Doing Good Effectively Through Giving Games

  • Date / 31 October 2013
  • By / Gleb Tsipursky

Gleb Tsipursky considers how humanists can engage with ‘effective giving’


“If others have half the experience I had today, they will be completely changed.” That’s what a participant told me after the end of a Giving Game I facilitated that aimed to engage reason-oriented people in making an effective decision about where to donate. This game took place at the Humanist Community of Central Ohio, a community for secular humanists in Columbus, OH with over 700 members on its meetup page. This community is part of the American Humanist Association, which is part of the International Humanist and Ethical Union.

This Giving Game served as one aspect of a collaborative effort between Intentional Insights and The Life You Can Save to spread effective giving strategies to the skeptic and secular communities. Americans donate over $350 billion a year to charity, but shockingly little thought goes into how and where this money is given: 2/3 of gifts are made without any research at all, and only 3% compare the effectiveness of charities before they give.

Giving Games are workshop-style events aimed to advance doing good effectively by applying a scientific and reason-oriented approach to charitable giving. Participants learn about a couple of pre-selected charities, think about and discuss their personal values and reasons for giving, consider what methods and metrics they should use to select a charity, and then vote on what charity will get a real donation. The donation is sponsored by an outside party, typically The Life You Can Save, which donates $10 per participant to the charity that wins the vote.

The large majority of Giving Games compare two types of charities. They compare charities working in developing countries that include The Life You Can Save and GiveWell-endorsed charities that are highly effective in helping save lives and advance human flourishing, such as the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF) or GiveDirectly to other charities that are less effective on this metric. The purpose of this type of Giving Game is to encourage people already interested in giving to charities working in developing countries to give to more effective charities.

Another type of Giving Game compares a highly effective international charity to a local food bank or a similar local nonprofit. This type of Giving Game addresses the tendency of people to prefer to give to those they can see immediately around them, as opposed to those far away, known as the “drowning child problem.” These two types of Giving Games address important issues, and help people recognize the value of reflecting on the social impact of charities when considering their giving.

Yet discussing a local food bank does not arouse high emotions, and it is emotions that tend to drive our underlying decision making. Moreover, strong emotions cause the formation of much longer-lasting and easily-accessible memories. Thus, we decided to choose a much more emotional charity to have a stronger impact on the participants involved, especially considering the skeptic-oriented perspective of the audience.

Choices for Victims of Domestic Violence serves the Columbus, OH area. It provides a shelter for victims of domestic abuse, and a hotline they can call for help, or anyone else can call for help if they suspect anyone they know suffers from domestic abuse. This charity was aimed to address at once both the drowning child problem and to provide a strong and visceral emotional appeal. AMF served as the other charity.

As anticipated, the Giving Game itself was a powerful experience. Choices appealed to people’s emotional desire to help save victims of domestic violence. This was especially so since they could identify with victims of domestic violence, since this problem impacts the kind of middle-class people to which most participants in the Giving Game belonged – unlike a local food bank, which addresses the needs of the poor. Moreover, Choices provided the audience with a hotline they can use to call if they saw someone they know suffering from domestic abuse. It also helped improve the community around themselves. AMF, however, provided a much more impactful and cost-effective way of saving people’s lives and contributing to human flourishing.

It was an intense discussion, with much back-and-forth. People realized their own intuitive biases of valuing lives near to them higher than those far away, and valuing protecting victims of domestic abuse who they could identify with over victims of malaria. They had strong emotional experiences when they made these realizations, and weren’t sure whether to go with their heads in giving to the most impactful charity or with their cached patterns and intuitive beliefs.

I wasn’t sure until the end which way the vote would go. We even discussed the possibility of giving our own money to whatever charity ended up losing. We voted, and AMF won out. After the vote, one of the participants told me that “I feel like I need to take a shower,” and expressed a strong desire to volunteer for Choices. I encouraged people to give to Choices if they feel it’s important as well.

