Give a little, but give it well

Trust the numbers.

Remember Nate Silver? Amid all the arguments over opinion polls during last year’s US presidential election, Silver’s data-crunching was a voice of reason – and he successfully predicted the winner in all 50 states.

Silver’s methods don’t need to stop there. They can be extended to saving lives. Meet Toby Ord, a research fellow at Oxford University. Ord has developed a system whereby he ranks charities according to their effectiveness. His findings are startling: “The most effective charities are about 10,000 times more effective than the least effective.” This implies that £1 given to the most effective charity will do as much good as £10,000 given to the least.

Ord has spent seven years analysing the effectiveness of charities. His research shows there is a clear winner: charities that focus on single issues. Giving What We Can, the organisation created by Ord, highlights the Against Malaria Foundation, the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative and Deworm the World as the three charities that give donors most bang for their buck. This calculation is based on how they provide the greatest return in terms of quality-adjusted life years, a way of measuring not only the extra years of life that people gain but the quality of this time.

Because of the disruption to education caused by “pupils and teachers who are constantly ill”, these charities have also been shown to offer the best way to improve education in developing countries.

It sounds technical, but Ord’s method is simple – he analyses the data dispassionately to deduce what works best. Of the parallels with Silver’s work on the US election, he says: “I’m flattered by the comparison. Nate Silver has brought rigorous quantitative analysis into an area that was largely based on intuition, feeling and conventional wisdom. We’re definitely trying to do a similar thing in the charity sector.”

Ord also suggests ignoring television and newspaper appeals that are designed to maximise emotional impact and instead rationally considering how to make sure your donations do the greatest good.

Charities’ effectiveness is not just a matter of numbers. He describes it as “the most important moral question in our lives for almost everyone, because we have a realistic opportunity to save literally hundreds of lives or to produce literally thousands of years of extra life, if we want”.

The Department for International Development (DfID) has often been accused of spending too much time signing cheques and not enough scrutinising them. Reassuringly, Ord says that DfID has held meetings with him to discuss how to make the aid budget go as far as possible. He says that, in terms of efficiency, “We have a very good aid department on an international scale.”

Although the target of setting aside 0.7 per cent of GDP for the aid budget is often criticised, he describes it as “a very small amount of money to be giving as such a wealthy nation as Britain”. Lowering it, he says, would be “crazy”.

Along with 276 other members of Giving What We Can, Ord has pledged to give at least 10 per cent of his income over his lifetime towards eradicating poverty. He goes further, giving away all he earns over £18,000. Over his lifetime, he calculates that this will amount to £1m. We might not all be able to give so much but, as he says, even those who give much less can make “a huge positive impact upon humanity”.

It’s the Nate Silver way: eschew emotion and trust the numbers.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Dinosaurs vs modernisers