Much of the work that we focus on at Effective Give is inspired by a growing movement called Effective Altruism. I first stumbled into this community in 2013 after reading The Life You Could Save written by Peter Singer – a moral philosopher and Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. Singer is not the founder of the EA movement, but he was, and continues to be, an influential supporter of the core tenants of Effective Altruism. I can still clearly recall a moral dilemma from the first chapter of the book that functioned as a trailhead to the journey of exploring how we can help better the world.
On your way to work, you pass a small pond. On hot days, children sometimes play in the pond, which is only about knee-deep. The weather’s cool today, though, and the hour is early, so you are surprised to see a child splashing about in the pond. As you get closer, you see that it is a very young child, just a toddler, who is flailing about, unable to stay upright or walk out of the pond. You look for the parents or babysitter, but there is no one else around. The child is unable to keep his head above the water for more than a few seconds at a time. If you don’t wade in and pull him out, he seems likely to drown. Wading in is easy and safe, but you will ruin the new shoes you bought only a few days ago, and get your suit wet and muddy. By the time you hand the child over to someone responsible for him, and change your clothes, you’ll be late for work. What should you do? – Peter Singer, The Life You Can Save
I am sure that your response is as simple as it seemed to be for me the first time I read this passage. Who cares about the shoes, the suit, or being late for work – given the opportunity we are jumping in to help the child. Then Singer hits us with a ton of bricks…
10 million children under the age of 5 were dying per year for causes related to poverty. An overwhelming number of these deaths are completely preventable with low-cost interventions that are readily available in most developed nations. While this data has improved marginally since the publishing of Singer’s book, we are still facing these very tragic statistics globally. A point that Singer goes on to make is that nearly all of us could save the lives of others with fairly little effort or sacrifice. In answering the hypothetical dilemma—where we can see the child drowning—most of us state that we are willing to help, but contrasted with reality, most are not taking the necessary steps needed to save the proverbial drowning child.
At the time I was reading Singer’s book I was an active donor, fundraiser, volunteer, and was in the process of launching a non-profit. However, I was not yet thinking about philanthropy in the context of optimizing impact. I was not very strategic, and I was generally responding to the most obvious opportunities. I was reactive. I always felt that my heart was in the right place, but never realized until reading more about Effective Altruism that my head needed to be there as well. There is no doubt that many would-be beneficiaries missed out because I was not yet focusing my volunteer and fundraising efforts with adequate intention.
Truly effective philanthropy requires a balance of both the head and the heart. We must be both empathetic and strategic. That is the foundation of Effective Altruism.
Effective Altruism is a philosophy and social movement that advocates using evidence and reasoning to determine the most effective ways to benefit others.1 It is concerned with helping the proverbial drowning child and challenges us to think about the responsibility that we each have be good stewards of our resources for the purpose of contributing to the greater good. We should care about Effective Altruism for the same reasons that we care to make any positive impact. Effective Altruism provides a framework for us to do good, better. It provides us with the opportunity to do the most with both our head and heart to relieve the suffering of others. I have jokingly used an analogy to introduce Effective Altruism to people in the past – Effective Altruism is what Mother Teresa and Albert Einstein would have named their child – something that marries compassion and intellect to produce something truly beautiful.
While we are still working to collect enough data to substantiate our hypothesis, it is our estimation that the U.S. Non-Profit sector is operating at a fraction of its potential in terms of impact. Through better data, greater accountability, and additional resources that help donors measure and optimize impact we can work to close this gap within our lifetime.