Oct 2021 Week 2 – Effective Altruism

October is a special month at the company where I work. It is called the GIVE campaign month. GIVE is a corporate program focused on reaching the company’s philanthropic goals and involves participation of employees in volunteering and donating. Through GIVE campaign held each October, the company has carved out a whole month to focus on charitable activities through employee engagement. Employee contributions of volunteering time, money and product are matched by the company which magnifies the impact of giving.

This year I got involved in the GIVE campaign and am leading a committee for my organization. My team planned and organized events where folks can volunteer or donate money. One of the events we are organizing is a session on Effective Altruism by GiveWell. Effective Altruism was a novel concept that I came across and had never heard before. There was a coincidence that Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported on Effective Altruism the same week  (https://www.wsj.com/articles/can-your-career-help-change-the-world-you-have-80-000-hours-to-try-11633858202?mod=wsjhp_columnists_pos3). Since this was something new I came across, thought of sharing here.

When I heard of the effective altruism session, I thought it sounded like a sophisticated name for a session on how to donate effectively. The subject seemed interesting because we often donate across multiple causes and it is good to know how it can be optimized. Little did I know that effective altruism is actually a growing movement/organization among a niche group of people. I learnt about that from the WSJ article. I realized it is the same organization as that is connected to the event I am organizing. So that got me quite curious. On browsing the website (https://www.effectivealtruism.org/), I was amazed at the breadth and depth of the content. The organization even provides career advice, job board and other resources regarding the type of careers you can choose to make the most impact in the world.

Taking a step back, what exactly is effective altruism? Based on what I read, effective altruism is an evidence-based approach to making positive changes in the world. In the words of the organization, “Effective altruism is using reason and evidence to do the most good. Effective altruism is about doing good better. Effective altruism is a philosophy and social movement focused on answering one question: How can we best help others?”. Steven Pinker, a well known psychologist and author, describes it as follows: “Effective altruism — efforts that actually help people rather than making you feel good or helping you show off — is one of the great new ideas of the 21st century.”

Ever since I remember, I was drawn towards volunteering and social work. But I struggled with thinking about how and where I could best utilize my skills and education. I volunteered for several non-profits during my school and college days. While those were all very rewarding experiences, I could not choose a single cause that resonated most with me; there were too many. It felt that there are so many problems in the world and so less time individually to work on those. Now that I am earning for myself, I try to donate my bit in addition to volunteering. The same question arises though. Usually, my approach has been to donate based on familiarity with the organization or recommendations from those I know. But not sure how effective that is. In other words, not sure if my dollars are getting the best return on investment. I think this prioritization problem is faced by many who have the privilege of time and/or money. Obviously, not everyone thinks much about how to best contribute, especially as there is plenty of other more pressing decision making in our lives. But if one has the luxury, there is definitely some value in giving a thought to it. That is where I think the Effective Altruism movement is quite relevant. Additionally, this movement could provide a unique opportunity to connect with like-minded folks across the world, all thinking about the same problem.

On one hand, the best example of successful evidence based philanthropy I can think of is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. No doubt the foundation operates on a totally different scale of money than most individuals or organizations. But donating effectively also becomes more relevant with more wealth as the money could easily go in wrong hands or not result in any material outcome. There is ample reason to use a scientific approach in social work and with that, Gates Foundation has made a lasting impact in many parts of the world.

However, on the flip side, over-pivoting on a logical approach and targeting a certain end result or “metrics” may be detrimental as well. One, it may defeat the very purpose of giving. Giving and expecting something in return is more of a trade. At the core of philanthropy, lies trust and belief in others; that donation recipients can improve the society. These aspects cannot be measured scientifically. So, there needs to be a fine balance of judgment and rationalization. Two, I feel that over-optimization or over-engineering something hampers innovation over time. It gets brownie points because what is measured gets rewarded. But it often leaves less room for flexibility or for trying other approaches that may be unfavorable in the short run. Three, when we try to focus on the best or the top, we essentially become narrow minded and overlook a large percentage of equally satisfying opportunities that may exist beyond. The biggest problems or the most impactful organizations receive lot of attention in general. But there are plenty of small non-profits or groups of people working towards helping the society in some way or the other.

For me, it boils down to the people involved in the causes. I feel that sometimes, it is about taking a chance and believing in someone or something. A small donation to a small group may make a significant difference, even if in a small section of society. That small donation may help a non-profit try an idea even if it fails. Just the fact that someone believes in and supports the organization may be much needed validation for them to continue operating. Maybe my time and money will be better used in helping a small non-profit scale over time. In absolute terms, a dollar will be more valuable to a smaller organization compared to a larger one. So, I often feel that contributions to a smaller organization may be more effective than the same contribution to large established non-profits such as American Red Cross that are already receiving plentiful donations from other sources. Also, the line of sight is clearer when donating to smaller organizations. Not suggesting that large organizations should be skipped but instead I feel that small scale charities should not be missed. I am also not suggesting that organizations like Effective Altruism will recommend only larger non-profits and popular causes. But it is good to be cognizant of the fact that logical approaches involve data and there are higher chances that smaller, developing organizations will filter out. The marketing and outreach may not be established enough for some organizations to be noticed by global institutions.

That being said, the goal of this blog post was to create awareness about Effective Altruism so I definitely recommended taking a look at it. As I said, it is a very prudent thought and makes a lot of sense. Just don’t forget healthy skepticism.

Last but not the least, a saying I deeply believe in is that charity begins at home. If not, then charity is pretentious and people pleasing.

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