YOU MAY HAVE NOTICED that Donald Trump is now the President-elect of the United States, and you may be feeling a totally normal, totally understandable twinge of “OH MY GOD, EVERYTHING’S ON FIRE” horror.
You’re not alone. It’s okay: a lot of people are scared. One of the ways to work through that panic is to do something to help. This could mean volunteering, but for a lot of Americans anxious about the rise of America’s most terrifying President, it has meant giving to charity. In fact, one of the of the silver linings of Trump’s election has been the massive outpouring of support for charities that work for marginalized and vulnerable people. Planned Parenthood is now receiving unprecedented support, as are the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Sierra Club, the ACLU, the Anti-Defamation League, and the National Resource Defense Council.
This is undoubtedly a good thing, and all of these charities do great work. But the altruistic surge has not helped everyone.
Effective altruism in the age of Trump
I spoke to Charlie Bresler, the Executive Director of The Life You Can Save, and he admitted that Trump’s victory has had “a chilling effect on many of our subscribers” and the charities they work with. The Life You Can Save is a non-profit that identifies and supports charities that are particularly effective at saving lives. The organization was inspired by a giving philosophy known as “effective altruism.” The philosophy is simple: if we consider all human lives to be equal, then shouldn’t we spend our money in ways that will do the most good for the most people possible?
As a result, effective altruism charities tend to focus on the poorest of the poor. It’s a lot more cost-effective, for example, to get clean water to poor communities and prevent possibly fatal water-borne illnesses than it is to cure cancer. Effective altruist charities are also unprecedentedly transparent — they want the evidence to show that they work, and that they are not wasting money.
It’s an extremely logical way of doing extremely humane work. And the movement has been on the rise over the past couple of years, thanks in part to sites like The Life You Can Save, and GiveWell.
The problem is that most of the people supported by these charities are not in the United States, and as a result, are not likely to be affected by the election’s outcome. And Bresler acknowledges that this feeling is valid. Bresler wrote in an email:
“There is an understandable desire to do something to mitigate the damage that a Trump presidency can do to the environment, the social safety net, and to civil liberties. At a time when many people wanted to advance in these areas beyond what the Obama administration has done, there is concern that we are about to take a dramatic step backwards.
I have heard many people say things like, ‘I want to give to the American Civil Liberties Union, or another domestic activist organization.’ This is completely understandable, but if it means money will be diverted from the most effective organizations, this movement of charitable donations could be very bad for the global poor.”
How should we balance our giving?
Those of us who consider ourselves “global citizens” understand that there has to be a balance between global and local action — just as we can’t change the world without changing ourselves, we can’t change the rest of the world without changing our hometowns. But the idea of going to another country to help is alluring, in part because any form of helping increases happiness, in part because the help you can give abroad often feels simpler and more outsized, and in part because, when the work is done, you can leave and don’t have to see the failures and complications that come with volunteer work in any society.
As we and many others have written, voluntourism is tricky, and is often not as helpful as we’d like to think it is. We are often not the best placed people to be doing the volunteer work in foreign countries, and the money we spent getting to the place we were volunteering at may have been more useful as a simple block donation.
Likewise, at home you can donate to local charities — soup kitchens, homeless shelters, libraries — with your time rather than just your money. Your money would not likely go as far on a local level as it would in a poorer country with a favorable exchange rate, but your time can be far more regularly volunteered, and thus you can become more experienced and better trained in the volunteer work, and thus far more helpful.
A proposed rule of thumb
So here’s an easy rule of thumb to work with: volunteer at home. Give abroad. There are obvious exceptions to both sides of that rule, but it may be the most effective way of making sure your efforts go the furthest.
Bresler adds that he believes people should “get involved in social movements to which they resonate whether the movement targets the environment, civil rights, or protecting our social safety net.
“If one feels the understandable urge to give to political movements or organizations fighting the Trump agenda then please consider giving more money over the next four years so that you don’t diminish your gifts to fight global poverty. We certainly can afford to give more generously if we all consume less, which has the added benefit of being good for the environment.”
The world, at the moment, may seem dark and frightening, and the temptation may be to turn inward. This is the fear talking, though. There are a lot of great charities working domestically that are deserving of your money, but if you think only about the United States, then you are succumbing to the same petty regionalism of which Donald Trump and his ilk are proponents. Think globally. Humanity extends far beyond our borders.