaria? Or will we be born into a place where extreme poverty is common, and where our lives are more likely to be cut short by a whole host of deadly (yet preventable) conditions?5
Now, given that we don’t know where we will end up, would we advocate for setting up a society with tightly-drawn community boundaries, where people only help others who are in the same community as they are? And what would be the consequences of such a decision? It seems likely that if we were born into an impoverished family in a low-income country, any “local” community resources might not be enough to really help us get by. After all, with so many struggling to meet basic needs, who would be left in our “local” community to extend a hand? In contrast, wanting resources or aid in a higher-income country would be preferable, since many others in the community would probably be well-equipped to help out. Because of this discrepancy, if everyone was limited to only receiving help from the people directly around them, global inequality would surely worsen. And that’s certainly not the world most of us would choose!

It doesn’t have to be either/or

Let me be clear: I’m not trying to advocate ignoring your own community and spending all your efforts elsewhere. I would instead argue that there is most decidedly room for supporting those directly around you and those farther away, even within the effective altruism framework.6 Here’s why: At its core, effective altruism is about applying more careful thinking to the act of doing good in order to maximize our impact. It’s this commitment to more closely examining how we can best help others — not necessarily the fruits of that analysis — that effective altruists share. Thus, while some effective altruists might choose to only donate internationally, others might give both locally and internationally, and still, others might decide to act locally but give internationally. Being a “good” local community member generally means showing up, not just writing checks, so smaller donations coupled with active participation might be more impactful in a local setting, anyway (depending on the needs of the specific community, of course)! And given that it’s far more practical to volunteer your time and efforts in your local community than to do so overseas, but just as easy to send money overseas than nationally, acting locally while giving internationally isn’t a bad diversification framework.

Where do we go from here?

Regardless of the framework you choose, most people who are passionate about effective giving would likely agree that the current percentage of international giving is far too low — only about 6% of the total charitable donations made by residents of the U.S. are donated internationally. Thus, there is certainly room for us to examine — and perhaps challenge — some of the biases that lead us to deprioritize international giving, especially since it allows us to do more good with every dollar and is so neglected when compared to local causes. I’ll leave you with this: If you were given the power to (at little cost to yourself) dramatically improve the lives of those whose suffering is too often overlooked, would you do so? Or would you first ask if they lived nearby?

Should I Add a Donation Button to My Blog?

When I first started blogging 7 years back it was not uncommon to see bloggers attempting to add an income stream to their blog with some kind of a donation button or invitation on their blog. Often these buttons were tied to a PayPal account that enabled the readers of the blog to send the blogger a little money as a thank you and/or as an encouragement to keep blogging. Many bloggers tried the reader donation model as a way to make money from blogging but few made it work.

Example of Someone Who Made it Work (For a While)

One of the few who was able to sustain himself completely via donations was Jason Kottke who in 2005 famously quit his job to focus on his blog solely funded by the generosity of his readers (see his supporter list for 2005 as an example of the large numbers of gifts he received). His model was simple and worked to at least some level – one month a year he called for people to become micro patrons – he limited these calls for donations to a week-long campaign so as not to overdo it with readers over a full year. You can read some reflections on how it went in the first year here – he actually did make enough from the donations to keep his income to a level he could live off but in his reflections admitted that it might not be a feasible model in the long term. Jason proved that it was possible to make a living from your blog solely on the back of reader gifts – but it is worth noting that these days he has sold advertising on his blog (via the Deck) since 2006 and in his RSS feed. I’m not completely sure of the reason that Jason switched his model to an ad-based one back in 2006 but in chatting to quite a few other bloggers who went down the donation model route I suspect it was a pretty difficult model to sustain – even for a blog with large traffic like Kottke.

Can Donation Buttons Work?

So in answering this question of whether donations ‘can’ work on a blog I guess we’d have to answer with a ‘yes’ – at least in theory. However, the reality is that they are not likely to work on the vast majority of blogs. If they were to work I suspect the blog would have to have some or all of these factors:
  1. a very large readership – a small % will always be willing to donate but to get enough to live off you’d need a large readership
  2. a very loyal readership – obsessed readers who simply couldn’t live without the blog and who were willing to dip into their own pockets to keep it running. Of course to get this high loyalty you need to provide readers with something that they can’t live without whether that be some kind of service or fulfillment of a need of some kind.
  3. no other forms of income – I think sites with lots of other income streams (advertising, affiliate programs) would be likely to see a decreased chance of readers contributing as there would be a perception that the blog was already making money

Donations as a supplementary Income

So making a living solely from donations is not likely unless you have a lot of raving fans – but this doesn’t mean it is a model with no merit at all. I do know of a couple of bloggers who are using it as a secondary income source. They know they’ll not make a lot of money from it but are still able to supplement their other nonblogging income streams with the donations that their blog brings in. One of those bloggers just uses a PayPal donations button and another uses a ‘Buy me a Beer’ WordPress plugin under their posts. Neither sees big money but both are happy to let this help earn them some extra dollars instead of running advertising on their blogs.

Adding Value to Supporters

Let me finish by saying that one way that I think donations could work for some bloggers is if they gave extra value to those who made donations. Whether this is by giving away a free ebook with donations, allowing donators to be listed somewhere, giving them larger avatars and a signature in their comments….. etc. This is a model that I’ve seen quite a few forums use successfully. It’s not purely a donation in that the person paying gets something in return but it is a low-cost way for those using the site to give something back but also get something to acknowledge their gift.