Effective Altruism – a good idea or not?

 In Financial decisions, Insights, Not for profit, Realizer Blog

Each year, $230 billion is given to charity in the US.

And yet, research shows that in 65% of cases, people do zero research before giving. How can we make better decisions on where our well intended donations go, and what impact they have?

Effective Altruism is the notion that we should plan our giving in a way that we know we’re making the maximum impact. We should set goals, and compare causes and charities to see who can deliver most impact, most benefit, for my donation.

To get under the skin of Effective Altruism, there are a number of not for profits which act as umbrella organisations where you can learn more. For example, effectivealtruism.org has a solid introduction to the topic. You could also watch this TED talk from Peter Singer who is one of the stars of the movement.


It seems like a pretty good idea. But not everyone is a fan. In an article by the founder of Charity Navigator, the movement is roundly condemned for daring to compare the value of different human lives. They cite an example from the TED talk above where Peter Singer asks the audience whether it is better to buy one person in America a guide dog, or cure 2000 people from blindness? While Singer says the answer is “clear”, the authors of the article see this as some kind of blasphemy, referring to effective altruism as “logic so cold even Dr Spock would cringe.”

Well, I don’t agree with the article’s authors. From my view, Effective Altruism values all lives and causes equally, but seeks to apply resources most effectively to solve them. I do agree that curing 2000 people’s blindness is a better use of philanthropic resources than buying a guide dog for one person.

I’m in the middle of an online course in this area, called Giving 2.0, which gets participants to set a clear strategy to make the most impact with their altruism. Even in the first week, there has been significant benefit in a very simple exercise – to reflect on the times, incidents, causes which have inspired you to give in the past. It could have been something that happened to a family member, or a documentary you watched, or anything that stopped you in your tracks and encouraged you to give.

When you write a few of these down, you quickly start to learn which causes are important to you. And while Effective Altruism points to being objective, it also recognises that we need to focus on things we’re truly passionate about, as this makes it more likely we’ll give more, more often to that cause, hence making it more likely we’ll make an impact.

Ultimately charity decisions need to be made as carefully as any other decision, and so what I like about Effective Altruism is the way it helps us make more robust and lasting decisions.

If you want to find out more, watch the video above, head to effectivealtruism.org, or even do the online course on Coursera.

Written by Rob Pyne