Today’s donors increasingly want to achieve maximum impact through their giving and the philosophy and social movement known as ‘Effective Altruism’ (EA) seems, at face value, to enable this. Urging donors to ‘do the most good’, to ‘do good better’ and to ‘give what they can’, EA applies evidence and reason to determine the most effective methods by which donors can help improve the world. It’s an intellectually rigorous movement with a growing appeal: the GiveWell charity predicts it will give away $1 billion annually in grants by 2025. So what is EA and why does it polarise audiences?
EA as a movement first emerged in the 1970s but its roots go back to the Methodist teachings of John Wesley. It uses a utilitarian calculus of maximum human benefit to direct philanthropic giving towards saving or improving the most lives. Based on the use of evidence and careful reasoning, EA claims to maximise the ‘good’ that can be done in terms of global improvement. Its focus on impact measurement was not new, but its emphasis on a single cause – of saving as many lives as possible – was seen as a radical departure from the philanthropic approaches that had gone before. For the first time, taking action to prevent ill in the world was expressed as a moral duty and not a choice.
What’s to like?
EA has many strengths. It is principled, based on strong evidence, and since effectiveness is an important motivator for many donors to give, the movement is attributed with encouraging new donors to start giving, existing donors to give more and both groups to become better informed about the impact they achieve. EA attracts donors comfortable with metrics and quantifiable data, and with backgrounds in technological, scientific and analytical disciplines. Think Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and Mark Zuckerberg. The emphasis on analysis and evidence may also encourage more donors to become better informed about their giving, another positive.
Despite its strengths, EA is criticised for being short-sighted and dismissive of other forms of giving. Not all are won over by the movement’s focus on saving lives as the only way of doing good. Although attractive to a new demographic, EA may actually deter some donors from giving, put off by its intellectual snobbery, its extremist and uncompromising emphasis on data and its disregard for personal connection to a cause. Those who give to locally focused charities or to causes they know and care about are dismissed as employing ‘ineffective passion’, or for being irrational, yet in a pluralist society, all donors should have the right to decide how they direct their philanthropic giving.
There are also concerns about the practical and philosophical implications of the movement’s reliance on data and impact measurement. The use of Quality-Adjusted-Life-Year (QALY) measurements to assess the opportunity cost of giving is unpalatable to many and the EA approach also discourages investment in charities which deal in complex solutions to deliver change, like Habitat for Humanity. It also jeopardises philanthropy’s ability to fund innovative projects and take risks in experimentation, one of its most crucial roles. Also criticised for ignoring the causes of poverty and addressing only the symptoms, EA is accused of reinforcing existing power structures instead of challenging them.
The impact and importance of decent housing is undeniable, and issues around housing poverty are part of a complex ecosystem of challenges – the environmental impact of constructing new houses, the significant health risks of inadequate housing, the links between poor housing and access to education – none of which can be addressed without deep, long-term interventions. Few would argue that housing was unimportant, but the benefits are impossible to calculate in the context of EA, posing a question to its proponents – does focussing only on counting the number of lives saved disregard the value of more holistic solutions, and to what cost?
Horses for courses
So, as with other considerations in the field of philanthropy, there are multiple viewpoints. The many weaknesses inherent within the movement of EA do not mean it should be dismissed out of hand. A more strategic and impact-oriented approach can and has generated confidence in what philanthropy can achieve but it needs to be applied in the right way to avoid stifling the philanthropic impulse. If EA can incentivise other philanthropic movements to hone their arguments and approaches, help charity leaders aim for and achieve greater transparency or contribute to the development of a universal measurement of well-being, then the movement can improve philanthropic thinking in a positive way. We need to encourage more people to think about and talk about philanthropy but in these conversations we should continue to embrace both heart and head, for the benefit of the public good.
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