If you read nothing else in this post, click here: http://givewell.org/. I just went there, picked their top charity (Against Malaria) and gave $150 - maybe more than I should be giving right now, but given how much I spend on other things, I'll manage.
Lately a link to a movie about Joseph Kony by the group Invisible Children has been going around. It has gone viral, with many people reposting it, sharing it, and commenting on it. The whole story has gotten a lot of attention over the past few days, as news outlets have picked it up and bloggers post about it.
Here's the thing: you probably shouldn't donate money to Invisible Children to help with this cause. Here's why.
Let me first say that I think Kony is evil, and he should be stopped. I completely agree on that front. Though I don't think he's anything close to a "modern-day Hitler," as I've heard him referred to, he's certainly a bad person doing evil things.
So with that said, why don't I support a charity that is trying to stop him?
First, because I don't think they have a well-defined way of doing that. They say they're trying to stop him by making him famous - but how will that help? He becomes famous, and then what? Even before this campaign, the US was involved in the effort to get rid of Kony. He was indicted by an international court in 2005. Will making him famous make capturing him easier somehow? I haven't seen any stated plan from Invisible Children that explains how it would.
Second, from what I've seen, getting rid of Kony wouldn't solve a lot of the problems. The Ugandan Army isn't exactly a group of saints, and they're the group you'd supporting by stopping Kony. Additionally, it's very possible that members of the LRA won't stop killing and raping when Kony is gone. So even if you do stop Kony, it's not guaranteed to help proportionately to the harm Kony is currently doing - while he's allegedly abducted 30,000 people over his long campaign, you might not be saving 30,000 people in the future by getting rid of him.
Those two put together mean that (a) the charity's stated goal may not even be achievable by their stated means, and (b) even if they do achieve their stated goal, it may only be a small benefit, not a large one. Which brings us to...
Third, and by far the most important reason, is opportunity cost. When you donate money to a charity, that's money that you're not using for something else - like donating to a different charity. Though it doesn't need to be, charity seems like it often ends up a zero-sum game - people only have a set amount they're willing or able to spend on charity, and they select one or maybe two charities to give it to. It's true that the potential for giving is nowhere near fulfilled - it's possible for people to donate what they were going to donate to Invisible Children, but donate more to other charities in addition. Nonetheless, it's still true that ever dollar that goes to IC doesn't go to another charity.
Why is that a problem? Suppose you came across a man who had just abducted six innocent people you've never met in your life, and he plans on murdering them. He tells you that for one hundred dollars he will release either this one person, or these other five people, or for $200 he will release all six. You check your pocket, and you have exactly $100 - only enough for one offer. Who do you save? The five, or the one?
Most people would say the five - I would agree, and I think that's the moral choice to make. This is the situation you're in when you donate to charity - for each dollar you give to a charity, they can do a certain amount of helpful work and save Y lives/build Z houses/etc. If you can choose between one charity that will save one life per X dollars given, and one charity that will save five lives per X dollars given, which one should you give your money to? Obviously the second.
But shouldn't you split your money between the two charities, to help them both? Generally, no. The marginal benefit of an additional dollar may decrease with the charity that saves more lives, but as long as one has a higher expected lives-saved-per-dollar-spent value, you should put all of your money into that one. Every dollar you put into the other charity is less lives saved.
So now you're asking, well how do I know how many lives get saved for how much money I spend? Good question. You'd have to look at what each charity does with their money, what percentage actually goes to helping people, how effective that money actually is, and what the data-driven results of the charity actually are. That's a pretty tough bunch of research that most people won't do.
Fortunately, there's someone already doing that, and it's called Givewell. They rank charities based on all those things. You can get a better idea by going to their site and checking it out, and you can look up various charities there. In fact, Givewell wrote a post about why Invisible Children isn't the best charity to give to. Check it out.
Okay, so why is it that so many people want to give to Invisible Children all of a sudden? Why, when most charities struggle like hell to make enough money to stay afloat, is this one suddenly getting way more attention than any other? The answer is that they put together an emotionally appealing message. It strikes people hard, it makes them remember it, it makes them want to share it with their friends. That's what viral videos do. But as Chris Hallquist pointed out, there's no reason to think that "ability to create a viral video" correlates with "most efficient use of your charity dollars."
The best advice I can give, is this: every time you feel an urge to donate to a charity, don't ignore it. But instead of donating to that charity, go to Givewell and pick one of the top few charities, and take however much you were going to give, and donate it there instead. Every time you're tempted to share a link to a charitable organization, go pick one of the top Givewell charities, and share a link to that instead.
30,000 people have been abducted over the long campaign of Joseph Kony. About that many people die of malaria each month, and malaria can be prevented, even just by spending more money. So if you want to make a difference, if you really, truly want to save lives, then give to Against Malaria. If you're more concerned about feeling like you're making a difference than actually making one, then give to something like Kony2012, or better yet, just share the link on Facebook - that way you don't actually have to spend any time or money on it.