Quick summary of this post: I introduce the concept of the Giving Game, an activity that effective altruist groups can use to prompt lots of people into thinking about charity. I also describe the results of YEA’s first Giving Game.

If you know what Giving Games are and just want advice, I include some of our observations, and what we’ll change next time, at the bottom of the post.



Last week, YEA held its first-ever event: A pair of Giving Games, which took place in the common rooms of two Yale residential colleges (Berkeley and Jonathan Edwards).

In a Giving Game, an EA group gives people the chance to vote on which of a few charities they’d like to receive money from a donation pool which already exists. YEA’s game was sponsored by The Life You Can Save, an EA organization which works with many other college groups, and which later wrote a check to each charity we chose.

For a first event, this went really well! Over the course of two days, we spoke with over 200 students, all of whom heard the words “Yale Effective Altruists” at least once, and some of whom really enjoyed the chance to think about where their donation could make the most impact.



As a group, YEA struggled to decide which three charities would make the most sense: Should we include a Yale or New Haven charity? Should we only include charities rated as especially effective by top charity evaluators?

In the end, we went with the following setup:

One large bowl of dollars on a table. Three smaller bowls, each labeled with the name of one charity. Volunteers with paper handouts and dollar bills talking to students as they walked by — trying hard to put a dollar in the person’s hand, since it’s unlikely someone will walk away after they’ve taken your dollar. Polite solicitation, but nothing insistent or invasive.

Money fluffs up quite nicely in bowls, it turns out.
Money fluffs up quite nicely in bowls, it turns out.


The charities we chose:

  • Oxfam, a charity which operates in 90 different countries and works on a host of issues related to global poverty.
  • Seva, which devotes its resources to eye care in the developing world — ranging from checkups to surgeries which can prevent blindness for as little as $50.
  • Guide Dogs of America, which raises money to connect blind people with seeing-eye dogs that help them live more independent lives.

These charities differ in many ways, and this gave us the chance to see how people connected with many different features of the charities. Oxfam and Seva work in the developing world, while GDA works in the U.S.; Oxfam earns ten times the revenue of Seva or GDA; Oxfam focuses on a range of different causes, while Seva and GDA both help blind people; and so on.

We wrote a handout which included very similar types of information on each charity, then created three different versions of the handout, so that each charity was the first charity listed at least some of the time. We included financial information on each charity — enough information so that, if someone were interested in giving money efficiently, they would have had some basis on which to compare the organizations.



We seeded each charity’s bowl with $3 to start with, so that people wouldn’t feel tempted to give to the only empty bowl (or automatically avoid a bowl with no donations from any of their peers).

With 212 donations, the final tally was:

Oxfam: 92

Seva: 81

Guide Dogs of America: 39

We were surprised by the number of donations to Guide Dogs of America — a charity which requires roughly 800 times as much funding to train one guide dog as Seva does to completely cure one case of blindness. Then again, seeing that number reminded us of why we became interested in charity efficiency in the first place!

Our charity bowls filled up quickly -- even Guide Dogs of America. Ah, well.
Our charity bowls filled up quickly — even Guide Dogs of America. Ah, well.


More Notes

Good opening lines to approach people walking by: 

  • “Would you like us to give you a dollar that you can donate to charity?”
  • “Do you have a minute? I would like to give you a dollar. And then I’d like you to give it to one of these three charities!”
  • “Would you like a dollar to think about charity for a few seconds?”

Lines that didn’t work very well:

  • Anything with “experiment”, as in “we’re doing an experiment to see how people think about giving to charity”. (“Research” worked somewhat better, and might be worth a try, depending on your audience.)
  • “Would you like some free money // a free dollar?” (Unless you tell them why you’re giving out money, people seem to be very suspicious of this one.)

Quotes we heard (paraphrased in some cases):

  • “Oxfam is big, so it must be pretty trustworthy”
  • “Oxfam is so big, I don’t know what my one dollar would actually do!”
  • “I feel like an American charity is more reliable.” (They were talking about Guide Dogs of America, even though Seva and Oxfam are headquartered in “reliable” countries — Canada and the UK, respectively. We should probably have made that more clear.)
  • “Oxfam and Seva seem more abstract to me, because they operate in the Third World.”
  • “I’ve heard of Oxfam before! What are these other two?” (These people usually donated to Oxfam.)
  • “I’m pre-vet, so Guide Dogs of America are a clear choice.”
  • “I like dogs!” (They gave to GDA.)
  • “I feel bad because there’s not as much money in that bowl [Guide Dogs of America]. Can I have another dollar to put in it?”
  • “At first, I thought Guide Dogs of America was helping dogs, but it seems to actually help people, so…” (They gave to Seva — it may have been that they liked dogs more than people?)
  • “Why on earth would anyone give to Guide Dogs of America instead of Seva?” (This person was actually flabbergasted. We should have collected their email separately.)
  • “I have an aunt/cousin/friend who works for/donates to Oxfam/Seva/Guide Dogs of America.” (This seemed like a very common determinant of choice.)
  • “This charity has four stars from Charity Navigator, but this other one only has three stars! This was pretty easy.” (Heard multiple times; people seem familiar with Charity Navigator.)

Other notes:

  • When more than one person stopped at a time, the group would often try to split up its votes — people seem to have an instinct for “equitable” giving.
  • The more people were standing around talking to us at a time, the more likely it was that someone else would stop by. It might be helpful to invite your friends to hang out with you at staggered times to promote this effect!


Claire Mufson, Yale ’15, had the best smile of any solicitor!


Mistakes // Next Time Around

This was our first Giving Game, and as expected, we made some mistakes. Those included:

  • Crowding around people who were trying to think (keep people at arm’s length once you’ve brought them in, but be ready to answer questions).
  • Hassling people who were clearly in a rush (heads down, grimacing, etc.). It makes more sense to target people who seem more open to the activity, unless you don’t have many people walking by.
  • Focusing too strictly on the activity itself. I think we may have been shy about talking efficiency and potentially corrupting how people were thinking about the charities, but we should have included a sentence like “some charities are much more effective than others, and giving to the most effective charities can help any donor save more lives” in each interaction.
  • Putting Charity Navigator scores for each charity on the handout. This seemed like an undue source of bias, which may have prevented people from trying to think about the actual impact of each charity. (On the other hand, if you prepare ahead of time, you might be able to use a participant’s mention of Charity Navigator as an excuse to talk about the use of different charity metrics.)
  • Not giving people the option to add their names to our mailing list. People at Yale are very email-shy, but we should at least have included an option in case we’d have gotten a few names. (Instead, we sent all participants who gave us their emails a single message about the results, which didn’t drive many follow-through mailing list signups.)
  • Not holding enough handouts or dollar bills, which forced us to return back to the table too often. Grab a big handful before you start soliciting!


Something that worked well: We put a funny/satirical sign on the entrance to our room which included the phrase “Free money inside!” This primed people to be ready for something unusual to happen, which made it easier for us to get people to pause for a few seconds.


A final note: Next time, we may frame the Giving Game as an election, rather than having every dollar go exactly to the charity people chose — both for charity-efficiency reasons ($39 for guide dogs is a big sacrifice) and to see if people are more interested in a “charity election” than an ordinary Giving Game.



YEA Giving Game #1

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *