Is charitable giving broken?

Tom Rivers
12 min readOct 3, 2017


Are all charitable causes equally good?

Is donating ten pounds to the Doodle Trust (who rescue and rehome Doodles and Poodles throughout the UK) equally as important as donating to Doctors without Borders?

We in the UK are a charitable bunch. In 2016, 61% of us gave money to causes and between us we gave £9.7 billion. That’s a fair chunk of change by any measure, so I’ve been wondering recently what causes we give to as a nation, and whether or not we donate to worthy causes as a group of 70 million people.

More specifically the question I asked myself is, is it possible that as individuals donating to causes of our choice, we in fact make a very poor choice as a group, and therefore leave some of the world’s greatest issues un-tackled, whilst focussing instead on ones that have little impact? If we were to start from a position of thinking about our own moral compass and values, could we still justify the outcome of all our charitable giving?

SPOILER ALERT — we kind of suck at giving to the right causes. Here’s why…

Our moral compass and values

In philosophical debate there are things known as thought experiments. These distill complicated real-life examples into slightly abstract and extreme scenarios to tease out what we really think about a given issue and the consequences of those conclusions. Many thought experiments kick off discussions of ethics — the trolley problem is perhaps the most famous, and opens up a rabbit hole or complex and potentially inconsistent ethical views.

Let’s consider this simple thought experiment:

You find yourself in a position where you pass two burning buildings. In one, is a child, who you do not know. In the other, a dog, who you do not know. You calculate that you have time to save only one of these two, without risking your own life. Which one should you save?

I would wager that most would save the child, which seems an extremely defensible choice. We might start to doubt the character of a friend if they said the dog without hesitation.

Here are some further complications we may throw into the mix:

  • What if instead of any dog, it was your family dog?
  • What if it was not a child, but an extremely elderly person, and instead of a single dog, it was half a dozen puppies?
  • What if instead of a dog, it was a building full of priceless artworks?
  • What if it wasn’t you doing the saving, but you had the choice to pay a person to save the child, or pay a person to save the dog? How much would you pay?
This dog doesn’t even want to be saved

Each of these further scenarios present us will some interesting things to consider, but it seems likely that many of us reading the above would always value human life over animals, and even more so with inanimate objects such as artwork. We might create a hierarchy of moral beliefs:

  1. The protection and saving of human life
  2. The alleviation of suffering in humans
  3. The protection and saving of complex animals
  4. The alleviation of suffering in complex animals
  5. The protection of the environment
  6. The promotion of well-being of humans
  7. ….

Thus, the protection and saving of human life would be more important than stopping suffering in an animal, and so on; something higher up the list would trump something lower down the list when faced with a choice between them.

As this list progressed downwards you get into some murky decisions about the priority order of your moral values. For example you might be deciding between whether or not the eradication of all books was more or less bad than the killing of livestock. You might complicate it by including the proximity or relationship of individuals to you — for example is the life of your sibling more or less important than that of two strangers on the other side of the world? How could I compare saving one human life with that eradication of all elephants? Or squirrels? Or a rare species of butterfly?

These are difficult questions and not ones I have the answer for here. But looking back at the original thought experiment, you would undoubtedly call the person who saved the child a hero, and not assign them blame for not saving the dog. If someone did choose to save the dog, you’d likely feel significant misgivings about their moral character. As a rule of thumb, saving human lives trumps reducing animal suffering.

So what happens if we change the scenario to one where you could donate £1000 to save a child, or £1000 to save a dog, would the decision change?

Well the first option is certainly possible.

A lot of human suffering and death

So let’s look at one problem that exists in our world:

The World Health Organisation estimates that in 2015 alone, 438,000 people died of malaria — 292,000 of whom were children under 5 in sub-Saharan Africa.

This is a huge number, and incredibly sad to think about — 292,000 children under 5 dying in a year.

