Effective Altruism Gains Momentum

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Proponents of so-called “effective altruism” have gained footing in recent years. That’s evidenced by the growing role of organizations like GiveWell and The Life You Can Save, which help so-called effective altruists select organizations to support. That help is based on objective data about the organizations’ effectiveness at helping others.

As more information on results becomes available, nonprofits will need to adjust some of their reporting and marketing practices to better appeal to the “altruists.” Take some steps now to focus your message on your impact.

The movement in a nutshell

To appeal to effective altruists, you first must understand what drives them. Effective altruism — also known as “strategic giving” — doesn’t focus on how effective a nonprofit is with its funds. Rather, it looks at how effective donors can be with their money and time. Instead of being guided by what makes them feel good, altruists use evidence-based data and effective reasoning to determine how to help others the most.

Effective altruists generally consider a cause to be high impact to the extent it’s:

  • Large in scale (it affects many people by a great amount),
  • Highly neglected (few people are working on it), and
  • Highly solvable (additional resources will make a substantial dent in the problem).

For example, a high impact cause may be to support the Against Malaria Foundation, which distributes long-lasting mosquito nets. Malaria is widespread but easily preventable with such nets. A donation of $2–$3 is estimated by the organization to protect two people for several years.

Because they strive to get the most bang for their buck, some effective altruists focus on nonprofits that help people in the developing world rather than those that work with U.S. residents. So, instead of donating to a U.S. school, an altruist interested in education might donate to an organization that provides nutrition to children in poor countries — because improving their diet also will improve their ability to learn.


Effective altruism isn’t without its skeptics. Some argue, for example, that planting doubt in the minds of would-be donors over whether they’re making the right choices could deter them from giving at all. Pressuring them to do additional research might dissuade them, too.

Others question whether the focus on measurable outcomes results in a bias against social movements and arts organizations, whose results are hard to measure. Organizations in those arenas usually work to eliminate broader problems, such as income inequality or oppression, where progress isn’t easily quantified. The critics assert that effective altruism’s approach does little to tackle the societal issues behind many of these problems.

Critics also point out that an evidence-based approach ignores the role that emotional connection plays in charitable donations. When it comes to choosing which organizations to support, givers’ hearts frequently matter more than their heads. Look no further than the donations that pour in after a natural disaster for evidence that such motivation works.

A hybrid approach

A study recently published in Psychological Science, “Impediments to Effective Altruism: The Role of Subjective Preferences in Charitable Giving,” looked at the influence of information on nonprofits’ effectiveness. The researchers found that, even when such information is presented in a way that makes it easy for donors to compare organizations’ effectiveness, donors often choose less effective options that represent their personal preferences. In other words, they donate to the causes that they prefer over those that do the most good.

That’s not to say that effectiveness information doesn’t matter at all. According to the researchers, while donors’ subjective preferences dominate their selection of causes, they will turn to objective information when choosing among charities that support their chosen causes. Thus, nonprofits should develop materials with an emotional pull as well as those that show impact.

Don’t overlook the trend

Traditional charitable giving isn’t going anywhere, but nonprofits shouldn’t ignore the potential benefits of effective altruism. Once donors deem your organization worthy, they may well donate as much as 10% of their income. That kind of money could go a long way toward supporting your mission. For additional information please contact Jonathan Moll, CPA, at 302-225-0660 or click here to contact him.

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