The Best Way to do Good

An introduction to effective altruism, and the best ways to determine if your donations are worth-while.

Consider this scenario: you hear a story about a blind man here in America, whose seeing-eye dog got hit by a car. He has cancer and his treatment bills prevent him from being able to get a new dog. This is an incredibly sad story.

Now consider this: Tens of thousands of children in Subsaharan Africa die from Malaria every year.

Think about your emotional response to these two stories. I’m guessing that the one about the blind man actually evoked more of response.

This tendency of ours to respond more strongly to one individual is called the Individual Victim Effect and it is one of many cognitive biases humans use that leads to poor decision-making.

For anyone that donates to a charity because they want to help, the fundamental motivation(regardless of the charity) for all donations is that they want to change the world for the better. Furthermore, the person tends to donate to charities they believe are actually accomplishing something, despite its objective effectiveness. Enter the idea of effective altruism.

Let’s return to the blind man and the sick children. It would cost about $1200 to get a new seeing-eye dog to help our poor friend. Alternatively, insecticide covered nets that effectively and evidently help prevent Malaria in Sub-Saharan Africa run about $5. I think you get the point.

Effective Altruism, a concept defined by leading members of the ‘Give What We Can’ community, is the idea that the best charitable donations are those that have the highest and most cost-effective impacts. More than that, though, it is the idea that for a person to be completely ethical, they need to use all their extra resources to contribute to the most effective causes for the betterment of humanity.

This idea that we can take a rational and objective approach to affecting change seems counterintuitive. How can we remove emotion from something that is ultimately driven by the way it makes us feel? Simple, let your heart bring you the table and lets the numbers bring you to victory.

This data-driven philanthropy will ultimately remove a lot of the feel-goodery that happens when we see a sick kid make a wish come true, but it will save lives and foster a rate of healthy cognitive development that this world has never seen.

If you are looking to find charities that embody the effective altruist’s code of ethics, check out Givewell’s website. Or if you are thinking of giving to a charity and want to know how well they spend the money given to them go to CharityNavigator.

There are also plenty of websites and articles that go into greater detail on this subject, so if this idea piques your interest, please google it to find out more.