A New Donor Movement Seeks to Put Data Ahead of Passion

by Ben Gose

The Chronicle of Philanthropy, November 3, 2013

Sam Bankman-Fried, who will graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the spring, recently aced an internship at a finance company, and he thinks he could make a nice salary putting his math skills to work on stock-trading strategies.

But Mr. Bankman-Fried is even more keen on making the world a better place, and he’s passionate about animal rights. He has considered pursuing work at the Humane League, a charity that focuses on reducing cruelty to farm animals.

Mr. Bankman-Fried is also an active participant in the “effective altruism” movement, an effort to apply data and reason rather than passion alone to determine the most effective way to give time and money.

Effective altruism is a small but fast-growing movement, and if it takes hold, it will probably pay big dividends for nonprofits that work in the developing world and could also benefit charities focused on animal rights and the future of humanity. But it could also hurt charities that can’t show that they save or improve lives.

Rather than taking the smaller salary at the Humane League to improve the lot of animals, Mr. Bankman-Fried is seriously considering what effective altruists call “earning to give”: taking a six-figure salary at a finance company, living on a fraction of it, and sending the rest to the Humane League.

“I would probably make enough money that the Humane League could hire many people and accomplish much more than it would if I went to work for them and started handing out leaflets,” Mr. Bankman-Fried says.

Doing the Most Good

The effective-altruism movement received a major boost in March, when a TED talk by the ethicist Peter Singer introduced the concept to the public. The talk has been viewed online more than 600,000 times.

“It’s asking that ancient question that Socrates walked around asking: ‘How are we to live?’” says Mr. Singer, who gives about a third of his income each year to charities. “One answer is that we ought to live so as to do the most good with our lives as we can.”

This past summer, weeklong conferences on effective altruism were held in Oakland, Calif., and in Wales. Fittingly, the Oakland gathering, which included presentations by Mr. Singer and others, was held in houses, and most of the participants crashed on couches to save money.

And the movement now has some philanthropic star power, with Cari Tuna and her husband, Dustin Moskovitz, the billionaire co-founder of Facebook, planning to use effective-altruism principles for a significant portion of their giving.

Originated in a Chat

The movement began gelling several years ago when a group of young people—primarily twenty-somethings with backgrounds in philosophy, math, and finance—began to chat online about ways to do the most good for the most people. In practice, most effective altruists either seek to increase their earnings or rein in their spending so they can give more. They then try to make their donations as useful as possible by giving to what they consider the top groups dealing with the world’s most pressing problems.

In 2009, Toby Ord and Will MacAskill, then graduate students in philosophy at Oxford University, started Giving What We Can, an international group whose members have pledged to give at least 10 percent of their income to anti-poverty charities. Mr. MacAskill later helped start 80,000 Hours, a group that offers career advice (the name plays off the number of hours worked in a typical career) to people who want to make the greatest positive impact on the world. The group often endorses the “earning to give” approach.

Mr. MacAskill, who coined the term “effective altruism” two years ago, says the standard philanthropic advice to give according to your passions is misguided, since it may lead donors to charities that aren’t making much of a difference or that aren’t cost-effective. He argues that the best charities in some developing countries are saving lives for a few thousand dollars a year.

“If you give locally and think that’s the best way of doing good, then you’re saying that saving the life of someone close to you is worth 10 times as much as saving the life of someone in the developing world,” he says.

Many members of the effective-altruism movement say their worldview shifted after they read Famine, Affluence, and Morality, a widely assigned essay by Mr. Singer, in high school or college.

In the 1972 essay, Mr. Singer, now a professor at Princeton University, writes about witnessing starving Bangladesh Liberation War refugees and argues that people in wealthy countries have a moral duty to give generously to reduce suffering in developing countries.

Forty-one years later, Mr. Singer is just as passionate about that idea. He has started his own charity, The Life You Can Save, based on his 2009 book of the same name. The group encourages people to make a public pledge to give a percentage of their income to organizations that help people living in extreme poverty.

