Getting the most bang for your charitable buck

I just received a mailer from Effective Altruism, via which I do a monthly donation to charity. The mailer asked me to rate from 1 to 10, with 1 being least likely and 10 being most, how likely I would be to recommend Effective Altruism to a friend. I gave it a 10.

And since we’re all friends here on… I recommend Effective Altruism if you’re looking to make your charitable dollar do as much as it can.

Effective Altruism is an organisation that’s, in their own words: about answering one simple question: how can we use our resources to help others the most?

I first learned about them through a book called Doing Good Better (loved it; it absolutely changed the way I thought about giving – especially the part talking about the careers we ought to pick for maximum societal impact: should we pick the higher-paying career where we have little opportunity to positively impact society, e.g. an investment banker; or the lower-paying career where we can make a positive, direct impact on society, e.g. a social worker? The book argues that it is the former that we can do more good, if we direct the funds we earn to charitable causes).

Its basic premise is this: all charitable interventions should be scientifically tested to determine how effective they are, and money should only flow to those that are more effective.

The more good an intervention does for a given amount of money, the more effective it is deemed to be.

How much “good” an intervention does is determined by the amount of QALYs and WALYs. This is a very interesting concept that I’d not heard of before coming across Effective Altruism.

A QALY stands for “quality-adjusted life year”, defined as (from Wikipedia):

[A QALY] is a generic measure of disease burden, including both the quality and the quantity of life lived. It is used in economic evaluation to assess the value for money of medical interventions. One QALY equates to one year in perfect health.

A WALY, on the other hand, stands for “well-being adjusted life year” (from the US Institutes of Health website):

[A WALY] is a measure that combines life extension and health improvement in a single score, reflecting preferences around different types of health gain.

In essence, the amount of good relates to how much life and life improvement it brings. The benefit of of using QALYs and WALYs is that they are fungible, and are therefore able to act as very versatile measures of charitable intervention.  A little like good old money.

For example, if you want to take up a new job, it’s extremely convenient to start thinking about the benefits in terms of money, even when some of the benefits are non-monetary. If you get more vacation time, how much more is an extra day of vacation worth to you? If the working hours are less, and you are planning to spend this extra time with your kids, how much more is this worth to you? And so on.

It helps us make apples-to-apples comparisons between two very disparate things, like deworming vs. microfinance.

Effective Altruism thus looks at the quality of all interventions, and aims to focus funds toward interventions that are the most effective. And though it may not be perfect, I find that it gives me peace of mind.

It allowed me to finally get past paralysis by analysis, making me comfortable with giving more money than before.

I still do give to random strangers on the street because it feels good; but for regular and systematic giving, the kind that I think will do far more good, this will be my avenue of choice.

And to those who ask: Is this “too scientific”? Shouldn’t giving be from the heart?

My answer is: No to the first question; and yes to the second.

The science and experimentation behind Effective Altruism helps to ensure accountability – charities that are deemed ineffective tend to be ineffective for very good reasons, and every dollar given to an ineffective charity is one less dollar given to a more effective one. Why should less effective charities, even those with the best of intentions, take money away from those that can do more good?

To be honest, I did have some concerns about how newer interventions or charities would be handled by them – many charities and interventions start out less effective than the most effective ones and need to be given a chance to grow and show their worth, and may eventually become as effective than the most effective ones or even more so. However, Effective Altruism does take care of some of that by having a dedicated allocation of their fund that looks at just these “promising charities”, which introduces a little bit of randomness into their portfolio of current strong performers.

On giving from the heart, to be honest I never really found a “logical” reason for giving, nor have I looked for one. Giving to me has always just been something we should do to be thankful we have what we have, that we are who we are.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

I finished reading the book The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera a couple of day’s back

Loved it (mostly). It reminded me of what it was like to live a life that was lighter, not weighed down by expectations; que sera sera.

Just thought I’d like to share a couple of passages from the book.

Emphasis mine.

On the fact that life only occurs once:

Einmal ist keinmal. If we have only one life to live, we might as well not have lived at all.

Human life occurs only once, and the reason we cannot determine which of our decisions are good and which bad is that in a given situation we can make only one decision; we are not granted a second, third, or fourth life in which to compare various decisions.

On our pursuits and goals:

We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.

The goals we pursue are always veiled. A girl who longs for marriage longs for something she knows nothing about. The boy who hankers after fame has no idea what fame is. The thing that gives our every move its meaning is always totally unknown to us.

On love:

All this time he was sitting up in bed and looking at the woman who was lying beside him and holding his hand in her sleep. He felt an ineffable love for her. Her sleep must have been very light at the moment because she opened her eyes and gazed up at him questioningly.

“What are you looking at?” she asked.

He knew that instead of waking her he should lull her back to sleep, so he tried to come up with an answer that would plant the image of a new dream in her mind.

“I’m looking at the stars,” he said.

“Don’t say you’re looking at the stars. That’s a lie. You’re looking down.”

“That’s because we’re in an airplane. The stars are below us.”

“Oh, in an airplane,” said Tereza, “squeezing his hand ever tighter and falling asleep again. And Tomas knew that Tereza was looking out of the round window of an airplane flying high above the stars.


Just the other day I stood waiting to cross the street. As the cars passed in front of me I started thinking about how odd it’d be if one of these cars were to veer a little to the left. Maybe a crying child; maybe a bad day at work; maybe the shadow of a cat on the road; the causes could be many, the outcome the one. Onto the pavement the car would go.

Violence. Then silence.

Opening my eyes, I might remember, vaguely, that yes I’d gotten off work (what work do I do?) but now I’m here, looking at you looking at me: you who are in the scrubs; you who are telling me you are my wife; you who are calling me papa (I’m a dad?)