Think about that impact! In this Giving Game, although AMF won, people made a commitment to Choices too. So if Choices won, it is very highly likely they would give to AMF as well. Yet more than this short-term result, people are likely to be much more powerfully impacted by a Giving Game that arouses their emotions. They would be strongly moved to explore effective giving if made to face their biases. So even if AMF lost, the cause of effective giving would have won, due to the tapping of our emotional selves.

So do you want to help improve the world? As reason-oriented people, we don’t hold hope for an eternal afterlife, and know that we are creating the world we want to live in. So it’s up to us to make a better world in the here and now. By taking part in this activity, your group can support a real cause without actually requiring your members to donate a penny!

So what do you need to do to hold a Giving Game?


During the Giving Game your group will learn about, and choose between, three charities: Against Malaria Foundation, Give Directly, and any other charity of your choice. You can put up a well-known international charity such as Red Cross, or a local one – as long as it’s not affiliated directly with your group, it’s fine. The Life You Can Save will sponsor the donation, contributing $10 per participant in the Giving Game.

The outline provided below will give you a sense of how to structure your session.  It assumes a 75 minute Giving Game, though you’re free to tailor the time to fit your needs. You can do it by yourselves or with the help of a trained facilitator from TLYCS, in-person or via videoconference.

  1. Introduction (5 minutes)
  2. Learn about the 3 charities (10 minutes)
  3. Group discussion about where to give (45 minutes)
  • If you have more than ~15 participants, consider splitting into smaller groups of 5-10 people for the discussion period.  You can have people form new subgroups once or twice during the session to expose people to more points of view.
  • Possible discussion topics include:
    • Are we more obligated to help some people than others?  What factors (e.g. Geography, scope of need, ease of helping) play into these obligations?
    • How strong is the evidence supporting each charity?
    • What goals could donors be trying to accomplish with their gifts?  Which of these goals seem most important?
    • What metric(s) should donors consider when choosing which charity to give to?
    • How should donors balance a desire to help in targeted ways against a desire to let beneficiaries assess their own needs?
  1. Voting (5 minutes)
  • Voting is typically done via private paper ballots, with a winner-take-all structure.  However, if you’d like to make the voting proportional (so that the donation is split with the same percentages as the votes), that’s fine too.
  1. Recap (10 minutes)
  • Announce results of the voting
  • Brief group discussion about what people learned from the experience
  • Circulate signup sheet for The Life You Can Save and the Intentional Insights newsletters so that participants can stay informed about great giving opportunities and about using science-based strategies to achieve their goals, in effective giving and other life areas. Please take a photo of the sheet and then send it to [email protected] and [email protected].
  • Brief discussion about charitable pledges for those who want to do more

After the Giving Game, please fill out a post-game report card that will instruct The Life You Can Save on which donations to make.  You will receive confirmation of the donations with two weeks, and you’re free to share the confirmations with your group.

Planning Timeframe

An activity like this can be put together fairly quickly, if needed. Though we encourage you to plan at least a few weeks in advance.

  • Begin planning your Giving Game by picking 1-2 people to serve as facilitators who will introduce the session and the charities and help guide the discussion.
  • Then pick a time and place to hold your Giving Game and notify the members of your group, encouraging them to invite friends. Remember, the more participants the more money will be donated, as each participant adds $10! Be sure to allow enough time for the facilitators to familiarize themselves with the charities, practice their presentations, and review the resources linked to below.
  • If you’re planning to use presentations, make sure to have a projector or another way to display them.  If not, you’ll probably want to use handouts so that participants can easily access information to help them make their decision.
  • It can be helpful to have a few laptops (and wifi) available so that people can investigate any questions that come up that the facilitators are unable to answer.

Resources and links

Gleb Tsipursky is President of Intentional Insights, a nonprofit that helps reason-oriented people use science-based strategies to make wise decisions and reach their goals, with the aim of building an altruistic and flourishing world.

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