How to Be an Effective Altruist

Humanity has tremendously improved in the last decades. Extreme poverty today is defined as living with less than $1.90 per day. We managed to lower the percentage of the global population living in absolute poverty from over 80% in 1800 to 20% by 2015. The average global life expectancy more than doubled from less than 30 years in 1800 to 71 years today. And we managed to achieve both these incredible outcomes while exponentially growing in terms of population.

Why You Should Care

But many issues remain unresolved, such as the enormous inequality between the super-rich and the poor. The economist Thomas Pikkety referred to U.S. income inequality as “probably higher than in any other society at any time in the pastanywhere in the world“. Consider that the richest 26 people own as much as the bottom 50% of the global population.

Other pressing issues include animal suffering in intensive farms and the threat of human extinction from extreme global warming, engineered pandemics, nuclear war and misaligned artificial intelligence. Humanity has never been so technologically advanced and capable of self-destruction, yet we’re still as stupid as we’ve ever been. We risked a nuclear 3rd World War so many times during the Cold War that, honestly, I’m terrified. We all owe our lives to Soviet Navy officer Vasili Arkhipov, who single-handedly avoided a nuclear war by refusing to launch a nuclear torpedo against U.S. forces during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Read an article about this close call here.

The 21st century is the century with the highest chance of human extinction ever. We hold an enormous responsibility to avoid the worst for ourselves and our family and friends, preserve our heritage and protect future generations. If we do survive this highly risky period, our species could live for hundreds of millions of years on Earth, a staggering amount when considering that humanity is only 200,000 years old. In the recent book The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity, Australian philosopher and co-founder of the effective altruist movement Toby Ord explores the risk of human extinction and what we could accomplish if we survived the Precipice, which is this brief period of time in which one small mistake could lead to the collapse of human civilisation.

The Trinity nuclear test marked the first detonation of a nuclear device.
July 16, 1945 was the day humanity became capable of causing its own extinction.

The stakes have never been higher. And your contribution to the thriving of humanity and our fellow species can make a huge difference. Ever thought of becoming a hero? You can become one, by saving hundreds of lives. Yes, you can save hundreds of lives by donating to effective organisations focused on global health. I’ll discuss this further in this article.

Use both emotions and reason

2 out of 3 people never research before giving money to charity. This means that charitable organisations can run ineffective programs without us even noticing. They exploit our emotions. Most of the focus on making charities transparent and increasing their effectiveness has traditionally gone to reducing charity overhead. Websites like Charity Navigator enable users to compare charities by the percentage of funds that are spent in overhead like marketing and employees. The idea is that the lower charities spend on overhead, the better they are because more money flows to actual charity. While I agree with the general principle, this focus on overhead alone is seriously flawed. What’s much more important than overhead expenses is the effectiveness of the charitable program. Research concluded that a small number of charitable interventions reap the majority of the benefits.

Imagine Paul and Amanda, who both want to alleviate the pain of blind people. Paul does little research and donates $100 to an American organisation that trains guide dogs for the blind. In the future, he will donate to a wide variety of causes and consider himself an altruist. Of course, he is a good person, as he’s helping blind people. But is he effective? Let’s run the numbers. It costs $40,000 to train a guide dog in the U.S., as you have to breed the dog, then train the dog and the user as well. If we can find a more effective intervention, then Paul is not maximising his benefit to society and therefore other people that could have been helped will suffer because of his poor decision.

Amanda, instead, researches which solutions are most effective in solving blindness and finds out that you can prevent blindness caused by trachoma for as little as $100 in Africa. She knows that her money is being put to good use, so she donates 10% of her income every month. Compared to Paul’s, her donations are at least 400 times as effective, because they are much more cost-effective and produce a greater outcome. Amanda will save thousands of people from going blind over her career and reap great satisfaction from her success.

Donating to the right cause and programs can improve your impact by hundreds if not thousands of times. Do your homework before donating. Ask how much value am I getting for every $1 that I give? View donations as an investment, where you compare options and maximise the outcome.

Multiply happiness by donating to developing countries

For improving global health, donating to developing countries is much more cost-effective than at home. You’re much richer than you think: income of €2,500 per month places you at the top 1% of the World by income. If you’re reading this blog post, chances are you are in the global 1%. Today, more than 700 million live in extreme poverty — with less than $1.90 a day. This means you can make a huge difference.

Research suggests that a doubling in income always produces the same increase in happiness. So someone would get the same mood boost by doubling his income from $60 to $120 per month, as you would from $6,000 to $12,000. Let that sink in for a moment. This effect is caused by the economic law of declining marginal utility, whereby an additional $1 to an affluent person is of less value than to a person in need. Whereas the affluent can use the $1 to purchase a portion of a non-essential and frivolous luxury, an extremely poor person can use it to cure intestinal worms and significantly increase his standard of living. A small sum for you can make a huge difference for the global poor.

GiveDirectly is an effective, transparent and research-based nonprofit operating in East Africa (Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda) that helps families living in extreme poverty by making direct cash transfers to them via mobile phone. GiveDirectly is suggested as one of the top charities by charity evaluator GiveWell.

How to pick the most effective charities

To help you select the most effective charities, GiveWell and Animal Charity Evaluators are research organisations that select the best charities to donate to. While GiveWell selects charities that save or improve human lives the most per dollar, Animal Charity focuses on reducing animal suffering.

