“Get started as soon as possible.”
I’m very lucky to have access to resources that most people don’t, but the basics of how I make decisions apply to everyone: What am I passionate about? What organizations are doing interesting work? It’s a bit about your gut and a bit about doing research to make decisions. A little internet research can go a long way toward educating you about the issues that matter to you and the organizations addressing them in innovative ways. Resources like GiveWell, GuideStar, Charity Navigator, and the Open Philanthropy Project can help you find nonprofits that match up well with your interests.
My advice is to get started as soon as possible. It’s better to make an impact now than to agonize over which cause is the most important. And then you can take what you learn and apply it to all your philanthropy in the future. This is not a once-in-a-lifetime decision.
You have many years to engage in all the causes that matter to you. My own preference is to focus on a small number of causes at a time. I have the most fun when I’m really engrossed in a problem and its solutions. When I’m spread too thin, I end up just trying to keep up instead of digging deep. Right now, I’m focused on a few issues tied together under the single umbrella of women and girls’ empowerment, and I like the coherence of that. I like seeing the interconnections among the things I’m working on.
In global health, there’s a measure called ‘disability-adjusted life year’ that compares the harm done by, say, smoking to the harm done by malaria. We use these methods to devise our strategies at the Gates Foundation, but there is no secret formula. Ultimately, you will have the most impact by choosing the cause that sets you on fire, because that’s the one you’ll put the most energy into.
One of the biggest mistakes we made in the beginning was thinking that our money was the most important thing we had to contribute. Yes, organizations need money, and the Gates Foundation is fortunate to be able to help in that way. But we’ve also found that raising our voices so that people understand the issues is probably even more important. If you want to show your support, but can’t afford to write a check, there are still ways to contribute. I have a friend who has experience writing grants, so she donates her skills instead. As a result, the organizations she cares about raise a lot more money. Everyone has a wealth of resources, from their time to their knowledge to their social networks, and it’s important to think about all of them when contributing to a cause.
Since 2000, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has distributed $36.7 billion in grants to improve lives around the world.