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.

What are you doing to help the person next to you?

Was taking a break from my studies (exams next week, people!), having my dinner and watching some YouTube vids on “leadership” (just because) when I came across Simon Sinek and this video.

Reminded me of something I knew very well sometime back, but forgotten in the hustle and bustle of corporate life: that we sometimes have to put ourselves aside, ignoring the modern social beat of “I, I, me, me“, and think about how we can help and serve others, not in the hope for some future karmic gain, but because we can.

The Truth About the Poverty Line

I learned something new about the poverty line of “$1.25 per day” today. I’d thought it was an absolute number. That as you moved from one country to another, $1.25 would buy you more or less stuff, depending on how much the goods and services of a particular country were going for.

Poorer countries tend to have cheaper things, so in really poor countries $1.25 will go a long way. But I was wrong. It doesn’t work that way.

From the book The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer:

In response to the “$1.25 a day” figure [cited by the World Bank], the thought may cross your mind that in many developing countries, it is possible to live much more cheaply than in the industrialised nations. Perhaps you have even done it yourself, backpacking around the world, living on less than you would have believed possible. So you may imagine this level of poverty is less extreme than it would be if you had to live on that amount of money in the United States, or any industralised nation. If such thoughts did occur to you, you should banish them now, because the World Bank has already made the adjustment in purchasing power: Its figures refer to the number of people existing on a daily total consumption of goods and services–whether earned or home-grown–comparable to the amount of goods and services that can be bought in the United States for $1.25.

I was shocked when I first read this. Whenever I read about the poverty line I’d think to myself sure, $1.25 isn’t much, but it’d probably buy me much more in a third-world country. To me, it didn’t make sense to live on so little each day. It wasn’t part of my world view at all. It was as if you told me that there were two moons in the sky–I wouldn’t, couldn’t, believe it.

It’s made me think. And I hope you, too.

The World Vision Christmas Gift Catalogue 2012: Good; but paperless would be even better.

Lix and I recently received the hardcopy World Vision Christmas Gift Catalogue in our mailbox, the second since we started co-sponsoring a Zambian child a little over a year ago. Though we largely ignored it the first time, this time around we sat down and went through it together, donating far more than we’d anticipated; partly because we sincerely wanted to help, and partly because we couldn’t bear to see the beautiful catalogue go to waste.

The World Vision catalogue we received resembled those commercial ones you often get in the mail or as newspaper supplements. At over forty(!) pages long, printed in full colour and on relatively heavy glossy paper, it doesn’t feel cheap; in fact, it makes you wonder for a moment whether the printing of the catalogue alone makes up most of World Vision’s marketing/communications budget (which in Singapore stands at 11.6%, as stated in the catalogue).

As soon as you get past the cover page however (which states that you can “choose from over 90 extraordinary gifts and bring cheer to some of the world’s poorest children”), and flip through the stories contained within, you won’t think of anything else but how you may be able to help.

Each item in the catalogue is presented in a similar fashion: a short, open-ended story written in the first person (as if the actual beneficiaries penned it), detailing a problem faced and its proposed solution, accompanied by one or more vivid photographs of World Vision beneficiaries and the things you can get to help them solve the problem.

(Noticed I said “open ended”? Well, it’s because the story has no ending: how the story ends is left to you — potential donor and protagonist — to decide: donate, and little Finne gets to eat; don’t, and she, along with the rest of her peers, starves.)

It’s a simple formula, but it works surprisingly well. By breaking down a problem of unimaginable scale into the individual level, and crafting tangible solutions to these smaller-scale problems, potential donors are made to feel empowered to make a real change in the world. Traditional methods, by contrast, often leave donors with little else but a vague sense of having dented the great wall of poverty with a penny. To whom would you rather give your $96 to: some random charity, or severely undernourished little Finne so that she can eat for a good half a year?

I don’t know about you, but little Finne’s not going hungry on my watch.

The catalogue’s a great idea, and for what it does it works extremely well (which explains why it has caught on so well among charities around the world). But remember how many pages I mentioned this catalogue was? That’s right: 40-plus, no-expense-spared pages. At the end of it all, my thoughts couldn’t help but return to that of how resource-hungry the catalogue was. Just a thought, but, at the risk of sounding too Year-2000-Dot-Com-Era-ish, couldn’t this catalogue have been digitised and put online?

