I just did my first substantial donation (informed by Effective Altruism, and my own work on complex social systems). Even though I have thought before about how and when it is best to donate, the act of actually giving spawned many new insights!
The biggest of these is that no matter how much research you do, and how much quantifiable metrics and statistics you collect, you never get any guarantees that your donation is making the world a better place. The trick is that in a system as complex as our society, any intervention will always send avalanches of consequences rippling through many branches of the system. While the most immediate and obvious effects may seem clearly beneficial, there will always be some secondary or tertiary effects that may be harmful. As it is impossible to account for all such effects, it becomes impossible to reliably quantify the overall benefit of the intervention — and the more you think about it, the more your head hurts. We all know of the possible contradictory consequences of giving money to a homeless person on the street — but a similar argument could be made with apparently much more clear-cut causes such as sponsoring malaria treatments in Africa. Mosquito nets distributed in very poor regions are sometimes used as fishing nets in ways devastating for the local environment. Giving preventative malaria medicine to children may hinder the natural development of immunity and could thus increase mortality later in their lives.
But these are only the effects we can think of and quantify. When considering long-term and large-scale consequences, causal attribution becomes so challenging that no rigorous research or even logical reasoning is reliable. And so, knowing that the true cumulative impact of a donation is never certain, why did I still choose to donate?
The question seems rich and subtle to me. Are interventions in vastly different cultures we don’t fully understand just another form of neo-colonialism? Do acts of kindness in my local community disempower people from learning to care for themselves? It seems that the only certain positive impact of donating, whether it be time or money, is the impact on myself. Making a decision and taking an action in full awareness of uncertainty turns out to be very empowering — a somehow “pure” opportunity to exercise free will. Doing the “right” thing in a context where reliable evidence clearly indicates what this “right” thing is, is more a social conditioning than a free decision. As such, it is only in the face of ambiguity that we can truly exercise our power to create something new — whereby our choice tilts an otherwise balanced scale.
As for the decision to donate in particular, for me it tilts the balance towards a personal free choice to try to do good — even when outcomes are unclear. And precisely because no single act can guarantee success, consistency then pushes me to choose good intention in all aspects of my life. Fundamentally, this can lead to a shift in personal identity: I can begin to identify as someone who strives to improve the world, and who trusts himself enough to act on it in the face of uncertainty. This in itself seems valuable enough for me.