Can effective altruism get donors to maximize their impact? Photo by: rawpixel

SAN FRANCISCO — Every year, GiveWell, a nonprofit charity evaluator, publishes its list of top charities as part of ongoing efforts to recommend high-impact giving opportunities.

These recommendations, which include deworming treatments, insecticide-treated bed nets, and direct cash transfers, are released ahead of Giving Tuesday, an international day of charitable giving. They have become highly influential among donors seeking to maximize their impact, many of whom adhere to a philosophy called effective altruism, which GiveWell defines as doing as much good as possible with every dollar and hour.

This year, GiveWell removed “No Lean Season,” a program that provides loans to support seasonal migration, from its top charities list, after a randomized controlled trial found no evidence of an impact on migration.

“It’s important to find out if we’re putting a ton of money into interventions that don’t work.”

— Joey Savoie, president and co-founder, Charity Science Foundation

Donors who identify as effective altruists, or EAs, try to take their own interest out of giving, instead doing what the data says will maximize their impact. Among them are Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and his wife Cari Tuna, the billionaires behind the Open Philanthropy Project — a major donor to GiveWell and other organizations aligned with effective altruism. They have helped to drive some of the strategic cause selection among EAs, leading to priorities including extreme poverty, animal welfare, and the far future.

Effective altruism tends to resonate with a relatively narrow demographic  — young white males working in technology, finance, or academia — but efforts are underway to scale the movement and get more donors asking how they can do the most good.

Importance, neglectedness, tractability

Peter Singer, an influential figure in the effective altruism movement, has called billionaires Bill Gates, Melinda Gates, and Warren Buffet the most effective altruists in history. The founding principle and motto of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is “all lives have equal value.” But while most people may agree with that sentiment, they might also be uncomfortable with its implications.

When Joey Savoie applied these principles to his work, he shifted from working in education reform to launching Charity Science Health, an organization that sends SMS reminders for immunization.

“It’s important to find out if we’re putting a ton of money into interventions that don’t work,” he said.

Charity Science Health has received two GiveWell incubation grants, which are meant to support the development of future top charities, and depending on the results of its randomized controlled trial, Charity Science Health plans to apply for top charity status.

The Open Philanthropy Project has donated tens of millions of dollars to causes based on three criteria  — importance, neglectedness, and tractability. Currently, its support of global health and international development is limited to GiveWell top charities and incubation grants. But the Open Philanthropy Project has said it is open to considering additional causes in global health and international development in the future.

When Moskovitz and Tuna got involved in the effective altruism movement, “that changed the funding landscape,” Savoie said.

“It is difficult to separate them from the movement,” Chris Addy, a partner at Bridgespan, a group that provides management consulting to nonprofits and philanthropists, said of Moskovitz and Tuna. “They are the figureheads.”

The couple plans to spend their net worth of $9 billion on causes such as alleviating global poverty, improving the welfare of farm animals, and countering the dangers of existential threats to humanity. But the majority of big bets go toward institutions such as hospitals, universities, and museums, with only 20 percent going toward social change, Addy said.

He also noted that this may change over time, both because effective altruism has become popular among young people, and because a lot of individuals who identify as EAs have money tied up in companies they founded but will be in a position to give later.

While effective altruism has driven new donor funding to global health and extreme poverty, there has been a growing emphasis on the far future among some of the movement-building organizations, like the Centre for Effective Altruism at Oxford University.

The idea is that even a small chance of saving the human race from threats such as epidemics, climate change, or artificial intelligence is worth the risk because of the numbers of lives at stake.

Earlier this year, the Open Philanthropy Project provided an update on cause prioritization, saying it would allocate only 10 percent of its capital to supporting charities GiveWell recommends, in part because the foundation is increasingly placing high value on the long-term future.

Scaling the movement  

Village Enterprise, which was once a GiveWell top charity, is now investing in evidence on its ultra-poor graduation model.

But not all interventions lend themselves to the return on investment analyses GiveWell conducts, said Dianne Calvi, CEO at Village Enterprise, adding that she hopes to see more evaluations of cost-effectiveness sector by sector.

That is the approach taken by The Life You Can Save, founded by Peter Singer and which provides recommendations on charities in categories including women and girls, water and sanitation, or agriculture and farming.

"I am worried the EA movement cannot scale," said Charlie Bresler, executive director at The Life You Can Save — one of a number of organizations trying to make some of the principles of effective altruism more broadly relevant.

The numbers suggest the movement is plateauing, and Bresler thinks it is because effective altruism is not well marketed, and hard for most people to relate to. He recently traveled to India, where he helped launch a program called “High Impact Philanthropy,” which will gear money from high net worth individuals, corporations, and other individuals toward charities that get the most bang for their rupee. It is all part of Bresler’s goal to reach people outside of effective altruism, by emphasizing giving more effectively, without setting a high bar about giving more generously.

Increasingly, conferences such as EA Global are drawing global participants interested in getting donors in their country to be more evidence-based in their giving, such as Varun Deshpande, who is working on launching Effective Altruism India.

Deshpande said he sees a synergy between effective altruism and strategic philanthropy, which has seen progress thanks to organizations such as Dasra, a catalyst for the Indian philanthropy movement. Still, more work needs to be done to make EA ideas written for a Western audience relevant in the Indian context and other low- and middle-income economies, he said. Deshpande added that he is working on bringing effective altruism to India without appearing exclusionary.

Meanwhile, GiveWell is also focusing on scale.

“For much of GiveWell's history, we prioritized developing our research product and did very little proactive outreach around our work,” said Catherine Hollander, a research analyst with an outreach focus. “In the last couple years, however, we began to see outreach as more of a limiting factor for our work than research.”

In June, GiveWell hired Ben Bateman, formerly of tech crowdfunding platform Indiegogo, to develop and lead GiveWell’s growth strategy.

And even before launching that strategy, GiveWell was seeking to make an impact on foreign aid and individual philanthropy.

For example, by supporting GiveDirectly  — a top charity that provides unconditional cash transfers directly to the poor — GiveWell hopes to influence the international aid sector to benchmark more programs against cash.

And every Giving Tuesday, when GiveWell publishes its top charities list, it helps individual donors within and beyond the EA community consider how far their money can go.

About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Catherine also works for the Solutions Journalism Network, a non profit that trains and connects reporters to cover responses to problems.