Effective Philanthropy: Is It Okay to Just Treat the Symptom?

Guest Blog by Andy Schuricht, Founder, Valor CSR

Often I will be talking to someone about charitable giving, and they will express frustration that, “it’s just one thing after another. We keep giving money to treat the symptoms, but never really address the root cause.” Or, with more funder jargon, “we only fund transformative projects.”

While I understand not wanting to waste precious donations, I usually counter with this analogy: Saying that you don’t want to donate to a food pantry because those people just get hungry again tomorrow is just like saying that you want to eliminate emergency rooms because those people will just keep having heart attacks and getting into car accidents.

Brian Berkey, professor of legal studies and business ethics at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, addresses this topic in his recent paper “The Institutional Critique of Effective Altruism.” 

His paper chips away at the institutional critique, a position that suggests that you should only focus your efforts on systemic change. Instead, Berkey finds that it’s difficult to argue with the basis of effective altruism: it’s better to give to causes that work most efficiently, and we should do the research to figure out what those causes are.

In other words…

  • A $1000 donation to Cause A has a 1% chance of helping 20 people
  • A $1000 donation to Cause B has a 100% chance of helping 1 person

Effective altruism (or multiplication) would lead you to select Cause B.

Knowledge at Wharton just published a podcast of Berkey discussing his research, and an edited transcript is available, too. Highly recommended!



Andy Schuricht is the founder of Valor CSR, a corporate social responsibility consulting firm, and the only Certified B Corporation in Southern Nevada. Valor CSR’s groundbreaking Instant Corporate Foundation gives small and mid-sized businesses access to CSR benefits usually reserved for much larger firms. Learn more at ValorCSR.com.