Monday, November 25, 2013

Charity Navigator is Dead to Me and This is Why.

I typically promote a kind and respectful approach when discussing issues, especially those on which parties might disagree. Yet, there are times when an article or opinion piece is put forth that does not deserve such kindness. The recent article The Elitist Philanthropy of So-Called Effective Altruism by Ken Berger & Robert M. Penna is just such a piece.

Berger, President and CEO of Charity Navigator, and Penna, a consultant, have managed to write a piece attacking “Effective Altruism” and that is filled with so many dubious declarations, specious statements, and faulty logic, that it deserves to be harshly refuted. There are some important issues and concepts that are raised, but those will have to respectfully discussed another time.

In their attack, the authors have seemed to forgotten the very core of their own business - kindness and helping. Their article is not only intellectually dishonest, it is actually morally irresponsible. Aside from being quite saddening, if this is the mindset of those in charge of Charity Navigator, I cannot, in good conscience, support it any longer.

The following is a thorough review of their article. My statements follow the quoted text from the article.

It is one of the unfortunate truisms of the human condition that there is hardly a good idea, noble impulse, or sound suggestion that can't be (and isn't eventually) adopted and bastardized by zealots.
A vague statement that sets up the inaccurate caricature they will attack (similar to straw manning).

It is sadly thus that the very human impulse to help others and the mantra of Charity Navigator since its inception—that people should become informed donors and give with their heads as well as their hearts—have been infused with logic so cold that even Mr. Spock would cringe upon hearing it.
You cannot infuse an impulse with logic. You can make better decisions by using logic after you have impulses. Second, you have indicated that you think, at least partially, that people should give with their heads. Why do you get to decide how the ratio of head to heart?

One iteration of this tendency is in the idea of “effective altruism.” We believe a more accurate phrase for this concept is “defective altruism” and will therefore use that term for the remainder of this article.
This is using the argument for redefinition. It is a sneaky tactic to give the Effective Altruism philosophy/movement a negative name. At this stage they haven’t proved their case, so it may bias the reader. Far better if they would have ended on this line.

The drive to support charity is seemingly embedded deeply in our DNA and codified in all of the world’s great religions.
While it may ‘seem’ that way, it is clearly not in our DNA. Not only is that incoherent given how evolution functions, but %100 of people do not give to charity. Further, many religious followers donate to their own religion and its propagation.

One would think it needs no additional explanation, since nearly all of us feel this drive and understand it.
I think it still needs to be explained given how much of human history many people were happy to have slaves and see women as property (some still see no problem with this).

Indeed, it is often so automatic and reliable that charlatans, tricksters, and outright thieves sometimes use it against us. To assure that this noble drive is respected in its implementation, we believe that all donors, whatever the origin of their impulse to give, should be informed and see their donation as an investment.
So far so good, but the shoe will drop…

Being an informed donor means using facts to help make a giving decision, and looking beyond the slogans and the emotion triggered by appeals. It also means not falling for buzzwords and simply assuming that an organization using them is, in fact, well managed and doing some good.
They indicate it is important to use facts and not just be swayed by emotions. I very much agree. Additionally, they indicate organizations cannot be assumed to be doing any good. Implication is that they must be reviewed.

Above all, being an informed donor means using the information one gathers to help guide resources toward those organizations that are doing the best work in whatever field or cause area one chooses to support.
They are saying information is really important to help people make decisions whatever cause area they chose to support. Again, there is agreement.

By contrast, defective altruism is—by the admission of its proponents—an approach that not only unjustifiably claims the moral high ground in giving decisions, but also implements this bold claim by weighing causes and beneficiaries against one another. In this, it is not moral, but rather, moralistic in the worst sense of the word.
Here is where the problems start. First, in the literature I’ve read on Effective Altruism I don’t see anyone claiming a moral high ground, but engaging in complex and nuanced discussions of morality. Second, by weighing the costs and benefits of something, Effective Altruism is just highlighting WHAT PEOPLE ALREADY DO! sigh.

In recent articles extolling the virtues of this approach, the GiveWell blog has cited the work of several allies, among them Peter Singer, who spoke about the concept in a recent TED Talk.
I highly recommend that talk. Go watch it. :)

In an example of the Sophie’s Choice that the movement offers the donor community, Singer posed the following question: Which is the “better” thing to do? To provide a guide dog to one blind American, or cure 2000 people of blindness in developing countries? Even had he not employed the adjective “American,” which was clearly intended to make his audience feel a distinct pang of cultural guilt, it was obvious which choice Singer thought was the “better” of the two; indeed, he said the choice was “clear.”
Using “American” might have been because he is talking to an American audience so it is more relevant. Regardless, take a step back and think for a moment, would you rather CURE 2000 people of blindness or ASSIST one blind person?

