Last summer, my book Radical Charity: How Generosity Can Save the World (And the Church) was published by Cascade Books. Some time in early December, I started seeing lists of the best books of 2019, like these from The New Yorker, Buzzfeed, Goodreads, and Publishers Weekly. And Radical Charity wasn’t on any of them.
Of course, I didn’t expect Radical Charity to be on any of them. I didn’t expect that partly because it isn’t one of the best books of 2019. It is a good book. It is an important book. And if you want to argue against the charity skepticism that is part of the nonprofit landscape from a Christian perspective, it might even be a very good and very important book. But it is also a book about a niche subject from a niche publisher, written by someone with a minuscule platform, and given very little attention by the press or the general public.
Lists of the best books of any given year are not lists of the best books of that year. They are lists of the best books that ended up in front of the people who make lists of the best books. They are lists of books that were published by major publishers, written by people with long writing careers and/or large platforms, and backed by significant publicity campaigns. And even when a book that isn’t one of those books makes it onto a list, it makes it onto a list because, out of the mind-boggling number of books published that year, that book happened to end up in front of that person who happens to curate that list and who happened to have time to read—or, at least, skim—that particular book.
The lists are curated, and the first—and, often, most difficult—step in being curated is simply being known by a curator.
But curation isn’t just about knowing that things exist. These are not lists of books that the curators could name off the tops of their heads. Curation is also a form of gatekeeping. It is the work of saying that these things are good and worth sharing; and that these things are, at the very least, not as good and not as worth sharing.
Fortunately, when it comes ot books, the stakes are pretty low. I didn’t expect Radical Charity to end up on any best of lists, and it doesn’t affect my life that it didn’t end up on any of those lists.
But what if curation—what if being known and getting past gatekeepers—had high stakes? What if it was the difference between life and death?
Around the same time that I started seeing this year’s best of lists come out, I started hearing ads for GiveWell. GiveWell is an nonprofit organization that researches other nonprofit organizations, identifies the ones that do the most good (for a certain value of doing the most good), and recommends those organizations to donors. It doesn’t evaluate all of the charities in the world. It just examines some charities, that work on specific causes, and recommends the organizations that provide the most bang for the buck.
And that means that it has specific criteria.
First, organizations have to be able to show that their programs are effective. That means that the programs have to have been rigorously studied and that they have to be broadly generalizable. GiveWell knows that the list of programs that meet that description are limited.
Second, programs must have a high return on investment in terms of lives saved or economic benefit provided. This means that GiveWell tends to prefer programs in the developing world, where the cost of living is lower and where each dollar has a greater impact.
Third, organizations need to be able to make effective use of additional money. After all, GiveWell’s recommendation means an influx of cash, and no one wants that money to sit in a bank account while an organization figures out what to do with it.
Finally, organizations need to be transparent. They need to submit to GiveWell’s evaluation process and be open to having the results of those evaluations published. If things go well, it will be publicized. If things go badly… it will be publicized.
The upshot is that the charities we don’t recommend may be doing great work, and our lack of recommendation shouldn’t be taken as evidence to the contrary. However, our top charities are the ones that we believe best fit our criteria: evidence-backed, cost-effective, and capable of effectively using more funding. [Emphasis original]GiveWell
From an economic perspective, GiveWell’s curation process makes sense. If you are looking to do the most statistical good with each dollar that you donate, you should give it to one of GiveWell’s recommended organizations, or even to GiveWell itself.
But from a human perspective, this kind of charitable curation should give us a little pause. The dollar that you give to GiveWell will never help the homeless shelter in your community, or the animal shelter in your county, or the disaster relief agency in the next state. There’s no way to adjudicate between saving a life in the developing world and a life in the developed world—one isn’t more valuable than the other—and it is more cost effective to help a lot of people in the former than just one person in the latter. But reducing it to an economic problem seems to cheapen all of those lives, precisely because it seems to imagine that they are all of equal finite value instead of equal infinite value.
And that really hits on the problem with relying on curation for charitable giving. Curation always leaves something—maybe even something good, maybe even something amazing—out. The books on the best of lists are undoubtably excellent books, but there are many others that also deserve your time. But relying on curation for charitable giving imagines that we can outsource (even economize) a basic ethical problem: we are choosing which lives to save, and that means we are choosing which lives not to save. And we do not have any tool that can do that in a way that we should be okay with.
None of this is to say that we shouldn’t give to GiveWell or the organizations that it recommends. But we should be aware of the problems with curation. When it comes to something like books, those problems are pretty small. We simply need to know how the list was complied: did the curator look beyond the New York Times best-seller lists? What kinds of books to they like? And so on. When it comes to charity—when it comes to how eats, or lives in-doors, or gets medicine, or lives—we need to know how the act of relying on curation is the act of absolving ourselves of ethical responsibility by replacing it with economic responsibility.