Maximizing charity: the power of effective altruism

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Spend 1 million dollars to save one life or 180 lives, which would you choose? Yes, every life matters, but are you fully aware of the potential of your donation? In developed countries such as the US and UK, governments are willing to spend over that amount to save a life, but the same amount of money can save 180 children’s lives in the world’s poorest countries by simply providing insecticide-treated bednets.

Think about it. Does “doing good” in the end justify the means? We focus too much on the outcome to ignore the effectiveness of the process. If we can maximize the effectiveness of donations, we would be able to alleviate more suffering and save more lives.

A more important question should be how many people actually benefit from the donation, and how do we make sure the nonprofits we donate to are effectively applying their interventions?

We need a paradigm shift. Effective altruism is one of the most revolutionizing philosophical thoughts on philanthropy. According to the philosopher Peter Singer, effective altruism shifts the traditional paradigm of relying on emotions like sympathy to donate, to focusing on how to maximizing the value of the money when deciding where to donate. That is to say, the donor should apply an investor’s logic and carefully consider the social welfare return. Based on the welfare understanding of value, the optimal state of affairs is where “sufferings are reduced and premature loss of life averted” (Gabriel, 2016).

As a movement, effective altruism aims to revolutionize the way we do philanthropy. Effective altruists commit their idea to analysis and scientific reasoning to identify the best morally-based action, focusing on the problems that are “important, neglected, and trackable”.

As a community, effective altruists are not only concerned with humans, but also the suffering of animals. Recognizing the instrumental importance of equality, the community also regards inequality as a new opportunity to do good.

Four principles underpin the concept of effective altruism. An organization has to meet one of the principles to be related to effective altruism. First, the organization must have explicitly aligned itself with effective altruism. Second, it is incubated by charity entrepreneurship. Third, it has engaged with the effective altruism community, e.g. by making posts on effective altruism forums or attending an effective altruism conference. Fourth, it is recognized by GiveWell and Animal Charity Evaluators, which are two research-based non-profit organizations giving suggestions on the effectiveness of the organizations.

Non-profit organizations based on effective altruism such as One for the World and GiveWell all touch on different aspects of effective altruism. One for the World, for example, focuses on education by organizing university chapters to encourage students to pledge 1 percent of their future income to eradicate diseases such as malaria, diarrhea, or malnutrition and end extreme poverty by delivering a supply of food and safe drinking water. One percent seems trivial, but it has the potential to make a huge impact. Between 2019 and 2020, the death rate for malaria globally dropped from 900,000 per year to 550,000.

How do we evaluate the effectiveness? Four aspects of foundation practice are crucial to the assessment.

The first aspect is foundations’ transparency with the nonprofits they fund. Transparency is not only regarded as being in all parties’ best interest but also an ethical obligation to be transparent. However, besides the social conceptualization of transparency, a survey of nonprofit CEOs revealed that transparency to them means being “clear, open, and honest about the processes and decisions that are relevant to nonprofits’ work”, including the learning, assessment, impacts, foundations’ selection processes, and funding decisions.

The second aspect is whether or not the foundations provide support for nonprofit performance assessments. The performance assessment is not limited to internal assessment to demonstrate the effectiveness of the foundation. By giving external analysis on nonprofit organizations, evaluation agencies such as GiveWell exert pressure on nonprofits to improve their performance.

Foundations’ awareness of nonprofits’ challenges should also be considered. From a 2013 study of their most pressing challenges, the majority of nonprofit leaders want help from foundations to meet the demand for the organization’s programs and services. Some challenges, such as attracting talent to the sector and potential leadership deficits, reveal the potential obstacles to nonprofits achieving success (Buteau, 2013).

The awareness is only a starting point. The degree to which foundations use their resources to help address nonprofits’ challenges is crucial as well. The support to address challenges can be to treat “understanding their progress towards their goals as a top priority, and use data to inform their efforts to improve performance” (Brock, Buteau & Herring, 2012).

It is time to rethink philanthropy. Rather than asking people to donate, a better question is what hinders their donating. If we can maximize people’s giving, and show them their altruism can make a huge difference in other people’s lives, we can make progress toward a better future.



Buteau, E., Chaffin, M. and Gopal, R. (2014) “Transparency, performance assessment, and awareness of nonprofits’ challenges: Are Foundations and Nonprofits Seeing Eye to Eye?,” The Foundation Review, 6(2). Available at:

Gabriel, I. (2016) “Effective altruism and its critics,” Journal of Applied Philosophy, 34(4), pp. 457–473. Available at:

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