Zev Minsky-Primus explains why he donated some of his Bar Mitzvah money, no strings attached, to poor families via GiveDirectly.

I recently had my Bar Mitzvah, and as you might expect, that came along with a lot of gifts. And let’s be real, a few thousand dollars is more than a 13-year-old knows how to spend, so I decided to give a one third of it away to charity. I eventually decided to give it to GiveDirectly. I first stumbled across GiveDirectly while listening to an episode of This American Life. Up until I heard that podcast, I always evaluated charities with my gut, and GiveDirectly’s approach of just giving money to poor people in Africa didn’t feel right to me.

Zev Minsky-Primus with books in the background
Zev Minsky-Primus

But the more I listened, the more sensible GiveDirectly’s approach sounded. They argued that poor people know their own needs better than anyone else. That means that someone should be able to satisfy more of their needs if you give them $1,000 to spend how they choose, than they would if you bought them something (like livestock, a roof, or healthcare) that’s worth $1,000. So, GiveDirectly did a randomized controlled trial. They picked a village, and gave half of the most impoverished people in the village $1,000. Then they asked questions to see how much better the lives of the people who got the money were than the people who didn’t.

The results were astonishing (and easily findable on givedirectly.org). They found that giving just $1,000 to a poor family in Africa would have that family see an average increase in earnings of 34%, an increase in assets of 58% and a decrease in the amount of time that they were hungry of 42%. And, contrary to my worries, virtually no one spent the money on drugs or alcohol. To add to that, when they checked back three years later, they saw even more benefits.

Zev Minsky-Primus
Zev Minsky-Primus

These results made me think that giving plain old money to people is actually quite helpful. More importantly, it showed me that my gut is not that great of a judge of how effective a charity is. If I want to do as much good as possible, I needed something better than my gut; I needed data. And the thing about GiveDirectly, is that they are great at getting data. They are constantly trying to refine their approach with information, and make sure almost all of their data is easily findable by the public.

At the end of the day, my goal isn’t to get you to give to GiveDirectly. Instead, what I’m hoping for is that when you decide which charity to give to, rather than giving to a charity just based on your gut or what feels good to you, you should give based on evidence and how much impact you can do for the amount of money that you are going to give.

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