What’s interesting about this particular problem though, is that we’ve found an extremely effective way to reduce this number; insecticide-coated mosquito nets. In fact, rates of malaria have halved over the past 15 years, almost entirely because of distributing mosquito nets:

“bednet distributions are one of the most cost-effective ways of preventing disease and death. Since 2000, one billion bednets have been distributed (costing around 5 dollars each), and have averted 450 million cases of malaria — this suggests that, on average, one episode of clinical malaria can be prevented for about $11 (malarial fevers can be very painful). One recent study suggests that in Kenya, bednet distributions between 2003 and 2008 have prevented a death of a child for about $1,011 on average”

Just to reiterate, for just over $1000, it is possible to prevent the death of a child.

The amount of extra money required to achieve universal coverage of malaria nets — a way to prevent suffering and death — was estimated at around $200 million for 2015.

So given that we could establish an order list of moral priorities, and said that the saving of human life should be pretty high up on that list combined with a known cause of human death AND a way to prevent it, do we as a nation give to causes that aim to prevent human suffering and death over others?

Not so much.

Charitable giving

I want to outline some of the consequences of private charitable giving in the UK. None of the following charities are bad in themselves, but I want to pick out some charities who explicitly do not charge themselves with preventing human suffering or death, and look at the amount of money they have fundraised, along with what they did with that money:

The Donkey Sanctuary

From their site:

“In Europe we rehomed 367 animals, the highest number for some years, as the economy in Europe continues to strengthen and our restructured welfare operation settles down. As at 31 December 2015 we were looking after 4,960 donkeys and mules and a further 1,700, mainly donkeys, were living with Donkey Guardians in private homes, schools and other institutions. Our human-donkey interaction work, where both donkeys and humans gain benefit from the mutual contact, recorded growth in the number of projects in both the United Kingdom and other parts of the world such as Ethiopia, Sri Lanka and Belgium.”

Amount raised in 2015 — £31.93 million (that works out at almost £5000 per donkey)

The Dogs Trust

From their website:

2016 was another great year for Dogs Trust we cared for around 15,300 dogs across all of our 21 centres.

Side note — there are estimated to be 8.5 million dogs in the UK, so The Dogs Trust effectively influenced the welfare of 0.18% of the total number of dogs in the UK.

Amount raised in 2015- £83 million

Guide Dogs for the blind

Taken from their site:

We are responsible for around 8,000 dogs at any one time — active working guide dogs and those enjoying their retirement.

We matched 828 people with a guide dog in 2016.

It costs £56,800 to support a guide dog from birth to retirement.

Amount raised in 2015 — £98.90 million

The above charities then — according to their own data — cared for, trained or re-homed an estimated 30,327 dogs, donkeys and mules, and raised £213,830,000 between them in one year. That’s £7,500 per animal, and 7 times more than it costs to prevent a single child’s death from malaria.

(That number of animals helped seems vanishingly small if you consider that every year in the UK approximately 2.6 million cattle, 10 million pigs, 14.5 million sheep and lambs, 80 million fish and 950 million birds are slaughtered for human consumption (source).)

Remember here that to achieve universal coverage with malaria nets would cost $200 million, less than the amount fundraised amounts by only three animal charities.

I don’t mean to only highlight animal-focussed charities though — here are a two human-orientated charities, but who’s aim is not the prevention of human suffering or death:

The Archbishops Council

From their site their objectives are:

giving a clear strategic sense of direction to the national work of the Church of England, within an overall vision set by the House of Bishops and informed by an understanding of the Church’s opportunities, needs and resources;

encouraging and resourcing the Church in parishes and dioceses;

promoting close collaborative working between the Church’s national bodies, including through the management of a number of common services (Communications, Human Resources, IT etc);

supporting the Archbishops with their diverse ministries and responsibilities; and

engaging confidently with Government and other bodies.

Amount raised in 2015 — £72.6million

Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Britain

From open charities, their purpose is:




Income in 2015 — £82.05 million

That’s over £150,000,000 in funds for charities whose purpose it is to promote the adoption of their religion and its interests.

Many of these charities fundraising amounts dwarf the amounts raised by charities who seek to prevent death or reduce suffering in humans:

Doctors without Borders — £42 million

CLIC Sargent Cancer Care for Children — £21.74 million

Crisis — £21.05 million

Water Aid — £50.54 million

Prostate Cancer UK — £19.59 million

Motor Neurone Disease Association — £15.99 million

Perhaps it’s unfair to single out individual charities, but this mismatch of impact-of-cause vs. amount donated becomes even more pronounced if you stack up the income of charities in different sectors.

