With Giving Games, CU Boulder sociologist Tim Wadsworth has helped hundreds of students donate thousands of dollars to effective charities, and imparted lifelong skills
It’s easy to give money to a good cause, but it’s harder to know that each donated dollar does the most possible good—as Tim Wadsworth can attest. However, he wants to fix that by helping aspiring altruists make the great choices.
Together with five graduate students from sociology, philosophy and economics, and 300 undergraduate students, he’s given away thousands to effective charities while teaching tricks and tools of effective giving.
Starting last December, Wadsworth, associate professor and chair of sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder, has organized over a dozen interactive campus workshops called the Giving Games, during which students examine four nonprofits, chosen from an extensive list of some of those most effective charities in the world.
In each game, the participants vote on where to donate $1,000—money that was itself donated by philanthropists who want to help people learn effective giving.
After a first vote on which charity to support, participants learn more about the effectiveness of those charities, learn which causes tend to yield the greatest benefit for the least money, and discover where to find tools to gauge nonprofits’ effectiveness.
Then they take a second and final vote, and the result often differs from the first.
Initially, Wadsworth noted, students often favor charities like PlayPumps International, which, at first glance, seem helpful and fun. PlayPumps are water pumps fashioned like playground merry-go-rounds.
The idea is that kids could deliver drinking water to their communities while playing. PlayPumps International was hailed by the World Bank and won support from the Clinton Global Initiative.
But the enterprise failed. Kids didn’t enjoy playing on the pumps, which were less efficient than hand pumps. The devices fell into disuse and disrepair.
In the Giving Games discussions, Wadsworth and the graduate students discuss how to avoid giving to charities that sound good but don’t do much good.
To do better, Wadsworth advises an evaluation of nonprofits charitable goals: For instance, are the problems they target big, affecting many lives by a lot? Are there clear ways to make progress? Is there lots of low-hanging fruit?
Second, Wadsworth suggests that the charities themselves should be evaluated based on whether they show strong evidence, logical reasoning, measurable results and financial transparency.
For instance, one of the Giving Games charities, The END Fund, focuses on neglected tropical diseases such as intestinal worms and river blindness. Those diseases affect 1.7 billion people, mostly children, worldwide.
The nonprofit is effective: Children who are dewormed have a 25% greater chance of staying in school, and a $100 donation can protect 200 kids from parasitic infections for a year.
For five consecutive years, The END Fund has been ranked as a top charity by GiveWell, which analyzes charities effectiveness in terms of metrics like lives saved or lives improved per dollar spent.
Such a tool is helpful, Wadsworth notes, because giving effectively can be daunting. About 1.5 million nonprofits are registered in the United States, and the most common way of measuring effectiveness—the Form 990 disclosures filed with the IRS—show only how much revenue goes to “program expenses.”
But the portion of a nonprofit’s revenue that is expended on its programs does not tell you how well—or even whether—those programs work.
A list of “best charities” is also produced by The Life You Can Save, a nonprofit founded by the philosopher Peter Singer, who wrote a book by the same name.
Singer, who is known for his 1975 book “Animal Liberation,” propounds utilitarianism, an ethical tradition holding that actions are right or wrong depending on the extent to which they promote happiness or prevent pain.
While he champions effective giving, Wadsworth also acknowledges that people give for many reasons. They might donate money to causes that are close to their hearts, that help establish a legacy or for other reasons, and he emphasizes that those are legitimate reasons to donate.
We don't have a lot of philanthropy education. And most people at some point in their lives will give some money away.”
At the same time, he has become interested in effective giving as both a philosophical and a very practical question, and he’s pleased to bring such discussions to CU Boulder.
He’s sought to do this because it’s valuable to ruminate on such questions and because there’s a dearth of knowledge. “We don't have a lot of philanthropy education. And most people at some point in their lives will give some money away,” Wadsworth said.
In the CU Boulder Giving Games, funds that students choose to give away are donated by philanthropists Eric Tardif and Alysha Vaughn. Tardif, who comes from a corporate background, said the concept of return on investment is “ingrained” in him.
“When it comes to philanthropic activities, that concept translates to the effectiveness of the money my family and I give. Among many causes that are important to us, we ask ourselves where our gifts will produce the best relative results,” Tardif said.
Wadsworth’s work in effective altruism “aligns with our goals in that area, and Giving Games are a great way to educate the next generation when they are faced with how to spend their time, efforts or money for the best social results,” Tardif added.
Hailing resources like the GiveWell site, Wadsworth says the idea that people don’t have enough information to make good decisions is no longer a “reason not to get out the checkbook.”
For more information on the Giving Games or to ask how to schedule an event, contact Tim Wadsworth at Tim.Wadsworth@colorado.edu.