Charitable Giving in St Andrews


Charity is a fairly big deal in St Andrews. In RAG week alone, £22,115.32 was raised. That’s a fair wee bit, especially when compared to Glasgow’s £3,000 RAG week total.

No disrespect to Glasgow; £3,000 is a lot of money and we probably do have a big advantage in the form of a demographic with money to burn sating their conscience even after sating their desires for champagne and Nahm-Jims but you can’t get away from the vast amount of money that St Andrews students are willing to give to charity.

Good job guys. Genuinely, good job… I’m not trying to lampoon or mock the folk involved with these campaigns; they are dedicated, generous people who see injustice in the world and want to change it. But, I do want to talk about the way giving works in places like St Andrews and the way we think about charity.

RAG week is just the tip of the iceberg; it’s difficult to find a social event that doesn’t support some worthy cause or other.

There’s RACE2, bake sales and everything in between with charitable societies and individuals burrowing away at the cold hard rock-face of injustice all throughout the year.

From experience organising this sort of event, you quickly realise that, at least to a certain extent, we’ve reached saturation point and anything more will be competing for a fixed pot of donations. Innovation and growth are of course possible but there are limitations on how much folk are willing to give and how much it is possible to raise.

The phenomenon is most obvious in the elections which determine the six good causes to receive the vast amount of funding produced by the Charities Campaign. You should vote; it’s arguably more important than the Union Elections. (Well, it was on 7 April… but you should vote next year!)

But how do we decide which charity? Probably just like everything else; my friend’s housemate is involved with this group and told me to vote for them. How should we decide? Why not rationally? 80,000 hours is a really interesting open-source organisation started by a philosopher in Oxford which aims to promote rational, evidence based do-gooding.

We each have 80,000 hours of productive work in our lives, so how can we make the best use of that time? One interesting answer is to become an investment banker and donate a small but significant part of your salary. In terms of charitable donation, there’s a lot of talk about competition.

If, like in St Andrews, there’s charity saturation, when you run a bake sale or Race2 Prague or do whatever, to some extent you’re competing with another charitable individual. But (and it’s a fairly massive but) if your worthy cause is less worthy than your competitor’s, then your benevolent well-intentioned actions are actually doing harm; taking money from a more worthy cause and giving it to a less worthy cause.

The economics-type language and cold logic of a group like 80,000 hours is a bit unpalatable but there’s no reason why we can’t think rationally about charity whilst acting compassionately.

If we’re taking charity seriously as a tool to rebalance the injustices in the world instead of a fuzzy warm nice thing to do, then we should make these decisions seriously.

There’s a group called GiveWell which reviews charities and provides a handy list of the worthiest causes chosen on the basis of cost- effectiveness and lack of popular attention and funding including the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative which treats parasite infection in the developing world. Why not choose the charities we support and donate to according to this sort of rationale?


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