Effective Altruism: Combining heart with head to do the most good we can

By Elliot Green

25 May 18

“Do you care about making the world a better place? Perhaps you buy ethical products, donate to charity or volunteer your time in the name of doing good. But how often do you know what impact you really have?”

The words of Cambridge University research fellow, William MacAskill ask us to question whether there is a better way to do good “by applying data and scientific reasoning to the normally sentimental world of doing good”.

Effective Alturism

It might sound like a boring scientific concept, but this is a fantastic and hugely powerful idea, known formally as Effective Altruism. Essentially it’s all about why we have good reasons to help others/our planet, why doing it effectively is so important , and how helping others also improves our own lives. 

When it comes to ‘giving back’ we live in a funny world. As human beings, we often make decisions based on our emotions, rather than our heads. 

Take the example famously put forward by Bill Gates - the amount of money spent globally on research to prevent male baldness - £1.5 billion - in comparison to the amount we spend on research to prevent/cure Malaria, which kills hundreds of thousands of people every year - $500 million. At the same time we have brilliant fundraisers shaving every last hair from their heads to raise money for good causes. Perhaps they’re supporting charities that work directly to fight this horrible disease. It’s safe to say the when we look at global problems, the way we tackle them doesn’t always make sense. 

As part of a new movement a small number of advocates with loud voices are asking us to bring a broad, evidence-based approach to traditional altruism/charitable giving. In simple terms, if Altruism is about doing good things when we can, Effective Altruism is about taking a step back and working out how we can do the most good possible with the resources we have.

Of course, this is much easier said than done. After all, measuring the amount of ‘good’ we’re doing is really quite difficult. But advocates of Effective Altruism such as Peter Singer, argue that some ways of giving back are vastly more impactful than others. And sometimes the evidence just can’t be ignored. For example, it costs an estimated £30,000 to train a guide dog and recipient blind individual so that the blind person’s life can be significantly improved. However, it costs between £15 and £37 to cure one blind person of Trachoma (a treatable blindness prevalent in some countries). That equates to significantly improving the life of one blind person in the developed world (which no doubt is still a good thing) or curing between 400 and 2000 people of their blindness in another country.

It holds true that we can do more good if we remain open to supporting different causes, rather than just supporting the things we come across or that we have a strong emotional connection with. Of course, doing some good is better than doing no good, but sometimes it can be important to also reflect on the bigger picture.

How should the effectiveness of doing good be assessed?

The 80,000 hours project is one attempt at stepping back and analysing how we can make a big difference in a positive way. Particularly useful to passionate graduates and young professionals, it aims to help steer career choices in a way that maximises positive social impact. But the framework used to assess the impact of working on different global issues can also be very useful to any individual wondering which charity to support or which volunteer project to get involved in. The framework prioritises projects basedon three core characteristics:

  1. Scale - Does it affect many people’s lives, by a great amount?
  2. Neglect - Are few other people working on addressing the problem?
  3. Solvability - Will additional resources do a great deal to address it?

Out of this comes a list of highly effective project form around the world, which information site 'Give Well' continuously monitors. Some of Give Well's top ranked charities include The Against Malaria Foundation (which distributes mosquito nets to save millions of lives), Sightsavers (which supports government-neglected de-worming programs) and Give Directly (which transfers money to poor individuals in countries where strong evidence shows they will spend funds on their basic needs).

You can find out more about assessing the impacts of different causes here. [https://www.givewell.org/]

Businesses, that means you too! Give smart and be Wonderful

Effective Altruism extends further than simply donating your £10 to a charity you think will make the biggest difference. The concept applies to so many areas of life, from what we put in our mouths, to the way we run Governments, to the internal runnings of individual businesses and their corporate social responsibilities.

Businesses often wish to make a difference, and they have great power to make positive impacts around the world if they think carefully about where they invest their time and money. In this way, Wonderful’s partners are displaying a form of Effective Altruism with the funds they so generously provide to support the Wonderful platform. 

Every penny of sponsorship Wonderful receives from its partners goes directly to support the hard costs of running the fundraising platform. Wonderful is designed from the ground up with cost-efficiency in mind, and every £1000 we receive in sponsorship covers the costs of around £40,000 worth of donations to charities. This multiplier effect allows our partner businesses to make a huge difference to countless charities with relatively small amounts of money. But let’s not forget that none of this would be possible without the help of our budding fundraisers, whether they’re running marathons, shaving their heads, or hiking Ben Nevis. 

Wonderful’s partners can choose to channel their sponsorship to specific areas, for example by covering the costs of fundraising for specific charities, regions of the world or categories. For businesses that are serious about making a real difference when it comes to social responsibility, Wonderful can be a great facilitator. 

To find out more about Effective Altruism, click here.

Or click here for a video series on the topic.

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