Effective altruismHow can we do the most good in the world? This is the guiding question of a new philosophical and moral movement called “effective altruism” (EA). Effective altruism, a concept coined by philosopher Peter Singer, is an attempt to use common sense and research to determine how each person can maximize his or her positive impact.

What is Effective Altruism?

The basic idea is simple. There are many things a person can do to improve the world. An individual can donate to charities, volunteer or support positive government action. Effective altruists, however, believe that it is not just a matter of doing good wherever it is most convenient. Take charities, for example. Some causes achieve their goals more efficiently than others. Donating $10,000 to an emergency surgery fund might save one life. But, donating that same money to a group that, for instance, teaches impoverished children how to read, could have a vastly greater effect. One of the issues effective altruists care the most about is global poverty.

Global Poverty: A High-Priority Cause

Addressing poverty is one of the most cost-effective and reliable ways to reduce suffering. Unlike some other issues, global poverty is a problem with proven solutions. Over the past 40 years, extreme poverty rates have dropped from 42% to less than 10%. With such a successful track record, it is easy to imagine that future efforts to reduce poverty will continue to pay off.

Looking at the measures taken on the ground, it is not difficult to see how a little money can have a big impact in solving global poverty. Parasitic diseases, for instance, are a huge drain on wealth and stability in large parts of the developing world, but they can be cured with a pill that costs less than a dollar. Mosquito nets are just as affordable, with the ability to protect more than half a million potential malaria victims a year.

Prioritizing Maximum Impact

According to effective altruism, it is not enough to devote time or money to a cause that generally has a good track record. An individual must look at exactly where their money is going. Even poverty-reducing measures have significant differences in efficiency and results. For example, a recent study compared the cost-benefit ratios of sustainable livelihoods graduation programs, livelihood development programs and cash transfers. Although graduation programs tend to cost more, they have far greater long-term success in lifting people out of poverty.

People are becoming far more conscientious of the causes and charities to which they choose to devote their time and money. Effective altruism is emerging in this environment. GiveWell, an effective altruism organization, analyzes the progress reports of well-known charities and conducts independent investigations into their effectiveness.

GiveWell is not afraid of courting controversy either. GiveWell recommends that individuals stop giving to some of the most well-known poverty reduction charities. According to GiveWell, these organizations lack transparency, show unimpressive results or already have more funds than they can effectively use. In the spirit of effective altruism, GiveWell instead recommends a list of alternate organizations that can fulfill similar goals far more efficiently.

Considering Effective Altruism

Effective altruism, as well as philosophically-related organizations like GiveWell, are not without critics. Some, particularly those involved with more traditional models of charity and activism, argue that effective altruism puts too many limits on an individual’s ability to donate however they choose. But, such criticisms notwithstanding, effective altruism offers a fresh perspective on how to approach pressing issues like global poverty.

– Thomas Brodey
Photo: Wikimedia

Why Don't People Give More?
Sometimes it seems that every single non-profit and charity organization is after our money. Whether through sales calls, emails, social media campaigns, most people cannot go a single a day without a request for money or mobilization. Out of frustration and plain confusion many people may just call it quits and drop any efforts of giving to avoid creating a domino effect. However, there are six simple ways of easing the overwhelming feeling and encouraging people to give more. Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save book and campaign discusses this very topic in hopes of creating excitement around donating time and money.

1- Identifiable Victim

With numbers of those living in poverty falling between one to three billion people, it’s hard to focus in on one victim that a donor’s money would benefit. Many organizations work in different areas and reach out to hundreds and thousands of people. To create a narrow scope, it is more effective to use case studies and personal stories of individuals that have benefited from the donations or will in the future. For example, the microloan organization kiva lists individuals, their stories, and the exact monetary aid they require.

2- Sense of Fairness

It’s the mob mentality at its finest… or worst in this case. In terms of money, people don’t want to be the only ones whose bank accounts diminish (quite dramatic of a worry, especially in the case of your average donor who stays below the 3-digit limit). Regardless, they’ll be more willing to give if they know others are as well. And when referring to others, it doesn’t mean reading headlines or watching videos of celebrities and other millionaires donating. Donors need to see people from their socio-economic levels, or below, opening up their wallets despite the economy, and giving.

3- Parochialism

“It hits close to home” is a common explanation many use as to why they donate to one cause and not another. A valid explanation but this should not limit the geographical scope of where a donor’s money goes to. Using tools such as videos or even bringing donors and donees together, if feasible, is something that will create a stronger human-to-human connection, regardless of where each of them are from.

4- Money

People love it. They want it. Songs have been written about it by Jay-Z and ABBA alike. But when it comes to actually using the word to ask for donations, it’s definitely not a fan favorite. Instead, try asking for time or support that can be given in other ways before asking for money. The key is to show that a difference can be made and that the organization isn’t just looking for financial help (although at some point it will need it).

5- Diffusion of Responsibility

Same with the idea of fairness and the ‘mob mentality,’  its important to illustrate that everyone can and should do their part in whatever way fits their lifestyle. Be careful to not guilt trip a person if a certain method or route is not their choice but be sure to touch on the more positive notion that humans have a responsibility and the privilege of helping those less fortunate.

6- Futility

Certain organizations or programs may not reach a lot of individuals but perhaps solve the problems of a group in a higher percentage. For example, while it only helps 50 people, an organization may help 48 out of those 50, a higher proportion than an organization that can only help 150 out of 12,000. Zoom in on these percentages and use them as a selling point to show how effective an organization can be. Who knows, they may give more time and money this way.

– Deena Dulgerian

Photo: Pixabay