GiveWell fights the neglected problem of global health and development. Every day, 18,000 children die from preventable causes as pneumonia, diarrhoea and malaria. Their recommended charities mostly focus on either distributing malaria bed nets or deworming children in developing countries, which are incredibly effective. GiveWell reports that it costs only $3,400 to save a life by donating to the Against Malaria Foundation, which distributes insecticidal nets in Africa.

GiveWell’s list of top charities contains only 8 charities, yet they screen hundreds or thousands of nonprofits. They select only charities whose programs are demonstrated to be effective and provide the most good per $ donated. Other criteria include room for more funding, which reflects the charity’s ability to productively use donations, and transparency. GiveWell itself is extremely transparent and publishes its reasoning for selecting each charity. They also publish their learnings online through their Our Mistakes webpage.

Other more generalist research organisations that select the most effective charities in a broader array of charitable causes include Impact Matters and The Life You Can Save. Even if you can access others’ research through these organisations, their recommended charities could change in any given year. Maybe the charity you selected becomes overfunded, or a change in management reduces its effectiveness, or other better alternatives rise up. If you want to delegate the choice of effective charities and maximise your donations’ effectiveness, then the Effective Altruism Funds are for you. A group of select experts manage 4 different funds, which take 0 in commissions and focus on pressing and neglected problems. I personally donate to their Long-Term Future and Effective Altruism Meta funds, but maybe Global Health and Development and Animal Welfare are the right choices for you.

Why Animal Suffering Matters

Farmed chickens are grown to be slaughtered in 6 weeks
Image source: The Independent

I like animal charities as they tackle both global warming and animal suffering. Animal farming produces 15% of global carbon emissions, uses roughly 70% of agricultural land and is one of the main contributors to deforestation, biodiversity loss and water pollution. More importantly, the suffering we inflict on animals would have shocked even the most perverse Nazi in Auschwitz: we slaughter 70 billion land animals and at least 1 trillion fish every year for human consumption. And the overwhelming majority of land animals are raised in intensive farms, where you wouldn’t wish that your fiercest enemy lived in for even one day. At the same time that we’re eating a hamburger, we consider ourselves “animal lovers” because we love our pets. This is one of the greatest contradictions of all and should make all of us rethink meat consumption, especially of sentient beings like chickens and pigs, whose elimination will reduce the majority of suffering from your diet.

Animal Charity Evaluators shows us that funding to alleviate suffering animals in intensive farms in crucial. We usually think of animal shelters as a way to help animals, but for every one dog or cat euthanised in a shelter, there are about 3,400 farmed land animals slaughtered. Yet the majority of funding goes to animal shelters. Check out this infographic on animal welfare donations:

Infographic from Animal Charity Evaluators – Why Famed Animals

There are two ways to alleviate animal suffering. One is the safer, short-term bet and consists of improving the condition of farm animals, like the Humane League. The riskier but potentially more rewarding alternative is to donate to a research institute that develops competitive alternatives to animal-based meat, like the Good Food Institute. Ultimately, only the mass introduction of cheaper, tastier and healthier alternative meats will eliminate this outrageous mess that we’ve created with intensive farming.

Earning the most to Give the most

One more dilemma in maximising your positive impact. Is it better to work for a traditional investment bank, such as Goldman Sachs, or for an impact fund, whose objective is to invest money responsibly and do good? If you were to work at the impact fund, as an employee you would be marginally better than the second-best candidate, thus not generating excessive impact, and would earn less money than at Goldman Sachs, which means you can donate less. If you take the position at Goldman Sachs, you are contributing to steer the corporate culture towards sustainability and can donate a larger share of your income to charity, thus having a greater impact. Of course, the choice of the company should mostly depend on your vocation and how well you could perform in each work environment. 80,000 Hours is an effective organisation that can help you make a difference with your career.

Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, for example, mostly do not consider social impact when making investment and business decisions, yet they are the greatest effective altruists of all time. Warren Buffett pledged to donate more than 99% of his wealth and is already the largest philanthropist in history. But for them, giving away the majority of their multi-billion fortunes wasn’t enough. In 2010, Gates and Buffett started the Giving Pledge, a campaign to encourage extremely wealthy people to contribute a majority of their wealth to philanthropy. The 204 signatory have a cumulative wealth over $1 trillion. That’s impact.

If you’re not a billionaire and want to maximise your impact, you should consider The Giving What We Can Pledge. With it, you commit to donate at least 10% of your income to the most effective organisations. It’s a non-binding agreement with yourself that almost 5,000 people have taken, myself included. Don’t hesitate to contact me if you intend to take the pledge or more generally want to make a difference.

Learn More

To get a general understanding of how to maximise your impact, I highly recommend reading Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference, by William MacAskill. Another good starting point is the official website.

For making a difference with your career, 80,000 Hours is best. They feature great articles on career advice and recommended paths and you can even book a free counseling session.

Watch this TED Talk on The Why and How of Effective Altruism, by Peter Singer:


The Most Good You Can Do, by Peter Singer

World’s 26 richest people own as much as poorest 50%, Oxfam –

70 billion land animals slaughtered every year, FAO –

Estimating the Number of Fish Caught in Global Fishing Each Year -

10 percent of global population lives in extreme poverty, World Bank –

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6 days ago

Interesting article! About the 10% thing though, I think it’s a little premature at our career stage. We’ve barely got out of our parents’ donations and I really think we first need to build some stability for ourselves before we start giving money away. We’re still like an early-stage startup and those need to grow before it is reasonable for them to pay dividends. It’s selfish, but I think you need to build these things progressively. First you need to care for yourself, then for your family, friends, community and ultimately you can engage on a global scale. I would… Read more »

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