Doing Good Better: Do You Have What It Takes to Be an Effective Altruist?

Doing Good Better: Do You Have What It Takes to Be an Effective Altruist?

The world’s population tops 7 billion—and counting.

Spin the globe, and you’ll encounter all types of compelling problems: a health crisis here, an earthquake there.

You want to make a difference, but how? You’re just one person.

Plus, how do you really know that your charity of choice is reputable and impactful?


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University of Oxford professor William MacAskill set out to answer these very questions by taking an honest, evidence-based look at how we approach charitable giving.

Through his research, MacAskill found it’s surprisingly easy for each of us to make a major impact if we avoid common assumptions about giving.

It also turns out that the best charities are hundreds of times more effective than the merely good ones. And, he argues, the way we tend to evaluate them is all wrong.

He even has a term for it, effective altruism, and a new book on the topic: "Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference."

Intrigued, we caught up with the outspoken MacAskill to uncover what it takes to be an effective altruist—and why you may want to rethink that donation to disaster relief.

RELATED: Charitable Giving: Not All Generations Are Equal

9781592409105 (1)LearnVest: Why do you discourage people from donating to disaster relief?

William MacAskill: Obviously, disasters are terrible and should get funding. But it’s a question of ‘Should I personally fund disaster relief?'

In most cases, the answer is no.

They already get so many donations and so much publicity—compared to ongoing natural disasters, like malaria or HIV.

When you think about your individual decision, you have to think on the margin: Given how everyone else is acting, what should I do?

The most basic error is that people think about making a difference, rather than the most difference.

RELATED: How to Budget for Giving All Year Long

What other factors should people consider when evaluating a charity or cause?

The typical way to analyze a charity is to look at the percentage spent on administrative costs—and that’s a completely wrong way of assessing impact. If a charity is working on a lousy program with very minimal overhead, it’s still lousy.

Instead, consider these factors: scale (how big is the issue in terms of suffering or loss of happiness), neglect (how many resources have already been devoted to it), and tractability (how easy is the problem to solve).

In the U.S., criminal justice is perhaps the most promising cause. It’s unusually tractable at the moment because both left and right want to address it politically. And it’s a humanitarian problem because America incarcerates far more people than other countries, so there’s potential for huge impact.

Then there's education—an important yet overrated cause. People [tend to] think about its scale, but not the factors of neglect or tractability. It’s already vastly popular, and therefore it’s very hard to make a difference.

We also don’t know much about what leads to improved educational outcomes in the U.S., and since institutions vary greatly from one country to another, it’s hard to evaluate what's translatable.

To donate your money more effectively, I suggest checking out GiveWell, which offers a comprehensive list of vetted charities.

We think of giving as something that’s good to do, but not something that makes you bad if you don’t. Failing to help other people is not as bad as, say, stealing or lying.

What about personal consumption choices—how much impact can they really have?

Most cases of ethical consumerism are a bit of a red herring. Doing good through purchases is not the best way to do good.

Take fair trade. Although the idea is positive, it can harm non-fair-trade producers because a product like coffee gets overproduced and then its prices fall.

Instead, I’d suggest buying products made in the poorest countries, like coffee beans from Ethiopia rather than Costa Rica.

An even better way to make an impact through personal consumption is to cut chicken, eggs, and pork from your diet, which could help reduce 90% of animal suffering from factory farming—which is vast and largely neglected as a cause.

How can effective altruism help inform better career choices?

A third of students claim that making a difference is essential in their choice of career, yet hardly anyone has work-related passions.

What drives meaning isn’t following what you’re personally passionate about—it’s doing something the world really needs, and knowing that, as a result of your life, people are significantly better off.

Beyond biomedical research and the social sciences, entrepreneurship comes to mind. And it doesn’t need to be a nonprofit—there are exceptional socially valuable for-profits too.

How easy is it to adopt the principles of effective altruism?

Very easy! There are small things anyone can do to make an outsized impact.

Donate money in a reasoned, evidence-based way by evaluating what would be the best bang for your charitable buck, the same way you would when buying a laptop.

It may seem obvious when you're spending on yourself—but it should be just as obvious when you're spending on someone else.

You can also get involved with the effective altruism community by hosting a meet-up, joining a Facebook group, or telling your friends about these ideas to help change their mind-sets.

Currently, we think of giving as something that’s good to do, but not something that makes you bad if you don’t. Failing to help other people is not as bad as, say, stealing or lying.

I’d like to change the norms so that it’s obvious that helping others is part of what it means to live a good life.

RELATED: Raising Do-Gooders: How to Inspire Kids to Give


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