From the money I earned working over winter break, and the money I received as a teaching fellow this semester, I am donating $1,414 — the average cost for one student at the College of William and Mary to go on an international service trip during spring break — directly to VillageReach, a highly efficient charity that works to improve the infrastructure in rural Africa. By staying home, I am actually doing good abroad.
How much good? According to GiveWell, a non-profit committed to evaluating charities not just on their financial efficiency but on their human impact, my donation could be used by an immunization-focused organization like VillageReach to save up to seven lives.
As GiveWell’s top-rated international charity, VillageReach satisfies all four of GiveWell’s evaluative criteria: demonstrated impact, cost-effectiveness, scalability and transparency. If GiveWell’s evaluation is correct, then I am doing the most good I possibly can with the monetary resources I have. Does this mean people who participate in international service trips are somehow contributing less?
The ramifications of service trips are difficult to evaluate, and it’s not just because these trips tend to be coordinated by small organizations that lack the means to analyze their own impact, but because much of the good service trips claim to engender can’t be counted simply in terms of lives saved. The good they contribute, it is often claimed, is something less tangible. Service trips have the power to shape attitudes toward poverty and suffering, and to make their participants into caring citizens of the world in whom the seeds of future service are planted.
But if it’s true that giving to a highly efficient charity does more good — perhaps significantly more — than going on an international service trip, wouldn’t one expect those who have been so motivated by their experiences to eventually come to the point where they just want to do as much good as they can with the resources they have? If so, one would expect them to give the money they would spend on a service trip directly to a charity like VillageReach.
Is this realistic? After all, it’s not like all service trip participants have $1,400 sitting around ready to go — they work really hard all year long trying to raise money through concerts, bake sales and other events to reduce their costs. They do a remarkable job — many end up paying just a few hundred dollars to cover the airplane tickets that take them outside the country.
But couldn’t these efforts themselves be reoriented directly toward charity? I think they could, but let’s give the benefit of the doubt to service trips and say that they couldn’t. Let’s say that students are only motivated to raise money because they know they will see the fruits of their labors firsthand. In this case, we arrive at a dilemma. We could encourage students to give $300, the price many service trip participants end up paying out of pocket, directly to charity — or we could continue to encourage them to raise $1,400 apiece to go on a service trip. The question becomes: Is more good achieved when $1,400 is spent inefficiently, or when $300 is spent efficiently?
Three hundred dollars could easily save one life, if given to the correct charity. I simply don’t know how many lives per participant service trips save, if any. I am sure it depends on the service trip. If for every $1,400 spent sending one college student on a service trip, at least one life were saved, then going on that trip could, in fact, be one way to maximize moral good. But accepting this last part requires the assumption once again that it is implausible to expect a college student to be able to raise that money and just give it straight to an efficient charity.
I hope that in making my donation, I have shown this last assumption to be false. I believe that many College students like myself are already motivated to help the world’s desperately poor, and that this comprises a substantial part of what motivates them when they raise the money for their service trips. For this reason, if what we care about above all is doing good, then we should give to charities that are proven to successfully help those they aim to help, do so in a cost-effective manner, have potential for productive growth, and make their records available for those who ask to see them.
Some service trips may satisfy these criteria, but no one knows. Until they do, I feel better placing my money elsewhere. After all, this is a matter of life and death.
E-mail Adam Lerner at firstname.lastname@example.org.