How to Increase Effective Altruism

Caviola, Schubert and Greene have a good review of the reasons why effective and ineffective altruism attract donations. First, they note the large gains from making altruism more effective.

A US$100 donation can save a person in the developing world from trachoma, a disease that causes blindness [1]. By contrast, it costs US$50 000 to train a guide dog to help a blind person in the developed world. This large difference in impact per dollar is not unusual. According to expert estimates, the most effective charities are often 100 times more effective than typical charities [2].

…Most research on charitable giving focuses on the amounts that donors give [4]. However, if the societal goal of charitable giving is to improve human (or animal) well-being, it is probably more important to focus on the effectiveness of giving….you can double your impact by doubling the amount that you give to typical charities, but you can multiply your impact by a factor of ten, 100, or even 1000 by choosing to support more effective charities [2].

The authors then consider a number of cognitive factors or biases that allow or encourage ineffective altruism. For example, people tend to give to charities that they are emotionally connected with regardless of effectiveness and they also like to split donations across multiple charities in part because they have scope neglect (“a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic.” to quote Stalin who correctly identified the principle even though he was more concerned about how to get away with killing millions than saving millions).

One particular feature of the paper that I like is that instead of simply advocating overcoming these biases they think about ways to use them. For example, you can’t stop people giving to ineffective but emotionally attractive charities but because people like to split and don’t pay attention to scope you can get them to split their donation with an effective charity.

…people tend to support charities that are emotionally appealing, paying little attention to effectiveness. However, there is evidence that many people do care about effectiveness and that information about effectiveness can make giving more effective [2,21]. Combining these insights suggests a new strategy to increase the effectiveness of charitable giving: many donors may be amenable to splitting their donations between an emotionally appealing charity and a highly effective charity, especially if provided with effectiveness information.

This strategy can work especially well if you combine it with matching funds or funds to “cover overhead” which are given by a relatively small number of rich people who can be swayed by philosophical arguments in favor of effective altruism.

Hat tip: Steve Stewart-Williams.

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