The authors also engaged an appeal to your emotions here (something they just said was bad) by the tone and unanswered rhetorical questions used, instead of evaluating Singer’s argument. They disagree with Singer but have not provided any argument or reasoning to say why one should assist one blind person instead of curing 2000 people of blindness. Why did Singer think it was clear?

Eric Friedman’s new book Reinventing Philanthropy: A Framework for More Effective Giving presents a similar take. In the book, Friedman goes even further than Singer by contrasting the work of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospitals with Malaje Provincial Hospital in Angola. After contrasting two patients served at the different hospitals for life-threatening medical conditions, he concludes, “I’d probably also be very angry at the donors who are continuously funding St. Jude and leaving Malanje Provincial woefully under-resourced. Why are [the patients of St. Jude] so much more worthy of life…?” This seems to us an absurd contrast and presumes a callousness by St. Jude donors that bears no resemblance to reality. Of course it is worthwhile to support both institutions if they both provide life-saving results; but Friedman and others indicate that one should support Malanje and not St. Jude as the “best” choice, and support that claim with nothing other than a decidedly skewed morality.
This is harder to discuss because I haven’t read Friedman’s book, but what they have done is excerpt some material without giving the breadth and complexity of the argument. They indicate that the ONLY reason Friedman gives to support Melanje instead of St. Jude’s is a ‘decidedly skewed morality.’ Okay, what is that morality? Stop the damn straw manning and actually provide the argument Friedman is using, please!

First, if you donate to EITHER of Melanje OR St. Jude’s you are valuing the lives of the people at the one institution more than the lives of people at the others. Sorry, that is just how the universe is. You can’t do it all. This is obvious and all would agree. But it is also obvious that you didn’t do the things you didn’t do. It does not mean you are callous… but it also doesn’t make it untrue that you didn’t donate to the other organization.

Second, does each of the institutions save lives equally? The authors indicate that both organizations should be supported if they provide life-saving results. Possibly, but what if one organization needs $10,000 to save a life and the other needs $100? If you can save 100 times as many people, why wouldn’t you? Seriously, please tell me.

Later in the book, Friedman uses the analogy of buying a friend a birthday present to make his point. He asks us to imagine wandering through a mall and arbitrarily selecting a gift for our friend rather than choosing something they’d really appreciate. He then suggests that making a donation based on “thoughtful consideration” requires that we determine what would have the greatest impact.
Isn't this exactly what good friends do. They give their friends gifts they would actually like.

But the cold and hyper-rationalistic birthday giver who followed the defective altruism model would have to opt not to give a present to their friend at all; they would be required by this logic to scour the planet for the person most “worthy and in need” of that birthday gift.
Again, this is another caricature of the Effective Altruism philosophy. It is much more complicated, but an incomplete summary would be: IF you value reducing the suffering of someone in extreme poverty MORE than the happiness your friend would have from a new shirt/book/gift card, THEN your OWN morality indicates you shouldn’t buy the birthday gift but instead to reduce the suffering. You DO NOT HAVE TO DO THIS. But, you will have to swallow the extremely bitter pill by acknowledging the choice you made.

This approach amounts to little more than charitable imperialism, whereby “my cause” is just, and yours is—to one degree or another—a waste of precious resources.
This is simply untrue. A key feature of Effective Altruism is to discuss the validity of any and all causes. It isn’t ‘your cause’ and ‘my cause’, but what is the best way to reduce suffering. True, people become attached to causes, but if there is an actual argument to make, please make it. Please convincingly argue that all causes are equally valid. Also, people are still free to do whatever they want. Such liberty hasn't typically been associated with 'imperialism.'

This approach is not informed giving.
It actually is but not how you are characterizing it. You are providing no information, context, nuance or argumentative rigor. Your statement is true but only because you have used a straw man.

Were such opinions limited to a small audience, we could reasonably dismiss them as a danger only to those unfortunate enough to hear them.
Fear mongering without justification.

However, in taking on this cause and using the bully pulpit of its website as its forum, GiveWell truly is doing more harm than good to both the donor community and those thousands upon thousands of organizations that are doing much-needed work in areas that the defective altruism fringe deems unworthy.
First, it seems odd to call it a ‘fringe’ but just above say it isn’t a small audience. Second, you make it sound like people using THEIR own website to promote THEIR ideas is a bad thing. This is just silly.

