How little we know...

Motivating our project; feel free to be brief and link external content. "How little we know"

Draw from and link EA Barriers Project (Reinstein) on "Presenting the Puzzle"


From EA Barriers Project:

As Burum, Nowak, and Hoffman (2020) state: “We donate billions of dollars to charities each year, yet much of our giving is ineffective. Why are we motivated to give, but not motivated to give effectively?”

... raises two related questions:

I. “Why don’t we give more to the most effective charities and to those most in need?” and

II. “Why are we not more efficient with our giving choices?”

To address this, we must understand what drives giving choices, and how people react to the presentation of charity-effectiveness information

In slightly more detail

There are two related and largely unresolved puzzles:

  1. Why are people not more generous with the most highly effective causes? and

  2. When they give to charity why do they not choose more effective charities?

There is some evidence on this but it is far from definitive. We do not expect there to be only a single answer to these questions; there may be a set of beliefs, biases, preferences, and underlying circumstances driving this. We would like to understand which of these are robustly supported by the evidence, and will have a sense of how important each of these are in terms of the magnitude of driving and absence of effective giving. There has been only a limited amount of research into this and it has not been systematic, coordinated, nor heavily funded.

We seek to understand because we believe that there is potential to change attitudes, beliefs, and actions (primarily charitable giving, but also political and voting behaviour and workplace/career choices). Different charitable appeals, information interventions and approaches may substantially change peoples charity choices. We see potential for changing the “domain” of causes chosen (e.g., international versus US domestic) as well as the effectiveness of the charities chosen within these categories. (However, we have some disagreement over the relative potential for either of these.)

Our main ‘policy’ audience includes both effective nonprofit organisations and ‘effective altruists’. The EA movement is highly-motivated, growing, and gaining funding. However, it represents a niche audience: the ‘hyper-analytic but morally-scrupulous’. EA organisations have focused on identifying effective causes and career paths, but have pursued neither extensive outreach nor ‘market research’ on a larger audience (see Charity Science, Gates Foundation/Ideas42). `

(Lack of) previous synthesis on this

Academic work:

  • @loewensteinScarecrowTinMan2007

  • introduction to @Berman2018, @baron2011heuristics)

  • introduction to Caviola et al: "on how both incorrect beliefs and preferences for ineffective charities contribute to ineffective giving"

  • @greenhalghSystematicReviewBarriers2020 (qualitative, focuses on largest philanthropists only)


Overall, these have not been detailed or systematic. While Caviola et al, 2021, is probably the strongest, most relevant, and most insightful (and has some connection to the structure presented in the 'Barriers' project), it does not drill deeply into the strength of the evidence and the relative importance of each factor. However, this may stem from a small amount of available evidence to survey.

Ideas42 wrote (ibid)

We did not find many field-based, experimental studies on the factors that encourage people to choose thoughtfully among charities or to plan ahead to give.

Definitions - "Efficiency" versus impact

A working definition is provided and discussed HERE I (Reinstein) provide a critical discussion of some standard economic models of giving in this context HERE

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