Here are those figures for a five year period (taken from here and here):

Note — the above measures total income, rather than just fundraising, so may include government grants and income from investments that the charity holds. The definitions of the causes also come from the reports themselves and you can find out more in the hyperlinks above.

That’s a total of almost £283 billion in income for charities in five years. Quite a pot.

Here are those totals plotted:

21% of all public funding for charities goes to Culture and Heritage charities (1.7 billion in 2015 alone)

Imagine if you were given a pot of money of £100 billion and were asked to use it all for charitable causes of any kind. Which ones would you pick? Would you put 75% of it into charities that run museums, promote religious interests or promote a healthier lifestyle through sporting activity? Sure , you might put some, but over £78 billion? No? Well that’s what we as a nation do…

If you combine the amount of income that Animal charities, Culture and Heritage charities, Religious charities and Sports charities have raised, you reach a figure seven times higher than the income received by health focussed charities, mental health charities or human rights charities:

This feels very problematic to me.

Yes, art museums are great, but 1 in 3 people on the planet don’t have a decent toilet. 1 in 10 don’t have clean water. Yes, getting kids in the UK to live healthier lives by playing more sport is cool, but 900 million people live under the World Bank’s poverty line of $1.90 per day. In the burning building example, some causes are the child, some are a dog. Some might even be a nice painting. Most of us would likely always choose the child, but when it comes to charitable donations, we seem to favour the dog.

I’m not saying that donating to a museum is a bad thing in itself. Neither is giving money to a programme to help kids be healthier by running a sports team. Neither is a donation to help protect threatened bird species in the UK. But we seem to have misallocated our collective goodwill and focussed more attention on issues that are not extreme pain and suffering.

It’s a complicated issue, as each individual donation seems entirely defensible — you love dogs! You spend a huge amount of your free time in art galleries! Native british bird species are dying out at a fast rate! That’s all wonderful!

But the sum of all of those defensible decisions seems to be a state of affairs that is problematic, if not indefensible.

So what do we do about this?

To change people’s donation habits and preferences is pretty hard, because many people give to charities that have some personal connection to them (This cannot be the case for all charities though — how many people really have a personal connection to a hard-done-by donkey?), so there is an emotional investment in the charity aside from any evidence of impact or size of the problem it is tackling.

Some of this is also to do with the marketing power of the larger charities. Larger charities have higher growth rates, in part driven by how much they spend on fundraising and marketing:

Cancer Research for example spends more in a year on fundraising that most others receive in total income (£108 million).

But what if we took a bit more time to really think about what problems we wanted to see solved in our lifetimes, and research into some fantastic causes, we would find ourselves making different choices. Consider this from the Effective Altruism site:

For example, if you earn the typical income in the US, and donate 10% of your earnings each year to the Against Malaria Foundation you’ll probably save dozens of lives over your lifetime.

Dozens of lives. If you’d ran into 20 burning buildings during your life and saved children in each, you’d have so many medals for bravery you’d probably need a special cabinet at home to store them in. But it is entirely possible by giving your generously allotted amount of money to a charity tackling a big but fixable issue.

So what’s the answer? In short, education. There’s a growing movement of people dedicated to informing us of impactful charities that are making a huge difference in the world at large. They are taken an evidence-driven approach to evaluate which charities are having the greatest impact on our world. Given that we all have a moral compass that guides our day-to-day actions, we should also be driven by this when deciding how to best use our money to better the world.

Even if we diverted a small percentage of the amount we were going to give to charity anyway to one of the causes shown to be preventing death and suffering, we’d make gigantic strides towards a world where hundreds or thousands of children do not die every year. And there are dozens of other issues that we can meaningfully impact if we take a moment to think about what we want to see achieved in our world in addition to the funds we were already giving to charitable causes. It doesn’t even have to be a full shift, just a proportion of what we generously donating anyway.

So spread the word; someone’s life might literally depend on it.

Some resources