Perhaps more alarming is the seemingly reasoned advice that the blog’s author(s) provide. Ranging from the insulting (“Focus on how one’s actions are likely to affect the world, rather than on how they affect oneself and one’s feelings”) to the banal (“Be open to unconventional approaches to doing good”), they culminate in the following prescription: Choose what you’re passionate about.
First, citation needed! There are so many different entries on that discuss different aspects of charitable giving that the authors' summary is just inaccurate.

Second, why is it insulting to say “we shouldn’t be selfish but focus on others”? Anyone who agrees with this would see THAT statement as the banal one.

Third, being open to unconventional approaches isn’t banal precisely because many people aren’t open to unconventional approaches.

Unfortunately, as Singer’s TED presentation demonstrated most effectively, the defective altruism movement has determined that only those causes about which it is passionate are worthy of making the cut—American children dying of life threatening diseases need not get in line but Angolan children can.
It is statements like this that make me think the authors are malicious or obtuse (or both, no need for false dichotomies). Again, straw man here. Neither an actual description of Singer’s argument is presented nor a sufficient refutation of it. One of Singer’s main point is this: why don’t we see the lives of American children and Angolan children AS EQUAL. I know, what a concept, eh? Imagine if nationality or race or geography didn’t matter when you thought about helping others? That is a key feature of the Effective Altruism movement and is anything but a ‘defective’ perspective to take. Please argue against equality... go!

In GiveWell’s case, this bizarre approach led to its recommendation to not assist the victims of the Japanese Tsunami. In fact, it discourages support for disaster relief in general. Long-time GiveWell supporter Friedman notes, “Most of those killed by disasters could not have been saved with donations.” Instead, GiveWell has a particular fixation with global health and nutrition charities. It at least implicitly recommends that one should support charities only in those cause areas.
Why does Givewell do that? WHY? You have not provided ANY reasoning or arguments from Givewell’s point of view. Sure, people can click away, but how about being fair in your actual article?
This is arguing against a caricature again. I’m starting to think the authors’ organization should be called Strawman Navigator as they are really good at finding the straw man fallacy and making poor arguments.

‘A particular fixation’ makes it sound odd to focus on those organizations that reduce the greatest amount of suffering for the donor’s dollar. If you disagree with emphasizing effectiveness, that’s fine, but at least provide a fair argument not tainted rhetoric.

It is therefore not surprising that it has recommended only a handful of charities to its users. If we all followed such a ridiculous approach, what would happen to:
Again, it is FAR more complicated than the authors are presenting. Part of the logic of giving in certain ways is based on the fact that most people will give in other ways. Effective Altruists can take this information into account.

The main idea though, is WHAT. DO. YOU. VALUE. Just think it through.

1. Domestic efforts to serve those in need?
You can keep supporting this if you think it is more important than reducing suffering from terrible diseases and extreme poverty.

2. Advanced research funding for many diseases?
Given the huge positive effect of eradicating a disease (like small pox), Effective Altruists would be support of some such initiatives.

3. Research on and efforts in creative and innovative new approaches to helping others that no one has ever tried before?
Givewell explicitly endorses the use of Randomized Control Trials (RCTs) to discover the most effective means of giving. In fact, I believe they do this more than any other charitable evaluator.

4. More local and smaller charitable endeavors?
Depends, do they actually work? Do they work as well as something else at reducing suffering?

5. Funding for the arts, and important cultural endeavors such as the preservation of historically important structures and archives?
Again, you can keep supporting this if you think it is more important than reducing suffering from terrible diseases and extreme poverty.

6. Volunteerism for the general public, since most “worthy” efforts are overseas and require a professional degree to have what Friedman calls “deep expertise in niche areas”?
There are numerous benefits to volunteering aside from the effectiveness of your actions. But, IF you value effectiveness over other things, THEN you might consider working a job part-time instead of volunteering and donating the money. As well, if you go overseas it may be beneficial but you are probably more likely to take away a local job you could have created for a lot less than the plane ticket. Again, depends on what YOU value.

7. Careers in the nonprofit sector? Since the spokespeople for this opinion suggest that it might even be ethical to have a “lucrative job in an immoral corporation” so that you can be a so-called “do-bester” and give all the money away, it is unclear who would then run the charities to which defective altruists would give.
StrawMan Navigator succeeds again! Effective Altruists do not state you shouldn’t have a job in the nonprofit sector, but they do dare to consider the potentially positive effect of making 2-3 times as much money and giving a lot of it away. There is an interesting discussion here, see the 80,000 organization. Finally, stop saying ‘defective’ it makes you sound like petty children.

