How To Avoid Giving Regret

Written by Dr. Gleb Tsipursky, Intentional Insights Co-Founder and President

This article is also available in: French; Polish




I want to share my story to help you avoid the kind of regret I experienced as a deep churning in my stomach when I found out what bad decisions I made by giving to my favorite charity for many years.

Make-A-Wish Foundation helps kids with terminal diseases achieve a grand wish. For example, it could take the child and her family to Disneyland. It then shares the stories of these kids through their marketing materials. These stories are truly heartwarming. I fell for it, and donated every Giving Season, as I wanted to help kids have good lives.

However, my close friend Max Harms pointed out that Make-A-Wish Foundation makes 300 million per year telling these stories. Our brain is wired to have positive emotions from such stories, and therefore people like me donate.

By comparison, Max told me to consider the Against Malaria Foundation. It buys malaria nets that protect children in developing countries from mosquitoes carrying this deadly disease. Would not my goal of helping kids have good lives be achieved better by protecting them from death?

That question stopped me in my tracks. I had to think hard about why I gave to Make-A-Wish. I realized it was because they had heartwarming stories and great marketing that brought the stories to my attention. Our brains focus on things that come to our attention and not necessarily on things that are actually important for our goals, a thinking error called attentional bias.

What I failed to consider was the stories of children saved from malaria. I imagined a specific child, Mary, who did not get malaria because of my donation. I envisioned how Mary’s mother rocked Mary to sleep. I imagined Mary’s fifth birthday party, with her family all around. I imagined Mary’s first day of school. I imagined her first kiss. I imagined Mary growing up, becoming an adult, getting married, and having her own kids. My last mental image was of Mary knitting in a rocking chair, enjoying her grandchildren’s laughter.

It was wonderful to imagine Mary’s life. By comparison to giving one positive story through Make-A-Wish, I could give Mary a lifetime of heartwarming stories. Besides, a bed net costs a few dollars, while a trip to Disneyland costs many thousands. For the same money, I can save not only Mary, but John, Ella, Sergio, Paula, Sarnur, Christian, and so many others. It was no contest.

Now I have nothing against Make-A-Wish Foundation. They do what they promised to do. It was a failure of my imagination that caused me to make bad decisions. From this experience, I learned that charities that are most effective in achieving my actual goals for donations are often not the ones with the best stories, and thus do not get funded.

Max then told me about Effective Altruism, a movement specifically set up to deal with such thinking errors. It uses data-driven strategies to promote charities that do the most good for the world. He advised me to check out GiveWell in particular, which provides research reports on the most effective charities. He also suggested The Life You Can Save, whose charity impact calculator enables you to put in your donation amount and learn immediately about the impact it makes.

I was sold! I never wanted to experience that deep churning in my stomach. So the next time you hear a great story from a charity that moves you, stop to consider the alternatives. Where else can you give your money to achieve the same ends with more impact per dollar?

I hope sharing publicly about my bad decisions helps you avoid giving regret and be truly effective in your altruism.

____________________________________________________________________

Please DONATE if you found this article helpful. Intentional Insights is a 501(c)3 nonprofit, and we are able to create our content only thanks to the generous support of readers like you (your donations are tax-deductible). We also invite you to volunteer and buy our merchandise. To avoid missing out on content that help you reach your goals, subscribe to the Intentional Insights monthly newsletter and RSS feed. Thank you!

Recent Posts 10

Stop Losing Money: Invest Wisely

Stop Losing Money: Invest Wisely

December 3, 2016

Research-based strategies to avoid losing your money through effective investments

Don’t Be Fooled On Giving Tuesday: Give Wisely!

Don’t Be Fooled On Giving Tuesday: Give Wisely!

November 28, 2016

Make sure your donations go to the most effective charities on Giving Tuesday!

4 Questions to Ask Before Wearing a Safety Pin

4 Questions to Ask Before Wearing a Safety Pin

November 24, 2016

How can you avoid the hidden dangers that come with wearing safety pins?

The Worst Problem in American Politics?

The Worst Problem in American Politics?

November 21, 2016

How can we address irrationality, one of the worst problems in American politics?

Applying The Scientific Method To Charity

Applying The Scientific Method To Charity

November 15, 2016

The rational, science-based approach to charitable decision-making

The Myth of the Irrational Voter

The Myth of the Irrational Voter

November 4, 2016

We can take steps to make more rational voting decisions.

Your Vote May Be Worth Millions!

Your Vote May Be Worth Millions!

November 3, 2016

How much is your vote really worth?

Life's Most Incredible Events Explained (Just a Coincidence?)

Life's Most Incredible Events Explained (Just a Coincidence?)

October 31, 2016

Why you should not be surprised by crazy coincidences

How Our Thinking Errors Cause Us To Misinterpret Politics

How Our Thinking Errors Cause Us To Misinterpret Politics

October 26, 2016

We can have more rational politics if we focus on addressing typical thinking errors that politicians use to manipulate us

How The Trump Foundation Scandal Hurts The Nonprofit Sector

How The Trump Foundation Scandal Hurts The Nonprofit Sector

October 24, 2016

Focusing on cost-effectiveness is vital to addressing the problems caused by the Trump Foundation scandal