The simple answer: yes.

A quick internet search showed that this catalogue could be found online in its entirety, so I was a tad puzzled that there wasn’t an option in the marketing material sent to me by World Vision on how I could “opt out” of receiving hardcopy editions in the future, and have the digital version sent to me instead. Having a postcard pointing me to the updated catalogue online would have worked as well.

But maybe I shouldn’t have been too puzzled about not receiving an option to opt out, as the online catalogue was, quite frankly, a rather disappointing experience. I was hoping for something more Web 2.0, something that’d make me think “it looks like an online shop” only that the items were for donation and not purchase. But what I found was that you either got the PDF/flash version of the catalogue that didn’t accept any online methods of payment, or you got the version that accepted online methods of payments but looked like it belonged to the 1990’s.

So here’s a thought: what if each catalogue item had its own fundraising page like that found on or, another one of my favourite sites, Maybe it wouldn’t work so well with the smaller ticket items like “three bowls of rice for a week”, but even these could be expanded to “three bowls of rice for a week for a village” to fit the “project” structure of these sites. The great thing about these types of fundraising sites is the tremendous amount of interaction they allow between fundraisers and donors/contributors (and among donors/contributors themselves as well) and the fact that as a donor you can see your contribution affect the “total contributions” on the page more or less immediately (again, the feeling of empowerment). I don’t know about you, but I’d think the experience would rival any hardcopy catalogue.

Adopting the gift catalogue idea from the commercial world was a great innovative step for charities, but it’s probably time it evolved. Online “catalogues” (which may or may take on the traditional “catalogue” form) would be a great place to start, not only reducing both costs and paper usage, but also possibly raising more funds by virtue of being more easily and widely distributed via social media and other traditional online means. Who knows, but in the not-too-distant-future you could well be browsing for gifts to send to impoverished Mongolian kids through your mobile device, and sharing with friends on Facebook that they should do the same.

Run Forrest Run – My fundraising effort for World Vision, through

I’m currently raising funds for World Vision, through which Lix and I are sponsoring a child called “Chippo” (a girl who loves drawing onions too much in our opinion). My fundraising is through, and you can find my fundraising page here (please take a look, and donate :)), called “Run Forrest Run!”, named after Forrest Gump, my favourite runner! I’ll be running the full Standard Chartered Marathon this December and will be dedicating my run to them — for every minute I run below 5-hours (my previous marathon timing), I’ll pledge $2 to the cause!

On Catholicism, science, and being good. Amen.

I was just thinking back to the days when I’d I used to pray each night like the semi-devout catholic I was. Semi, because I wasn’t so much into catholic traditions and beliefs, but more of a “being good is what I want to be and Catholicism just so happens to be the most accessible way I know how” kind of way.

I remember praying for peace on earth, corny as that may be; protection and blessings for family and friends, with name-specific mentions for people whom I felt most on need of divine help; and I’d ask for blessings for myself too. I also remember praying for my grandma (on my mom’s side) and my grandpa (on my dad’s side), the latter of whom I’d occasionally met when young, and the former who’d taken care of me through my primary school days.

And, if you’d believe it, I’d also ask Good to bless my enemies and people whom I’d disliked, and the strangers I hadn’t met as well as those I had. I’d end it off with a “and please bless everyone else here on Earth” for good measure, making sure everybody got a serving of divine help.

Every night I prayed without fail, even when terribly tired. I couldn’t, wouldn’t, let the world down.

But as I grew up I started approaching life with a skeptic’s mind; I believed only in things backed by science and proof and I’d developed a strong need for evidence. God slowly left my life. (Do prayers work? Is religion rational? Can miracles be proven?)

Nightly prayers became weekly; then disappeared altogether. Church, which I attended occasionally, was attended to even less (never). But life continued as normal, and nothing seemed to have changed.

