Have you ever made a mistake because you simply did not have all the information you needed?
It’s often a joke in sitcoms. In one memorable example, Chandler accidentally reveals to a young boy (Owen) that he was adopted. He didn’t mean to drop that huge amount of information to Owen, and he wasn’t aware that Owen didn’t know. In the context of a TV show like Friends, that’s the kind of thing that we laugh about, but in real life it can be a lot more serious.
Maybe you’ve made a joke and it went down like a lead balloon, because you didn’t know the context of some of the people in the group. Maybe you’ve given advice without fully understanding a situation, and when followed, the advice went on to have disastrous effects. Perhaps you’ve done something that was never intended to hurt someone, but because of external factors you had no idea about, your well-intentioned decision caused someone else an awful amount of pain.
Often our world focuses on the intentions of an action, rather than the results. To an extent, I think that’s really helpful. After all, God makes it clear repeatedly in scripture that he cares about the position of our hearts. There is clearly a massive difference between accidentally doing something that hurts someone and actively going out your way to spite them. But we can’t go so far as to say that because something is well-intentioned, we can ignore the consequences.
Suppose someone stands on my foot by accident. The fact that they didn’t do so intentionally does not take away the pain I now feel.
Or say you’re meeting a friend for dinner. You have a reservation and you sit waiting there all evening, but they don’t actually show up. It would be worse if that had happened because your friend had decided to humiliate you than if they got lost and their phone battery died. But either way, whether your friend decides to stand you up or simply can’t get the information about where they should be, the result is you sitting at a table by yourself, getting sympathetic looks from everyone else in the restaurant, worrying about your friend, wasting your time and feeling utterly mortified. Your friend didn’t intend to do that to you, but there were still consequences.
Having good intentions doesn’t make everything okay; consequences matter. I think we can apply this principle easily to our charitable giving. We give because we want the world to be a better place. We give out of good intentions. Good intentions aren’t always good enough though. Without good information, can you really know that your chosen charity is doing more good than harm?
Take for example, Playpumps. A playpump is a system that uses energy created by children playing on a playground merry-go-round to pump water for a village. They were introduced in South Africa and Mozambique. When they were first announced, they gained widespread support and media coverage. Millions of dollars were poured in by the American government and high-profile endorsements flooded in: Jay-Z, George and Laura Bush, and The Co-operative (UK).
However, particularly in Mozambique, Playpumps failed. They were difficult to operate, expensive to repair and required near constant “play” for the children in the village. In a society where women tended to collect water, the playpumps ended up being pushed around by older women, rather than children, exerting far more effort than the original handpumps.
Everyone who donated to Playpumps had good intentions, but they didn’t have the good information they needed to fix a serious problem. If the millions that went to Playpumps had gone to more effective water projects, the story for so many people would be drastically different.
When we choose which charities to give to, we need to go beyond making that decision with good intentions alone. We need to search for information on how the money is spent, what the culture of the charity is, and how effective they are at what they promise to do.
Imagine if you discovered that only 15% of a standing order you set up years ago was going towards good work actually being done? That the anti-slavery organisation you support was exploiting its staff? That the children’s charity – to which you made a massive one-off gift – was meeting a short-term problem but missing a long-term need?
It matters if the charity you support is effective in what they promise to do. If we give solely because we have good intentions, we can be won over by an emotive pitch or a slick video. Charities that lack the resources to invest in marketing but are doing amazing work get sidelined. I would so much rather fund a charity that asked the question of “how well are our projects working?” a long time before asking whether its publicity was good.
The apostle James’s letter says, “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?”
What good is intention without action? What good is it when we want to see an end to injustice but we throw our money at any charity that catches our eye not bothering to ask whether they’re really doing as much good as we think?
It took a while for me to make up my mind on effective altruism. I’m naturally warm, heart-led, and bursting with different emotions – the kind of person who acts on their feeling-driven, passionate intentions rather than well-thought out, thoroughly researched decisions. Looking at the effectiveness of a charity rather than the heart behind it sometimes felt clinical, cold, and removed. And sometimes I still find that poring over stats about the effectiveness of different charities, figuring out what the charity does for every £1 I give, a bit uncomfortable.
But ultimately, I think it matters for one simple reason. I’m sick of injustice. That means I never want to give to a charity whose work does more harm than good. That means I want to give to charities that intentionally review what they’re doing to try and do the most good possible. That means I want injustice to end as quickly as possible and want to support charities that share that goal. So, when I’m working out where to send money, I work out consequences, not just my own intentions.