Say you are feeling generous and thinking about donating some of your money. You want to get a little something in return for your donation, and you want to donate to a cause in which you are personally interested. This seems like a perfect combination of reasons to donate to a project at Kickstarter.
Founded in 2009, Kickstarter has quickly become the world’s largest crowdsourcing website. Contributors generally donate small sums of money to collectively fund everything from video games and movies to technology projects and concerts. In return for donating, contributors will often receive a reward, such as a signed copy of a DVD if the project is a movie or a free issue of a comic book if the project is a revival of an old comic.
Kickstarter has received over $976 million in funding from 5.6 million people since 2009. The Binghamtonics just funded their second studio album using Kickstarter. As I’m writing this, the group has raised over $6,000. So should you go on the Kickstarter website, find a movie or video game you want to see produced and then donate 20 bucks?
Not so fast.
While you might feel a personal connection with the Kickstarter project, there are far more important and rewarding places your money can go. While music and the arts are fundamental parts of our culture, shouldn’t we cringe when people donate $6,000 dollars to a college a cappella group instead of a charity that feeds starving children or provides basic medicine for the desperately poor? I think we should.
When you give money to Kickstarter, you are spending money on something other than yourself. That is the most fundamental and noble aspect of giving to charity. But deciding what charity to give to is just as important. This is the basic idea of effective altruism, a growing movement that promotes giving to causes that transparently do the most good with every dollar donated. As it turns out, some respected charities are vastly more effective than others. Charity evaluators like GiveWell have recently forced charities to demonstrate their cost-effectiveness to contributors. Of the hundreds of charities GiveWell has evaluated, its three current “top-rated” charities are: GiveDirectly, which distributes funds to extremely poor people in Kenya and Uganda, Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, which treats people for parasite infections in sub-Saharan Africa, and Deworm the World, which also treats parasite infections in developing nations. While the process of finding the most effective charities is both technically and ethically complex, Kickstarter projects are simply not in the running.
One might respond that there’s nothing wrong with donating to a cause with which you feel a connection. But if this is the case, it implies that cool new video games and albums on Kickstarter are more deserving of your generosity than a charity like Deworm the World. The three highest-funded Kickstarter projects ever were a smart watch, a microconsole video game system that runs on Android OS and the “Veronica Mars” movie. As cool and fun as these projects are, how much good could have been done with the $24.5 million combined that was donated to these projects if it had been donated to GiveWell’s top-rated charities instead?
So next time you are thinking about opening up your wallet and being a little altruistic, maybe stop by GiveWell before Kickstarter. Not only will your dollar go a lot further, you will also probably feel a lot better about your contribution.