How strange it would be. Without memory would I be me?

As I stood waiting to cross the street, I took two steps back. Let that not be today.

Echo chambers

“The difference is that the United States’ aims are to spread democracy and openness,” said the female interviewee, when asked by the BBC reporter on what the difference was between the US using “information warfare” vs. the Russians doing the same thing.

(For context, this was a radio programme on the suspected Russian interference in US politics.)

And then there was a pause.

The interviewee, I think, thought that that was enough; that by saying the US was pushing for “democracy and openness” while the Russians were not, it was self-evident the US were the “good guys”, exonerated from their own version of “information warfare” against other nations.

But the BBC journalist would have none of it.

Very subtly, with a slight change of tone, made a comment that implied not everyone’s looking for “democracy and openness”. Some of us would rather eat plain food in peace than have caviar shoved down our throats.

As much as I love late night TV, this very refreshing non-US take on things made me realise I better start getting out of my americentric echo chambers.

Are you what you write? (or, Machiavelli the playwright)

I just watched a documentary on Niccolò Machiavelli. You may know him as that scheming, deceitful, and generally rotten guy who wrote the political bible The Prince.

So infamous is he that his name has become an adjective synonymous with evil. Just see what Merriam-Webster has to stay about being “Machiavellian”:

suggesting the principles of conduct laid down by Machiavelli; specifically marked by cunning, duplicity, or bad faith

To be honest I never knew much about him – I’d heard of him and his book, but not much else. He lived in my mind vaguely in the same space as Sun Tzu and Zhuge Liang, and to a lesser extent political leaders like Mussolini, Mao Zedong, and Margaret Thatcher.

But watching this documentary gave me better appreciation for the man and his thoughts on politics and power.

It was the parts about his life, though, that really made me go: really?

You see, I always thought that Machiavelli was the right-hand man for the political leader(s) of his time and that he probably died as a martyr or as a grey-haired political advisor.  I never separated Machiavelli the man vs. Machiavelli the myth.

I always imagined him executed as part of a coup or something; which, come to think of it, would have been more romantic, no?

I had not realised that he was relatively young (~43) when he was deprived of his rather lofty official position due to transitions of power in Florence at that time.

It was only after that, as part of failed attempts to get back into officialdom that he wrote The Prince, which was his way of trying to get noticed by the new leaders. Unfortunately for him, it didn’t work.

Eventually, he lived out the rest of his life writing plays. Plays. (Yes, plays.) 

Part of my amazement also lay in the fact that he still had friends after writing The Prince.

Though the book was published only 5 years after his death, he’d shared it among friends soon after first writing it.

Just imagine a modern day Machiavelli writing a blog on how to seize and hold on to positions of power, saying

one who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived.

Who’d be friends with such a guy?

It also reminded me sometimes of my own literary voyages.

You know how sometimes you’d be in a really good mood and ready to take on the world. Just about anything you write about then will tend to be upbeat too (“Believe in yourself and you the world will be your oyster! They can hurt your body but they cannot hurt you!”)

But sometimes those days precede days where nothing goes right, and you’re in a life-is-awful-kittens-are-Satan mood.

Imagine the dissonance when someone who then reads my happy post gets all upbeat him- or herself, and then talks to me about it during one of these god-awful days, saying something akin to:

“I love how you can turn:
the good from bad;
the happy from sad;
the new from old;
and lead into gold!”

F*** off my eyes tell them.

And they have to wonder if the writer and me were one and the same.

Well, there is what I write; and then there’s me.

Fast Cars

With a light press of the accelerator, the car effortlessly sped up. Without my realising it we were now a little over the speed limit. It was odd how slow it felt. The cabin deathly quiet as the car stoically glided along.

This was taken back in 2008 while on a road trip to Albany, Western Australia. The GPS we had loaned went a little mad, and brought us to this rural track through a farm. Fun times.

Flashback 10 years: driving in Perth in the 小金车 (xiao jin che or “little golden car” – the name we housemates affectionately called our car). Onto the freeway I went at 90 km/h. The car rattled as the bumps on the ground made their presence felt; the engine groaning under the strain.

In the “slow” car going at 90 km/h felt like 120.

In the “fast” car going at 120 km/h felt like 90.

The experience of speed was far more obvious in the “slow” car despite the lack of the real thing: the elevated heart-rate; the adrenaline; the fun!


Likewise, is life not often what you make of it?

Do not give me a gift of which I desire

A little note about happiness, from the book Homo Deus, by Yuval Noah Harari:

If I identify happiness with fleeting pleasant sensations, and crave to experience more and more of them, I have no choice but to pursue them constantly. When I finally get them, they quickly disappear, and because the mere memory of past pleasures will not satisfy me, I have to start all over again. Even if I continue this pursuit for decades, it will never bring me any lasting achievement; on the contrary, the more I crave these pleasant sensations, the more stressed and dissatisfied I will become. To attain real happiness, humans need to slow down the pursuit of pleasant sensations, not accelerate it.

When I read the passage above, it reminded me of something I told my wife not too long ago, that “the more I have, the more I want.”

If I feel happy just thinking of purchasing something I long for, especially one that I can easily afford, why would I spoil it with an actual purchase?

You see, the moment I make that purchase, the want is taken care of; the moment that want is taken care of, something else would take its place; and if that something is not something I can easily afford, the “more stressed and dissatisfied I will become.”

So, my dear, no, I do not want you to give me a gift of which I desire (and which money can buy).

I’m happy to stick to the simple joys of your company; our son; and our daughter.