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Effective Altruism Is Changing How We Think About Charity

27 September 2016 at 8:46 am
Michael Dello-Iacovo
Combining evidence and good intentions – in other words effective altruism – is the key to maximising social impact, writes Michael Dello-Iacovo, acting CEO for Effective Altruism Australia.

Michael Dello-Iacovo | 27 September 2016 at 8:46 am


Effective Altruism Is Changing How We Think About Charity
27 September 2016 at 8:46 am

Combining evidence and good intentions – in other words effective altruism – is the key to maximising social impact, writes Michael Dello-Iacovo, acting CEO for Effective Altruism Australia.

From 2003, almost 3,000 school girls in Western Australia were given electronic baby dolls to create the experience of being a mother. The researchers hoped that it would reduce teenage pregnancy rates. Some level of skepticism might be expected, but you might be surprised by just how poorly it performed. According to a recent study published in The Lancet, this intervention had the opposite effect to what was intended: it actually increased pregnancy rates.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated event. There are countless examples of well-intended social interventions which sound like great ideas but have fallen flat (such as Scared Straight, which inadvertently increased crime rates instead of decreasing them). David Anderson, previously assistant director at the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy (now working at the Arnold Foundation), has said that as many as “75 per cent or more [of social programs evaluated] turn out to produce small or no effects, and, in some cases negative effects”.

It is hard, as individuals, to determine which programs will work, let alone which programs are the best. There are too many charities and just too much information for any one person to work it all out. Luckily, independent charity evaluators are emerging to research the cost effectiveness of charities so that donors can make informed choices. Historically, evaluators have focused too strongly on overhead costs, which may have little bearing on the actual good that a charity can do. GiveWell (for poverty and global health charities) and Animal Charity Evaluators (for animal charities) have undertaken research to pick the best charities, focusing on finding evidence-based programs with a high social impact.

Effective altruism is a growing movement of people who want to combine the heart and the head to make the world a better place. Too often, we see kind-hearted people have their generous donation wasted because the program ended up having an undesired effect. The recent social intervention with electronic baby dolls is no exception. Effective altruism simply involves asking yourself: “How can I, as an individual with limited time, resources and money, do the most good that I can?” This is a difficult question and doesn’t have an easy answer, but by asking it, being honest and using evidence and reason to make our decisions, we can begin to enhance the positive impact we have on the world.

One way of doing a lot of good that is pursued by many effective altruists is called “earning to give”, which involves taking a high-paid job for example in finance, consulting or computer science in order to donate more to the most effective causes. Some have criticised this approach and instead encouraged direct work and involvement in the Not for Profit sector. To be fair to these critics, it is true that good leaders in charity are not easy to find. But the point is that earning to give is another option one of many paths open to each of us and it might be just as impactful or even more so.

Imagine being able to donate $1 million in the first few years of your career. This is exactly what Matt Wage has done by taking a job on Wall Street after his philosophy degree rather than entering academia or the Not for Profit sector. This way, one could potentially coax several good charity leaders out of private sector roles. As a simple example, imagine how much worse off the world would be had Bill Gates gone into charity without making several billion dollars first. According to some estimates, by 2012 Gates had already given away over US$28 billion and saved close to six million lives. Billionaire Dustin Moskovitz has taken on board the principles of effective altruism and has pledged to put the money he earned co-founding Facebook and Asana to good use, and founded the philanthropic organisation Good Ventures with his wife Cari.

However, effective altruists certainly don’t neglect the importance of doing direct work through a career. Not for Profit 80,000 Hours researches the most high impact careers and provides coaching for people at all stages of their working life to help them pick a career that has the best mix of personal fit and social impact. While earning to give gets a lot of attention, 80,000 Hours doesn’t recommend that every altruistically minded person goes into the private sector to earn and donate a large sum of money (80,000 Hours suggests that under 20 per cent of people should earn to give). It depends on a range of things, including skills and personal fit.

Some have criticised effective altruism as not focusing enough on the underlying systemic issues in society, which others have argued is untrue. As stated above, effective altruism is simply the question of how one can do the most good. There is no reason why this couldn’t involve working on systemic issues, and for many effective altruists, it does.

In 2014, Australians gave over $6.8 billion to charity. We are a generous people, and we should certainly be proud of this. But we need to make sure that $6.8 billion is spent as effectively as possible. GiveWell estimates that, for an average of around $4,600, a donor can save a human life by giving to the Against Malaria Foundation. This is one of the best opportunities we have to directly help people today, and we shouldn’t take that opportunity lightly.

Effective Altruism Australia exists to help Australian donors maximise the impact of their donations by using the research of charity evaluators such as GiveWell to identify the best giving opportunities.

Good intentions alone will not pave a path to a better world. They must be combined with evidence and sound reason so that we can take advantage of the best opportunities for doing good that lay before us.

