You can save lives: Angie Normandale for Charities and Communities

Anyone with any experience of elections knows that manifesto pledges are generally a combination of vague, irrelevant and unachievable. Yet in the midst of another round of the same-old, there are a couple of exceptions – and at least one of them is a serious candidate. While vagueness is not absent from a commitment to “make your donations more effective, giving you more power to support the causes you care about”, this is neither irrelevant nor unachievable. Angie Normandale (running for VP Charities & Community) has committed to “raise the impact of charitable giving”, which could be the most important in the entire election.

No-one objects to raising the impact of charitable giving, so why is this so different? Because our actions show nothing close to impact-driven philanthropy. At best, our idea of high-impact charitable giving is one of checking the overhead costs of the charity and the lower the better. But this is wrong. Not only is it wrong, it’s a massive distraction. If we had the choice between a fundraiser who cost £20,000 per year who raised £30,000 for the charity, and another who cost £50,000 but raised £100,000, we would surely prefer the latter – more goes to the charity. It’s easy to forget that overhead costs are there for a reason; charities do not want to spend less on the programs they’re likely so passionate about.

A clear objection is that we don’t have anything equivalent to “quality” when it comes to charity. However, we are simply unaware of ways of measuring quality, rather than them not existing. The World Health Organisation, the NHS (via NICE) and other high-level organisations use a metric called a QALY (quality-adjusted life years; and a variant called ‘DALY’). It factors in both quantity and quality of life – so adding 10 years of healthy-life is as good as adding 20 years of life at half-health.

The exact method for measuring quality is interesting, but of course these measures are not perfect. Despite this, they give a truly striking picture – some charities are literally thousands of times better than others. We don’t even need fancy metrics to see this. Say we had £50,000 and we wanted to help blind people. We could train one guide dog in the UK for that money (via Guide Dogs UK) and improve the quality of life for a blind person significantly for up to 10 years. Guide dogs are a perfect example of our views on charity – it’s something clearly good that we think we should give money to it when we can. Consider, though, that some charities treat blindness in the developing world for less than £35. For the same amount of money it takes to buy one person a guide dog that lasts at most 10 years, we can treat well over 1,000 people of blindness completely.

These charities are not even the ones recommended by leading charity evaluators GiveWell and Giving What We Can – we can do even better than this. The Against Malaria Foundation (AMF) adds a year of healthy life for less than £50 (Giving What We Can even say it could be as low as $10; GiveWell more sceptically says AMF saves a life for £1,600 – which is £40 per year if a life is about 40 years of high-quality life). Compare that to the £20,000 the NHS is willing to spend to give a UK citizen a QALY – which is still only £2.30 per hour. Many of us are willing to spend £6 for two hours of improved life at the cinema – which makes the £20,000 per QALY figure look fantastic, before we find charities that are 400 times better. The graph below shows the effectiveness of different interventions, as evaluated by the Disease Control Priorities Project (a joint effort by the World Bank, WHO, Gates Foundation and others).

The distribution of how effective different treatments, as evaluated by a collaborative effort between the World Bank, WHO and others Given the massive disparity between how much good different charities do – in particular, how much good the best ones do – the impact of an OUSU representative encouraging this is clear. There are local issues, like the Living Wage and homelessness, which we want to tackle and we should not neglect them (Angie’s range of experience reflects her commitment to a variety of issues). But we should remember our potential to have a massive impact, in particular via charity evaluation. There’s one candidate that recognises the importance of this, and one high impact vote we can make: Angie Normandale will save lives.

Search ‘OUSU’ in your Nexus to vote for Angie.