Dissenting Opinion

The movement’s rising profile, however, has also led to some criticism.

After The Washington Post published an article about a hedge-fund trader who plans to give the majority of his earnings to the Against Malaria Foundation, David Brooks, an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, wrote an article warning other young people against following the man’s lead. Mr. Brooks argued that taking a job just for the money—even when most of the money is going to a good cause—can be corrosive to the soul.

“I’d think you would be more likely to cultivate a deep soul if you put yourself in the middle of the things that engaged you most seriously,” he wrote. “If your profoundest interest is dying children in Africa or Bangladesh, it’s probably best to go to Africa or Bangladesh, not to Wall Street.”

But advocates of the movement say they’re passionate about the very idea of aligning their lives to achieve the most good—whether that means piling up dollars to give away, working on research to uncover top charities, or proselytizing about effective altruism.

“A lot of people involved in the effective-altruism movement wouldn’t describe it as passionless, purely mental exercise,” says Nick Beckstead, a research fellow at Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute, which assesses long-term risks to human civilization. “Instead they would say, ‘My passion is trying to figure out rationally and carefully how to accomplish the greatest good with my life.’”

Calculated Decisions

The most important part of the movement, many effective altruists say, is encouraging people to forgo emotional or sentimental giving and instead do hard-nosed calculations about their charitable giving.

“The person who gives 2 percent of income and gives to the most cost-efficient charities is doing far more good than the person who gives 10 percent of their income to an average charity,” Mr. MacAskill says.

The biggest focus areas for effective altruists are global health and poverty, but many also support animal welfare, in part because of Mr. Singer’s dedication to that cause. People interested in the “far future,” such as Mr. Beckstead, are also drawn to the movement.

Luke Muehlhauser, executive director of the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, which focuses on the long-term risks of artificial intelligence, says donations that seek to preserve humanity will help far more people than gifts focused on the here and now.

“If you’re trying not to do just some good but the most good you can, given your limited resources, the best thing to do is to make sure that the far future is really good instead of bad or nonexistent,” Mr. Muehlhauser says.

Starting Young

The movement so far has appealed mostly to young people. The group 80,000 Hours now has more than 1,000 members, and Mr. MacAskill estimates their average age is late 20s to early 30s. The average age of the more than 300 people who have made pledges on the Giving What We Can site is only slightly older, he says. Rutgers, Harvard University, and Princeton University all have student groups focused on effective altruism.

Ben Kuhn, a junior at Harvard with an interest in computer science, is considering pursuing the relatively high salaries in that field as part of an “earning to give” strategy.

“People who start young have an advantage,” Mr. Kuhn says. “You never have to adjust your standard of living downward.”

Wider Appeal

The big question now is whether effective altruism can appeal to a broader audience, including older generations, who control most of the country’s wealth.

“So many people are eager to do good in the world,” says Eitan Fischer, a recent Yale University graduate who founded Effective Animal Activism, focused on identifying the best animal charities. “This movement ought to appeal very widely, if it’s done with the right messaging.”

The Life You Can Save, the charity Mr. Singer founded, is now seeking sponsors for what it calls “giving games,” in which the organizer would meet with a group of people—perhaps high-school students in a classroom or adults in a restaurant—and hand them real dollars to give away. The organizer would then engage the group in a lively debate about what types of charities are most deserving of the money, says Charlie Bresler, head of The Life You Can Save.

Mr. Bresler quit a lucrative corporate job—as president of the Men’s Wearhouse retail chain—to lead the charity after coming across Mr. Singer’s writings and reaching out to him.

The goal of the giving games, Mr. Bresler says, is to spread the idea that Americans have an obligation to fight global poverty. Doing no harm in the world, he says, isn’t enough.

“We’re beginning a long process of cultural change,” he says. “We really are in our infancy.”