Every once in a while, though, while lying in bed, I’d wish for someone to talk to. Someone to listen as I blather about the state of the world and the state of my life. The God I prayed to each night played this role of cheap psychotherapist and friend brilliantly, but I found I couldn’t remain true to my scientific self and continue with my prayerful nonsense. These days I’d find it harder to push Him away than to embrace the beauty of religion. But still I did.

It was then that I’d realise that life had changed. I’d realise too that ever since I stopped calling myself a catholic I’d grown that little more selfish; that little more “bad”. Conceit, narcissism, concern for oneself; these feelings took over. No longer looking through compassionate eyes, the mind took over where the heart once ruled.

But it’s part of who I am now, and I don’t think much about it anymore.

A pity really.

But like how you never can quite tell when exactly the sun has set while you’re watching it, my becoming “less good” happened without my knowing when; maybe it had something to do with my abandonment of religion, but then again, maybe not. Maybe I just grew up.

As I lay on the bed tonight, I reconsidered my position on religion. Maybe it’s unscientific; maybe irrational; maybe ridiculous. But if it helps make me a better person, would that not make it worth scientific scorn? To give in to my temptation of prayer… yes, I don’t believe in a God; yes, I pray each night. Deal with it.

It reminds me of a philosophical debate I  recently had with myself regarding the merits of charity: would it be better to give (to the needy; to charity) with selfish intentions, or not to give at all?

Though I didn’t finally settle on an answer, I was leaning toward the camp that was pro-giving no matter what. Who cares if your intentions are selfish? If it helps the world, if it doesn’t make anyone worse off, do it.


(Some shamless self-promo: I’m currently raising funds for World Vision, through which Lix and I are sponsoring a child called “Chippo” (a girl who loves drawing onions too much in our opinion). My fundraising is through, and you can find my fundraising page here, called “Run Forrest Run!”, named after Forrest Gump, my favourite runner! I’ll be running the full Standard Chartered Marathon this December and will be dedicating my run to them — for every minute I run below 5-hours (my previous marathon timing), I’ll pledge $2 to the cause!)

And I’ll remember you in my prayers tonight.

Putting my IT knowledge to better use?

I was just recalling how Zixuan told me how lucky I was that I had all the knowledge necessary to carry out a web-based business, something plenty of people wish they had but hadn’t (including him). When he first mentioned it to me, I simply agreed but didn’t think much into it — plenty of people have some sort of talent they don’t make full use of, and I just happen to be one of them.

But lately, for some reason or other, I’ve been feeling that having all this knowledge just rotting away was particularly sinful. Other than doing websites, I had plenty of other IT-related expertise I could share, like VBA/PHP programming, information management (if you’ve got data you need to store and retrieve, I’ll teach you how best to do it), and non-IT-related expertise like copywriting or copyediting that I could share.

Other than doing freelance work, which I’m already doing, could I not use my expertise to help non-profits and charitable organisations? Of course I could.

So this is an appeal to all out there: if you know of any non-profit or charitable organisation that requires any of my above-mentioned expertise, please let me know. I’ll be glad to see if and how I can help.

Give a Life a Home

Kunkun er hao (left) with his girlfriend, Kunkun er hao de nu peng you (Gungun 二号的女朋友)

My home’s undergoing some renovation work at present. Though on the surface it seems that that not enough’s going on to cause a considerable drop in the quality of my life, the bad vibes from alien structures scattered about the house, the forced relocations of many of my most commonly used and loved items (my shoes, camera, and the irreplaceable Gungun kunkun er hao), and the seemingly endless supply of dust over everything (sheets included) just keep gnawing away at you till you’re ready to implode; and the fact that there’s no home to run away to in times like these feels horribly claustrophic (“Out! Out! I want to get out!”)

It’s times like these that I really start appreciating my home; and, as I sit here and type about my temporary loss of a good home, I start realising how fortunate I am to have had what I have had. I cannot imagine what it’d be like to be without a home, or to have a home I dread going back to. And yet, this is the reality thousands (millions?) of people, children or otherwise, live with every single day.

Who am I to complain, right?

I suddenly feel really compelled to do something to improve the lives of those still longing to find their home, be it a literal home or not.

Tell you what, I’m going to transfer $50 to some random charity through Internet Banking. Why don’t you, too?