As I get older, I think more about the wisest approach to philanthropy, to charitable giving.
I've settled on two basic criteria:
1. Maximal societal benefit for the dollars expended, including ripple effects.
2. Funding something wouldn't otherwise get funded.
Here are initiatives meeting those criteria that I've funded or considered funding:
I have written previously about a prize I created. I prefer prize to grant because a prize motivates a number of people to work toward the goal I set. In my case, I set up a prize for the best doctoral dissertation leading to understanding the biological basis of cognitive functioning. I like that topic because while it has great potential to benefit humankind, for sociopolitical reasons, it's difficult today to obtain funding for it.
A challenge prize
Since then, I've considered a perhaps more potent related approach: offering a prize to the individual or group that first meets a specific challenge. So, taking the above example of trying to further our understanding of the biological basis of cognitive function, I've considered Dr. Richard Haier's suggestion: offering a prize for the first individual or team that is able to predict g (a measure of reasoning ability) based on a brain scan or the person's genome.
Alas, I don't think I can afford to make the prize big enough to motivate a team to redirect its efforts to that issue. I may yet try it with an affordable amount. If no one meets the criterion for winning it, I've lost only the time and administrative cost of publicizing the prize's availability.
Giving to a political candidate or party
I also thought about donating money to a political party or candidate. We are in an era of growing government power, so donating to a party or candidate could significantly affect the country's direction. Again, alas, I don't have enough money to move the needle even slightly.
Funding a meritocratic rather than egalitarian cause
My current favorite idea is to fund an after-school and summer program for high-ability (although not necessarily high-achieving) kids who live in a blue-collar or lower-middle-class area. Here's how that idea meets my criteria:
America has moved heavily from merit-based allocation of resources to an egalitarian "redistributive justice" approach. Hence, in the schools, especially the public elementary schools, fiscal and human resources have been reallocated from programs for bright and gifted students to the lowest achievers. Today's priority is to close the achievement gap.
Yet I believe that, ultimately, the greatest societal good will accrue from prioritizing as they say, "the best and brightest." Kids with high cognitive ability (reasoning skills, fast learning ability) are more likely to cure cancer, govern wisely, indeed develop more effective approaches to closing the achievement gap. Just as a triage medic in the battlefield is trained to allocate the most resources not to the sickest but to those with the greatest potential to survive, I feel that allocating significant resources to high-ability students is wise--We all know brilliant failures, people who fail to live up to their considerable potential.
It's probably not optimal for me to fund programs in a high socioeconomic area: The schools have a high-enough percentage of high-ability kids that even mainstream instruction may do an acceptable job of meeting their needs. And wealthy parents have the wherewithal to supplement.
Nor do I feel it's optimal to donate my dollars to the lowest-income areas. There, the problems faced even by their high-ability kids tend to be sufficiently multidimensional and intractable that I fear my dollars wouldn't make the biggest difference. It strikes me--and I'm relying not on data but only my perhaps flawed logic--that my dollars will likely make the biggest difference by focusing on schools with a high percentage of lower-middle class people, especially those with a good percentage of new immigrants who were at least middle-class in their home country.
I'm thinking that the wisest point of entry is a lower-middle-class school district's after-school and summer program. There, egalitarian pressures may be more moderate, although I'm not sure. I plan to investigate.(Update: I've since supported the creation of Camp Think, a summer program in Napa run by one of the district's best teachers.)
Of course, one can give charity not just with dollars but with time. I've chosen to make writing--for example, this blog--to be my charity of choice. I like writing and like to think that my posts give significant free help to people--maybe even including this post.
So now we turn to you. Is there anything in this article that makes you clearer about what you might want to donate your money or time to?