About the author: Michael Dello-Iacovo is the acting CEO for Effective Altruism Australia, and is a PhD candidate at the University of New South Wales where he is looking at the uses of geophysics for space resource utilisation and asteroid risk mitigation. Dello-Iacovo co-founded The Life You Can Save Adelaide and has previously worked with Santos as a geophysicist and Charity Science as a research analyst.


  • Rebecca Thorpe says:

    Interesting. I just had a look at the Give Well website for a not-for-profit I’m involved with as a volunteer and I have to say their review is perplexing. It poses many questions about the NFP that are easily answered by looking at its website. It also questions the return on investment, when this particular NFP is very strong on evaluation and ensuring the money is best spent where it is needed. For example, one program I know of that was running in Vietnam was assessed and deemed unnecessary, and thus dropped to focus on other programs. The program was given enough time to run to see if it was worthy, but was also cut off as soon as it was established it wasn’t achieving its goals.
    This same NFP has excellent ratings from other charity ratings agencies on similar measures, so I question whether Give Well is the best measure of success. They seem to approach measurement in an odd way “we looked at this organisation once and dismissed it and have not revisited it since, despite the NFP getting in touch with additional information and asking us to assess them again”. Hmmmm.

    • Michael Dello-Iacovo says:

      Hi Rebecca, thanks for commenting!

      Without knowing which NFP you are referring to, and of course not speaking on behalf of GiveWell, I can suggest some possible answers.

      GiveWell work with the charities themselves when conducting their reviews. It might be that information appears to be missing because the review was conducted some time ago. A charity might have a very strong focus on evaluation and might get a particular intervention to a point where it is highly efficient, and it’s commendable that your organisation is so open to change, but unfortunately so interventions are better than others. Given the number of charities and programs in the world, it’s possible that many good charities won’t make it into the top recommendations, since there will inevitably be other charities that are more effective.

      There are a lot of charities, and GiveWell can’t analyse them all. Perhaps they are constrained and haven’t analysed your organisation again in favour of looking at other NFPs.

      I’m unsure which charity evaluators you are looking at, but I will note that some charity evaluators may disagree on the metric to be optimised for. GiveWell use something like ‘well being’, or ‘quality adjusted life years’. Other evaluators in the past have used things like overhead costs, which isn’t the best measure. Others still might use different metrics, and thus come up with different answers.

      If you told me the name of the organisation (totally understandable if you don’t want to do that) I might be able to look a little closer and understand a little better what happened.

  • Ted Sherwood says:

    Here’s my small contribution to effectiveness. In many cases, much more disclosure is required before we get to anywhere near the required level of information in order to be able to assess ‘effectiveness’.

  • Rebecca Thorpe says:

    Hiya Michael,
    I didn’t name them because I’m not a spokesperson, but it is Room to Read. They have an incredible track record and deliver an awful lot. For example, they’ve become the world’s largest publisher of children’s books in languages other than English, which get published for just $1 each, which covers off not only printing but paying local authors and illustrators.
    Some of the questions GiveWell listed for Room to Read were perplexing, eg.
    Are the books in good condition?
    How many books are in the native language versus English? etc
    A) The answers are easily obtained online or by contacting Room to Read
    B) Are they really what they are most concerned about?
    How about having reached 10 million children so far? How about children being able to go to school who wouldn’t otherwise do so?
    They also questioned how involved the communities are in the schools, which is just the most ridiculous question given the way Room to Read operates. Communities approach Room to Read to have a school built, and they must have some “skin in the game” by providing the land, helping build it etc, which ensures they care for the school in the long-term.
    I was just disturbed that people may think Room to Read doesn’t deliver based on what GiveWell says about it. The opposite is the case.
    A girl goes to school for a year for $300 via Room to Read, and an educated girl is more likely to marry later, have less children, vaccinate the children she does have and ensure they get an education too. This is ongoing, life changing stuff. Millions of children are reading books in their native languages because of Room to Read.
    Room to Read’s formal motto is “World Change Starts with Educated Children”. Our informal one is “Get Shit Done (GSD)” — and we do.
    Almost all the information they wanted is easily available online, and anything else would be answered simply by asking Room to Read. That’s why I don’t understand why they ignored Room to Read when they asked to be reviewed again.
    Have a look at what they wrote:

    And have a look at what Room to Read does:

    If you’re not impressed by what Room to Read does, how effective they are at delivering important outcomes, and how they deliver all this with very low overheads in an innovative fashion, then I’d be very surprised.

  • Rebecca Thorpe says:

    Is there a particular reason that my comment wasn’t published?

  • Ellie Cooper says:

    Hi Rebecca,
    Thanks for getting in touch. Your comment was published, and Michael replied to you. Please let us know if it’s not visible to you and we will try to solve the issue.

    • Rebecca Thorpe says:

      I posted a further, quite lengthy reply to Michael after his reply to me last month. It was in grey for some time and said “awaiting moderation”. When I looked back again today it was no longer there and hadn’t been published either. There was nothing controversial in it, I don’t understand why it wasn’t published.

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