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Giving to charity is a benefit to the world… but are you optimizing your impact?

Quick Intro

This book is 272 pages hardcover and seven hours two minutes audible.

The book is described on Amazon as follows,

“Most of us want to make a difference. We donate our time and money to charities and causes we deem worthy, choose careers we consider meaningful, and patronize businesses and buy products we believe make the world a better place. Unfortunately, we often base these decisions on assumptions and emotions rather than facts. As a result, even our best intentions often lead to ineffective—and sometimes downright harmful—outcomes. How can we do better?

At the core of this philosophy are five key questions that help guide our altruistic decisions: How many people benefit, and by how much? Is this the most effective thing I can do? Is this area neglected? What would have happened otherwise? What are the chances of success, and how good would success be? By applying these questions to real-life scenarios, MacAskill shows how many of our assumptions about doing good are misguided.

MacAskill urges us to think differently, set aside biases, and use evidence and careful reasoning rather than act on impulse. When we do this—when we apply the head and the heart to each of our altruistic endeavors—we find that each of us has the power to do an astonishing amount of good.”


So… What are three things we can use from this book?


3 Things You Can Use



So if we are going to do our charity efficiently and measurably then we are going to need some metrics. This is one of the hardest things to do because having a metric that is based on subjectivity means that we have to rely on subjectivity to be constant — which we know it is not. But, putting that to the side and using our best approximations through self-reports, we, humankind, not Maddi and me, have come up with a metric that so far best approximates experience as it relates to health.

A quality-adjusted life-year. A QALY.

The premise of a QALY is it assumes that a year of life lived in perfect health is worth one QALY. So a year lived in a state of less than perfect health is worth less than one. States of less than perfect health are decided on a scale using different characteristics also rated by self-reporting.

So for example if someone would live for 10 years at a state of 0.5, because they were bedridden, that would amount to a QALY of 10 years times 0.5 state, or a QALY of 5. Now what if you donate and buy them treatment for $100 and instead they live for 10 years at a state of 0.8. Now their improved QALY over that period is 8. With your $100, you have affected a QALY by 3. So spending $100 on this treatment produces 3 QALY over 10 years.

So a great way to weight charities against each other, for how much impact they make, is to see how many QALYs you can affect for a certain amount. If charity A can affect 5 QALYs for $100 but charity B can affect 6, all other things being equal, charity B will provide the most utility with your donation, the most bang for your buck, so they become the best qualitative choice.


2. Earning to Give

So you want to make the most impact that you can. You feel that our quality of life is so unfairly out of proportion with the poorer societies that you should do whatever you can to even it out.

So the best way for you to do the most is to become a doctor and move to Africa and help stop the spread of diseases.

Well wait, maybe not. There may be a way to enact more change and do more good things for the world by never setting foot in Africa and never studying to be a doctor. There are a couple of things to consider in this situation.

  • Is someone else going to fill that position in Africa? Are they better than you or is your time better spent?
  • Are you actually causing the greatest good by going in this direction?

For this we will focus on the second question. Are you actually causing the greatest good by moving to Africa. Let me present my most convincing anecdote: Would Bill Gates have had a greater impact in Africa if he had become a doctor and moved to help?

Sometimes the way to do the most good is to make the most money and donate a large amount to effective charities. If you can provide, throughout your time as a doctor in Africa, say 40 years, you can provide 200 QALYs over that span or by staying and earning more, but donating over the course of 40 years you could affect 300 QALYS, which is the better thing to do?

If the quality-adjusted life-year is a metric that you can stand behind, then staying and donating is the better thing to do.

Now the implication of this is that you can strive for wealth, with the intention to donate, and feel great about the impact you are making, without sacrificing in some other way by living for an extended period in Africa.


3. Five Questions

So to put it all together, there are five questions to ask and answer when considering which charities to donate to if you want your donation to have the most impact:

1. How many people benefit and by how much?

You can use QALYs to help to figure this one out. How many QALYs would you buy using a standard dollar amount compared to the next charity.

2. Is this the most effective thing you can do?

Would you be best to donate? Volunteer? Or take a job in this area?

3. Is this area neglected?

Will MacAskill brings up the principle of diminishing returns here. This principle shows that when resources are allocated to something, the easier things that provide the most utility are taken care of first. Progress slows as more and more resources are allocated because providing utility becomes harder and harder.

So take this into account when weighing charities against each other and realize that more neglected charity areas will receive the most impact from your contribution.

4. What would have happened otherwise?

As mentioned in the example in the second thing you could use, does taking the position as a doctor in Africa keep someone else, more qualified, from getting that position. And does that ultimately mean that you did more harm than good?

5. What are the chances of success and how good would success be?

If something has a low probability of happening, but has a large value if it does happen, does that make it worth it to invest in? MacAskill uses something called “expected value” to put this into mathematical terms and this involves calculating a value proposition (be it an amount of money or an amount of life in time) from a regression to the mean.

For example: Using micromorts, which is a chance of one in a million of dying, accident statistics and a regression to the mean, you can figure out that every time you ride an hour in a car you are giving away three minutes of your life. Because of the potential of dying and based on how many people do die in this way they can figure this out. So you calculate whether that hour drive is worth three minutes.

MacAskill does a great job of translating this into a charity frame-of-reference.




Use a QALY, or quality-adjusted life-year, to determine how much of an impact you are making when volunteering, donating or working non-profit.

Determine if you have a better chance of doing more good by staying and earning to give or training and going to help on a different front.

Ask the five questions, how many people benefit, and by how much? is this the most effective thing I can do? is this area neglected? what would have happened otherwise? and what are the chances of success, and how good would success be?, when deciding if your charitable choice is the most effective way to go.


The concepts MacAskill brings up are so counter-intuitive from the charity perspective we have all been brought up in, but they make so much sense.

He shows how intentions aren’t always the best things to trust and that data and asking the right questions are more important for doing good and having an impact.

I really liked this book though I thought that the chapter at the end about career choices seemed out of place and the narrator could sometimes read condescendingly while I don’t think it was meant to be read that way.

Overall very glad to have read it and been given the perspective of an impact focus rather than an intention focus.

I’ll link up the website to learn more,, in the description.

Thank you for reading and we’ll see you next week!


Want to Read it?

Audible Free Trial (get this book for free!)

Doing Good Better (Audible Version)

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(disclosure: ^^^ these links give me a commission — at no extra cost to you! They just give me a little bump if you decide to use them. Thank you!)




  • Punching Sounds (in video) by: Mike Koenig
  • Reading Photo at end of video by: Marketa