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14 Jun 16

What Charities Need To Know About Effective Altruism

Being good to one another is the fundamental basis of humanity. People want to give, but they also want to know the best way to give in order to make the biggest difference. That’s where effective altruism comes in.


Effective altruism is a social movement whose ethos is making the world a better place by using data and reason to help others as much as possible, combined with the will to actually try. It’s about ‘dedicating a significant part of one’s life to improving the world and rigorously asking the question, “Of all the possible ways to make a difference, how can I make the greatest difference?”’


The EA community includes the founders of Paypal, Tesla and Skype, over 20 companies and NGOs, as well as a global network of students and professors at prestigious universities across the world. While many of the movement’s supporters are based in the US, the core members are Oxford University alumni.


The rise of high-quality research data in the third sector has allowed people to make evidence-based decisions about what does and doesn’t work in terms of charitable action. Effective altruists also believe in a moral obligation to use their personal resources to invest in work that will create a world where everyone is healthy, fulfilled and free.

William MacAskill describes the purpose behind effective altruism as ‘rather than simply trying to find a charity that “does good work”, we seek out those activities that will do the most good with our time or money.’


The Centre for Effective Altruism is currently running three projects. Giving What We Can is a society whose members commit at least 10% of their incomes to relieve the suffering caused by extreme poverty. They also undertake research into the most effective charities to ensure their donation will have the greatest possible impact. 80,000 Hours is a service that provides talented graduates with free advice on how they can use their careers to make a positive impact, and in turn build a community of like-minded world-changers. The Global Priorities Project is policy development think tank that identifies neglected global challenges and addresses effective decision making and global catastophic risk.

Other organisations that also started as part of the Centre, and are now independent movements in the US, include The Life You Can Save and Animal Charity Evaluators.

Where there’s room for error

Last year, Vox writer Dylan Matthews went to the Effective Altruism Global conference at the Google Campus in Silicon Valley. He is concerned that the movement, like any movement, ‘has begun to develop a culture, and a set of powerful stakeholders, and a certain range of worrying pathologies. At the moment, EA is very white, very male, and dominated by tech industry workers.’ He points out that because all of the data analysis is conducted by this very specific group of people, it is biased by their socioeconomic status. The yardstick that they are using to measure ‘the greatest positive impact’ may not neccessarily be a the same yardstick for charities. ‘Goodness’ and ‘greatness’ mean different things to different organisations, and there’s never going to be an objective definition that can be universally agreed upon.

Matthews also believes that effective altruism’s ‘meta-charity’ approach; doing more good by expanding the movement rather than focusing on the implementation of aid programmes; is a very thin line between actually helping people and self-congratulating yourself for just thinking about it. EA has the potential to ‘transform philanthropy and provide a revolutionary model for rigorous, empirically minded advocacy. But if it gets too impressed with its own cleverness, the future is far bleaker.’

What charities can learn from effective altruism

Donors care about impact. Not only do charities needs rigorous governance to measure their impact, but they must be able to communicate the positive effect that their work is having in a transparent and accountable manner. Once you can provide evidence of your success, you need to provide a reason to donate. So how can your charity stand out in a sea of fundraisers all competing for public giving? The answer lies in storytelling.

The ability to tell a good story is the most effective skill a charity can have. People can connect to stories, and with that connection they are moved to action. Transformational storytelling is a practical way to effortlessly persuade others to willingly do something that they would not have done otherwise. By demonstrating that you value the impact your funds can reach, as well as the stories that your donations are shaping, you can offer a practical answer to the question ‘to whom should I donate?’

Constructive Voices is an NCVO initiative that encourages charities to engage with positive storytelling, and The Guardian is pushing for constructive journalism with their Half Full series. Find a story that reflects your values and mission, and tell it to everyone you know.