Take, for instance, the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project. The initiative aimed to transform education for children in developing countries by providing them each with a low-cost, pre-loaded laptop. OLPC believed this would empower the students by providing them with the tools to learn and discover on their own.
The organization raised millions of dollars and deployed laptops in many countries. A great concept in theory.
However, the organization ultimately folded because the result was not as expected. The challenges of keeping the devices functional, the lack of teacher training, and the absence of educational context (among other issues) made the initiative way less effective than planned.
Or consider the PlayPump project in Africa, which aimed to provide clean water to rural communities using merry-go-rounds that, when spun by children, would pump up groundwater into a clean water storage tank. The idea was that children would get fun playgrounds, and the parents would get clean water with less effort.
Again, millions of dollars were raised. Over 1,500 PlayPumps were installed. However, the project failed to account for a number of real-world factors. For example, it turned out that children couldn't spin the merry-go-rounds fast or long enough to adequately pump water, leading to significant difficulty obtaining water in many of the communities where PlayPumps were installed.
These are widely-discussed instances of how well-intentioned aid can lead to unexpected, disastrous consequences that render it quite ineffective.
But, although seemingly good concepts often fail, and there are many ineffective causes out there, it may still be easier to save a life or radically alter someone's life for the better than many of us realize.
The question is: how?
Here are some principles you may find valuable to keep in mind when trying to make the world a better place that help your money and time do more good.
📊 Principle 1: Be aware that some charitable efforts help much more than others, but it's hard to tell which is which.
As whence seen in the examples above, not all approaches to helping others work as advertised. Indeed, some of them actually worsen the problems they aim to fix.
Unfortunately, just reading about a charity’s mission and methods is usually not enough to know how impactful it is.
And the fact that a charity is well-known doesn't necessarily mean that its resources are serving their intended purpose.
On the other hand, there are some incredibly effective charities that are tremendously good at using donations to help people. The takeaway, therefore, is not that charity isn't effective, but rather that one must discern to separate the effective ones from those that, despite good intentions, accomplish little.
If you want to test your knowledge? You can take our Charity Effective quiz, and try to guess which social interventions had a positive effect, a negative effect, or no effect, based on a short description.
🔎 Principle 2: Seek lots of strong evidence or strong logical justification to know if a charity is effective
Naturally, virtually all charitable organizations pitch themselves as competent and effective — and most of them believe that they're doing valuable work. But as you've now seen, good intentions aren't enough when it comes to figuring out the best ways to help others.
The reality is the world is highly complex, and what sounds like a great idea may simply not work that well for non-obvious reasons, or it might turn out to not work well or not be very cost-effective at doing good compared to other approaches.
So, how can we figure out what works for doing good?
Method 1: Examining empirical evidence of effectiveness is far and away the most reliable way to determine which charities are worth donating to. Just as some treatments have been proven to work in drug trials, whereas others are highly speculative, some ways of helping the world have a track record that’s been demonstrated through rigorous experiments.
Method 2: Considering the strongest logical arguments in favor of and against giving to that charity. This approach is complementary to looking at empirical evidence, because even the best empirical evidence will usually still require some logical thinking to interpret. Additionally, logical arguments for and against are sometimes the best you can do when working to do good in important areas where there must isn’t much empirical evidence available.
💡 Principle 3: Realize that the causes that help the most are not always the ones that make us feel best
As nice as it can feel to help others out, achieving a large impact often requires valuing the effectiveness of your actions at producing good over (or, at least as much as) the positive emotional side effects that your charitable efforts produce for you.
Suppose, for example, that you volunteer to temporarily foster a puppy from a shelter. If you have a pulse, there’s a good chance you’ll feel emotionally excellent about this decision — puppies are adorable, and since the puppy you’re fostering is in your home every day, you will be constantly reminded that you were personally responsible for saving this puppy from homelessness or death.
While it’s a nice thing to foster a puppy, if what you care about is doing a lot of good for puppykind, there are likely more effective ways you can help.
It's entirely possible, for instance, that you'd be able to help far more furry friends by donating that time or money to a group that has worked for years to figure out cost-effective ways to find permanent homes for stray dogs.
Of course, there are other reasons for fostering a puppy (companionship, excuses to go for walks, and so on). We’re not saying you shouldn’t. We’re just saying that if your goal is to help puppies, you may be able to help far more puppies by doing something that might feel less satisfying than adopting one. And this is true of many charitable causes.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to feel satisfaction or happiness from your charitable actions. In fact, feeling good about charitable work is one of its many rewards.But as an altruist, feeling good shouldn't be your only concern. It’s important to consider how much your actions really help the intended beneficiaries.
