The Shockingly Simple Ways You Can Make a Difference in the World

William MacAskill
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
4 min readNov 17, 2015


It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that nothing you do ever really matters. In a world still plagued by war, poverty and devastating natural disasters, you might believe that no one person can actually make a difference. But you’d be wrong.

Not only can people make a difference, but they already are making a huge difference in the world today. With a little bit of time and forethought, we can all join them.

We live in an extraordinary time. Industrialization has caused unprecedented levels of growth in what we now call the developed world. Today’s individuals are around 30 times (!) richer than they were 200 years ago.

But this growth has been hugely uneven, with large proportions of the planet still pretty much just as poor as they were hundreds of years ago. The results of this inequality are stark: you might think little of the $10 you spend on drinks after work, but for those on the global poverty line, that’s how much they have to live on for five whole days.

Although this situation may seem daunting, it actually also puts people living in rich nations in a unique position to make a real difference to the lives of the most impoverished people on the planet. Not only does our money go much further in the developing world than it does at home, but we also now have access to the technology and understanding to allow us to target our resources effectively.

If we’re smart about it, we can find ways to use our numerous advantages to do an enormous amount of good.

Cash Transfers and Bed-Nets

In 2009, Paul Niehaus and Michael Faye were completing PhDs in Economics at Harvard University with a focus on economic development. Along with a group of colleagues, they wanted to find a way to improve the lives of people in the developing world. Together, they found evidence that one of the most effective ways to help is simply to transfer money directly to the poorest families, and let them spend it as they see fit.

Inspired, the group created GiveDirectly to do just that. Starting as a private giving circle, in 2011 they turned it into a public charity, using emerging technologies to transfer up to 91% of donated funds directly to recipients.

The results have been very encouraging, with numerous studies showing that families use the money wisely, investing in health and their children’s education. Family earnings go up and stay up, improving lives in the short and long term.

Of course, you don’t have to found a charity to make the world a better place. Take Lincoln Quirk, another person interested in the potential of cash transfers, but who went in a different direction.

Lincoln created a company called Wave, which makes it cheaper and easier for immigrants to the United States to send money home to their families, who are able to receive the money by mobile phone. Again, getting more wealth into the hands of the global poor is an effective way of improving their lives, and it also helps to push forward economic development.

There are plenty of other ways people have found to make a huge difference. For example, in 2004 Rob Mather created the Against Malaria Foundation. This distributes insecticidal bed-nets to at-risk communities, an intervention enthusiastically promoted by the World Health Organization. At a cost of only $5 per net, AMF has greatly helped to reduce the number of deaths from malaria, as well as keeping children in school and adults able to work and earn money for their families.

These examples are all quite different — what made them all the same (and successful) was the individuals taking the time to understand what effect their altruistic efforts were truly having.

Becoming an Effective Altruist

So how can these people be sure that their time and money really is making a difference, rather than disappearing into a black hole?

The answer is that they use studies and evaluations to measure the impact of their work and adjust their plans as needed. This is a core tenet of effective altruism, a movement that seeks to do the most good possible through the use of evidence and reasoning. For my money, it’s the best way for each of us as individuals to take control of how we make a difference.

Calculate your global income and what you can achieve by giving back:

Most of us will never found a company or a charity, nor make any great scientific breakthroughs. But we can all achieve an incredible amount by using our time and money wisely.

Organizations such as GiveWell and Giving What We Can are dedicated to finding the most effective charities, and the nonprofit 80,000 Hours provides information about careers with high social impact.

We in the developed world are the beneficiaries of incredible advantages. By giving our time or our money effectively, we can make a serious difference to some of the poorest people in the world.

Forget doom and gloom — instead, focus on all of the ways in which your contributions can change lives.



William MacAskill
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

I’m an Associate Professor at Oxford University, the co-founder of non-profits Giving What We Can and 80,000 Hours, and the author of Doing Good Better.