Philanthropy is a melding of logic and emotion.
In The Seven Faces of Philanthropy (Jossey-Bass, Inc. Publishers, 1994), authors Russ Alan Prince and Karen Maru File define seven types or “faces” of donor, based upon their primary motivations for giving. One of those faces is the Altruist. According to Prince and File, altruists give in order to grow spiritually, and they believe that giving is a moral imperative, particularly for the wealthy. They also believe that altruism– giving out of unselfish concern for the welfare of others — is the only real philanthropy.
Hard to argue with the virtue of altruism, right?
So, what is effective altruism, and how is it different than just plain altruism?
Effective altruism is the practice of trying to do the most good for the most people. According to the Centre for Effective Altruism, it is both a field of research that aims to identify the most effective ways of helping others, and a community of practice where people use the results of that research to try to make the world better.
A key tenet of effective altruism is that every life has equal value, so resources should be put to use in a manner to improve the most lives possible. That sounds irrefutable, doesn’t it? Every human life has equal value. Can’t argue with that.
The practice of allocating philanthropic dollars according to effective altruism, though, is more challenging. Effective altruism means that if you can contribute an amount of money to an organization that would save the lives of two children in your hometown but contributing the same amount to another organization would save the lives of ten children in a far-off country, you should give the money to that second organization. In measures of lives saved, that is more effective.
I thought charity starts at home.
As Will Shakespeare (or rather, Hamlet) would say, there’s the rub. Philanthropy, love for humanity put into action, is a melding of logic and emotion. The head and the heart. Advocates for the practice of effective altruism would say that their approach does just that, yet one might argue that it leans more on logic, the head. There’s a place for that, indeed, as knowing where the most good is accomplished for each dollar is valuable information as we make our own philanthropic choices.
A key tenet of effective altruism is that every life has equal value, so resources should be put to use in a manner to improve the most lives possible.
GiveWell, an organization founded on the principles of effective altruism, is a resource for those seeking independent research on charities to determine those that do the most good for the most people. (I mentioned GiveWell in my earlier blog post on charity ratings.) As they say, “We search for the charities that save or improve lives the most per dollar.” They also accept donations and distribute them to their most highly rated organizations, focusing on making a meaningful difference for some of the poorest people in the world. An aspect of this site I like best is its transparency. The staff is clear about the reasons behind their choices as well as related concerns, and they publish information on what they consider to be their mistakes.
If you are interested in learning more about effective altruism, effectivealtruism.org is a good place to start. They have a rich source of articles, videos, and books linked on the site as well as a robust FAQ section. The topic has also been addressed extensively in the media over the last few years, including in this article in The Washington Post.
Giving is not one-size-fits-all.
The tenets of effective altruism are foundational for many people in focusing their philanthropic efforts and, in some cases, framing other life choices. Understanding these principles can be useful to all of us in our philanthropic decisions. Ultimately, it’s up to each of us to determine how and where we want to make our difference for others and how the scale of logic and emotion tips for us.