⏳ Principle 4: Consider ‘effectiveness’ in terms of how much good occurs for a given amount of money, time, and/or resources
This is one of the most important ideas we'll discuss here. Comparing the amount of good done by various charities on a per dollar spent or per hour contributed basis can help you make sure that your contributions do as much good as possible. Here's an example to help illustrate the point:
You've probably seen private crowdfunding campaigns designed to help specific individuals that you don't know. Crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe routinely highlight successful charitable campaigns that benefit one person or a small group of people, such as a July 2015 campaign that raised $147,395 towards the medical bills for an injured student.
Acts of collective charity on behalf of specific individuals such as these can certainly be heartwarming to think about, and they appeal powerfully to our instincts. But in terms of good done for the given amount of money, time, or resources, they, unfortunately typically aren't very effective at helping others.
By contrast, here's an example what the same $147,395 could've accomplished:
In 2017, the charity evaluation service GiveWell estimated that the Against Malaria Foundation could distribute anti-malarial mosquito nets in Malawi at a cost of $5.30 per net, which translates to a cost of about $3,500 for eachequivalent of one life saved. If the $147,395 donation that went to the aforementioned GoFundMe campaign went to the Against Malaria Foundation instead, the AMF may have been able to distribute as many as 27,810 mosquito nets — thereby protecting thousands of people from the awful effects of malaria, at least for a while — and potentially save as many as 43 lives!
By thinking of effectiveness in terms of the amount of good (e.g., number of lives saved or amount of benefit caused) per dollar, we’re able to compare two seemingly different charitable causes: a GoFundMe for medical bills and anti-malarial bed nets, both of which are trying to improve health.. When we make this comparison, we are able to see that we can do a lot more good (be a lot more effective) if we use a cost-effectiveness lens.
The tendency to give to specific individuals more readily than groups may be rooted deep in our brains.
A 2005 study found that participants felt substantially more willing to help a single sick child, identified by a photo than they were to help a group of eight sick children — even when shown photos of all eight.
This unusual human proclivity to not be sensitive to the number of people being helped can lead us to significantly less effective decisions. It's one of the reasons it's important to remember that effectiveness is about how much good occurs for a given amount of money, time, and/or resources.
🤝 Principle 5: Don't pointlessly compete with others to improve the world
Imagine the following scene:
An extremely sick child lies on a gurney in a hospital operating room. Two surgeons are in the room as well. They argue over who should be allowed to operate on the kid — each believes he'd be better for the job.
The argument escalates into a screaming match. The surgeons stand toe to toe, red-faced, bellowing invective into each others' faces, before one finally grabs his scalpel and moves towards the child with a harrumph. The other surgeon, not to be ignored, tackles the first, dragging him to the ground. They wrestle on the floor, kicking and scratching and still proclaiming their respective suitability for the task at hand, while the child's pulse gradually fades.
This scenario is obviously unrealistic… (in terms of the details, at least). But on a conceptual level, this kind of dispute happens between altruists all the time.
Since charitably-minded people can't all coordinate with each other, they don't always allocate their efforts efficiently.
Some ways to contribute are more obvious or glamorous than others, which means that people tend to flock to certain causes while neglecting others. For instance, when a highly publicized natural disaster draws so much international aid that the victims of other ongoing crises find themselves ignored.
This dynamic leads to literal rivalry between altruists for the privilege of helping those in need — in the form of multiple organizations battling to dominate a certain cause, excessive donations to overfunded charities, competition for jobs in the nonprofit sector, unskilled volunteers crowding out talented professionals, and so forth.
There are plenty of ways to expend your charitable energy and resources that don't already have people lining up to wait for their turn to help. It’s worth trying to find good that you can do, which wouldn’t be done if you weren’t doing it.
What to do next?
With these five important principles in mind, the time has come for action. But what should you do now?
If you found this article interesting, we recommend you take our Leaving Your Mark On The World interactive tool, which will give you a roster of altruistic paths to choose from, such as volunteering for uncommonly effective charities or doing your own research into which altruistic organizations are the most worthy of support. It will also give you some tips for getting started on the path of your choice, based on some of the information about yourself you've provided.
In the end, if you like, you can have your plan for improving the world emailed to you.
We hope that you will find these starting points helpful in your efforts to become a more effective altruist!
If you have some extra time, we also recommend taking our Emotional Obstacles to Doing Good mini-course. This course will help you understand and overcome the most common emotional obstacles people deal with when seeking to do good.
By learning about when your emotions can get in the way of doing good, you’ll be able to make more deliberate decisions that better fulfill the very end goal your emotions often tell you is important: helping others.
After all, your choices today can have ripple effects that benefit dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of people over the long term.