Five questions for effective altruism

The effective altruism movement is dedicated to getting more out of its philanthropy. Those who are really into it aren’t just out for more effective giving, but the scientifically demonstrable best option: what is the most good you can possibly do? I wouldn’t pursue that question as religiously as some in the movement, but it’s still a good question.

In order to work it out, there are five key questions to ask. Whether you’re just interested in more informed giving, or really out to identify the optimal cause to support, they’re worth considering. I’m just going to mention them briefly. If you want to find out more, William MacAskill has a chapter on each question in his book Doing Good Better.

  1. How many people benefit, and by how much? When you’re giving to charity, you inevitably have to give to certain causes and organisations and not to others. Even billionaires can’t give to everything. So the first step in deciding who is worth giving to and who isn’t is to ask how many people will benefit from the charity’s intiative? And how much will they benefit? Causes that save lives deliver a greater benefit than those that improve lives, for instance. Donations go a lot further in poorer countries.
  2. What is the most effective thing you can do? If you were to look at a particular problem, you might find there are several different solutions vying for your donor dollar. Let’s take literacy rates in a rural village, for example. One charity might give books, another might train teachers, one might give out iPads. To know who to support, you need to know what actually works. Not every charity monitors their impact and can demonstrate their own effectiveness – so look out for those that do. You wouldn’t buy an appliance without making sure that it works, so we shouldn’t be too quick to take charities on trust either.
  3. Is this area neglected? It’s not always true, but generally speaking if something is getting a lot of attention, it’s getting funded. Your donation will be one more among the millions. If you can spot a smaller organisation doing something really well, or an important and overlooked cause, your support will make a bigger difference – as I described recently with what I think is the world’s least exciting charitable cause.
  4. What would have happened otherwise? Most charities would like to think that what they do is indispensable, but it’s always fair to ask whether or not that’s actually true. If this programme wasn’t running, would another charity, or the government, be doing it instead? Possibly better? Effective altruists also apply this to themselves: many of us might do more good getting a decent job and giving away our salaries, rather than working for a charity or setting up our own.
  5. What would success mean, and what are the chances? If you only follow the four questions above, you might restrict yourself to life-saving interventions in poor countries. But some causes are so important that we have to make room for them. Climate change, for example. The benefits of a successful climate change campaign – a liveable planet, and the survival of life as we know it – are so big that it’s worth taking a chance on it even if the odds are against us. “Long shots can be worth backing if the payoff is big enough” says MacAskill.

You don’t have to slavishly follow these questions. If you’re going to be motivated to give, there has to be room for personal interest. But we don’t want to waste our donations. We want to know that we’re made a difference. So before you give next time, take a moment to think about it.


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