Furthermore, we anticipate that defective altruism inevitably will move us toward a more centralized form of giving where the experts decide where the money goes, rather than individual donors.
So what? If this is a bad thing, please provide an actual argument. The road to hell is paved with good intentions and the history of development and charitable initiatives is a history of things that seemed like they would work but often didn’t. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were experts who could offer guidance as to what has failed and what is more likely to succeed? Why would helping people not be as complicated as anything else? I can’t build a sanitation plant nor treat people for diseases, I happily look to experts to guide me. Once again, another silly comment with no intellectual support.

As Friedman accurately notes, the defective altruism distribution plan “requires a level of expertise that few individuals have.” Thus, over time, we would require a very centralized and top-down approach to marshal and manage social investment and charitable giving decisions in a manner acceptable to the proponents of this approach. Friedman hammers this point home when he observes, “Though not necessarily morally superior to do-gooders, do-besters may be intellectually superior …” (our italics).
Again, I haven’t read the book. But there is an implication all people or all approaches are intellectually equal. Not only is this doubtful, but the authors of THIS very article think Effective Altruists are intellectually inferior because they are going about helping people all wrong! Okay, where is the evidence? Where is the detailed argument?

Ironically, he notes in the last paragraph of his book, “Putting together all the pieces of the do-bester puzzle is difficult—in fact, it is impossible.” We could not agree more!
Impossible doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. This is another logical fallacy. Just because you can’t do everything (or all of something) DOES NOT mean you can’t do anything and make progress towards a goal.

Charity Navigator does not judge whether one type of charity is better than another, because we rely on the intelligence of our users to make charitable decisions that are best for them and the causes they care about—decisions informed by both heart and head.
Try this and see what you think: “Givewell DOES offer judgments about whether one type of charity is better than another because it relies on the intelligence of its users to make charitable decisions that are best for them and the causes they care about – decisions informed by both the heart and head.” How does that sound do you? YOU make the decisions and some experts offer their advice and engage in deep discussions about morality and effectiveness?

That—and not Big Brother in the guise of defective altruism—comprises the informed giving that we think truly honors the altruistic spirit.
Not only is this statement near-empty, but it manages to work in fear-mongering as well as the usual poor caricature.

In a sad twist of fate, those that run Charity Navigator have managed to write an extremely uncharitable article about, at root, a different philosophy towards helping those who suffer.
Their tone and poor argumentation speak volumes about their understanding of charitable philosophies and even about their ability to rationally discuss issues.

As I said, this is very saddening. It also means Charity Navigator can no longer be trusted.

PS: If curious, I did my own talk on smarter ways to donate. Additionally, I am offering to match donations to the Against Malaria Foundation.


Anonymous Eric Friedman said...

Thanks for writing this. The text from chapter 1 of my book is freely available at It includes one of the sections quoted in Mr. Berger and Mr. Penna's blog entry, which I believe they took out of context.

10:46 PM  
Anonymous Dmitriy said...

Interesting post, thank you. Though it bothers me what was the motivation behind the original post - was it just misunderstanding of effective altruism on CharityNavigator's part or were there something else that would bias the author.

And also, while your initiative with matching donations is truly admirable (25k is about 1/3 more than my total yearly income), GiveWell recommends to refrain from donating to them, as of Nov, 26. More on their blog post -

5:11 AM  
Blogger G Jaspers said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

2:24 PM  
Blogger G Jaspers said...

Thank you for that laborious effort of reasoning thru CN's various criticisms. I don't know if I'm more confused than ever, but the take-away for me is that CN and Givewell are both in the same business of "informing" givers. To me, that's two sets of critical eyes on the charity industry. This can only be a good thing, because as we all know there are lots of charity frauds out there, all willing to take your money, and all asking you to take them at their word. There's nothing wrong with scrutiny, financial disclosure, cost/benefit analysis applied to every cause. I agree with Givewell if I correctly understood that despite mathematical efficiency, you should give to the causes that YOU are passionate about. I think that is also CN's position. I agree Mr Singer is a reputable authority on this subject and his opinions cannot be dismissed out of hand without more justification. In the case of this author, I think the "Charity Navigator is dead to me" tagline is also just another comment falling into the less-than-adult category.

2:31 PM  

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