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Effective altruism: helping those who need it most

October 21, 2022

This piece represents the opinion of the author .
Eva Ahn

Bowdoin doesn’t need our donations. There are other people who do.

This is a school of future scientists, leaders and one-percenters. We have the opportunity to make an impact on the world, and we should take advantage of that opportunity to improve the lives of others to the greatest extent possible. There are many ways to have an impact without donating money to the College. But for those who will make an impact through giving, I make the following claim: There are better uses for our money than giving it to Bowdoin. To see this, let’s compare possible uses of $80,000.

Let’s say you give it to Bowdoin. Perhaps you give with the laudable goal of increasing accessibility. Access to Bowdoin should without a doubt be expanded, and a restricted donation for scholarships would seem to further that goal. But would Bowdoin really bring in more low-income students? Without a crystal ball it’s impossible to say. But we do know a few things for certain. First, Bowdoin is already need-blind: the College is committed to a certain level of aid that puts it among the most generous in the country. Second, Bowdoin has a large pot of money that they can spend however they want. Let us see where these two facts get us.

As a need-blind institution, Bowdoin is committed to paying out some amount of money on scholarships each year. While that amount will go up and down, for simplicity let us assume that it is $1,000,000. Bowdoin already has some amount of money restricted for use in scholarships, let’s say $500,000. Bowdoin must then pull $500,000 from endowment funds or unrestricted donations in order to meet its need-blind commitment. What happens when you make a scholarship-restricted donation of $80,000? Bowdoin now has $580,000 restricted for scholarships, but still needs the same $1,000,000 total to meet its commitment to being need blind. Therefore, Bowdoin will now need to pull only $420,000 from the endowment or unrestricted donations. So your noble attempt to increase access to Bowdoin will really have only saved Bowdoin $80,000 to keep for whatever other uses it sees fit.

While Bowdoin certainly could change its policy one day, giving more money to increase accessibility, for now, it seems more likely that they would move their flexible dollars around. If this is the case, then your donation of $80,000 is effectively being put into the endowment. Bowdoin becomes richer, and somewhere down the line spends more money. But the money Bowdoin has is seemingly already past the point of marginal utility: see the new Arctic museum.

What other goals could you pursue, and what effect would your donation have? Initially, this seems like a tough question to answer. Luckily, however, there are organizations out there that evaluate charities to determine where your dollar can have the greatest power. GiveWell is one. Let’s say that you give $80,000 to the Malaria Consortium, one of GiveWell’s top charities. If their distribution of anti-malaria medication continues to be about as effective as it has been, that money will save about 16 lives. Or perhaps you give it to the Helen Keller foundation to help their Vitamin A Supplementation Program. If their impact continues as it has, that money could save over 22 lives.

Of course, if the world had no institutions of higher education, there would be no one to develop the medications that would somewhere down the road save lives, or conduct the studies demonstrating the importance of Vitamin A. This would be a disaster. It is not, however, a very likely one. Bowdoin is already rich. The two plus billion-dollar endowment should do fairly well on its own, and the legions of wealthy alums already out there will surely give plenty more. In the unlikely event that this article persuades the masses, Bowdoin could run into financial trouble at some later date. While this is certainly a possibility, it seems far enough down the road that we can safely ignore it, for the time being at least.

There are more cost-effective ways to have an impact rather than donating to Bowdoin. An equal-sized gift can either fund a few square feet of a new museum or save many lives. If actually making a difference is what we are after—and not just feeling good about supporting our alma mater—we should donate to well-rated charities that can do more with our money than Bowdoin will.

If you are interested in this line of thinking, check out GiveWell and the Effective Altruism movement. I owe my own thinking on the matter to Peter Singer and William McAskill in particular.

Per Black is a member of the Class of 2022.


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