Philanthropy & Funding

The Elitist Philanthropy of So-Called Effective Altruism

The superficially enticing “logic” of effective altruism ultimately leads to a moralistic, hyper-rationalistic, top-down approach to philanthropy that can kill the very altruistic spirit it claims to foster.

It is one of the unfortunate truisms of the human condition that there is hardly a good idea, noble impulse, or sound suggestion that can't be (and isn't eventually) adopted and bastardized by zealots. It is sadly thus that the very human impulse to help others and the mantra of Charity Navigator since its inception—that people should become informed donors and give with their heads as well as their hearts—have been infused with logic so cold that even Mr. Spock would cringe upon hearing it. One iteration of this tendency is in the idea of “effective altruism.” We believe a more accurate phrase for this concept is “defective altruism” and will therefore use that term for the remainder of this article.

The drive to support charity is seemingly embedded deeply in our DNA and codified in all of the world’s great religions. One would think it needs no additional explanation, since nearly all of us feel this drive and understand it. Indeed, it is often so automatic and reliable that charlatans, tricksters, and outright thieves sometimes use it against us. To assure that this noble drive is respected in its implementation, we believe that all donors, whatever the origin of their impulse to give, should be informed and see their donation as an investment. Being an informed donor means using facts to help make a giving decision, and looking beyond the slogans and the emotion triggered by appeals. It also means not falling for buzzwords and simply assuming that an organization using them is, in fact, well managed and doing some good. Above all, being an informed donor means using the information one gathers to help guide resources toward those organizations that are doing the best work in whatever field or cause area one chooses to support.

By contrast, defective altruism is—by the admission of its proponents—an approach that not only unjustifiably claims the moral high ground in giving decisions, but also implements this bold claim by weighing causes and beneficiaries against one another. In this, it is not moral, but rather, moralistic in the worst sense of the word.

In recent articles extolling the virtues of this approach, the GiveWell blog has cited the work of several allies, among them Peter Singer, who spoke about the concept in a recent TED Talk. In an example of the Sophie’s Choice that the movement offers the donor community, Singer posed the following question: Which is the “better” thing to do? To provide a guide dog to one blind American, or cure 2,000 people of blindness in developing countries? Even had he not employed the adjective “American,” which was clearly intended to make his audience feel a distinct pang of cultural guilt, it was obvious which choice Singer thought was the “better” of the two; indeed, he said the choice was “clear.”

Eric Friedman’s new book Reinventing Philanthropy: A Framework for More Effective Giving presents a similar take. In the book, Friedman goes even further than Singer by contrasting the work of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospitals with Malaje Provincial Hospital in Angola. After contrasting two patients served at the different hospitals for life-threatening medical conditions, he concludes, “I’d probably also be very angry at the donors who are continuously funding St. Jude and leaving Malanje Provincial woefully under-resourced. Why are [the patients of St. Jude] so much more worthy of life…?” This seems to us an absurd contrast and presumes a callousness by St. Jude donors that bears no resemblance to reality. Of course it is worthwhile to support both institutions if they both provide life-saving results; but Friedman and others indicate that one should support Malanje and not St. Jude as the “best” choice, and support that claim with nothing other than a decidedly skewed morality.

Later in the book, Friedman uses the analogy of buying a friend a birthday present to make his point. He asks us to imagine wandering through a mall and arbitrarily selecting a gift for our friend rather than choosing something they’d really appreciate. He then suggests that making a donation based on “thoughtful consideration” requires that we determine what would have the greatest impact. But the cold and hyper-rationalistic birthday giver who followed the defective altruism model would have to opt not to give a present to their friend at all; they would be required by this logic to scour the planet for the person most “worthy and in need” of that birthday gift.

This approach amounts to little more than charitable imperialism, whereby “my cause” is just, and yours is—to one degree or another—a waste of precious resources. This approach is not informed giving. Were such opinions limited to a small audience, we could reasonably dismiss them as a danger only to those unfortunate enough to hear them. However, in taking on this cause and using the bully pulpit of its website as its forum, GiveWell truly is doing more harm than good to both the donor community and those thousands upon thousands of organizations that are doing much-needed work in areas that the defective altruism fringe deems unworthy.

Perhaps more alarming is the seemingly reasoned advice that the blog’s author(s) provide. Ranging from the insulting (“Focus on how one’s actions are likely to affect the world, rather than on how they affect oneself and one’s feelings”) to the banal (“Be open to unconventional approaches to doing good”), they culminate in the following prescription: Choose what you’re passionate about. Unfortunately, as Singer’s TED presentation demonstrated most effectively, the defective altruism movement has determined that only those causes about which it is passionate are worthy of making the cut—American children dying of life-threatening diseases need not get in line but Angolan children can.

In GiveWell’s case, this bizarre approach led to its recommendation to not assist the victims of the Japanese Tsunami. In fact, it discourages support for disaster relief in general. Long-time GiveWell supporter Friedman notes, “Most of those killed by disasters could not have been saved with donations.” Instead, GiveWell has a particular fixation with global health and nutrition charities. It at least implicitly recommends that one should support charities only in those cause areas. It is therefore not surprising that it has recommended only a handful of charities to its users. If we all followed such a ridiculous approach, what would happen to:

  1. Domestic efforts to serve those in need?
  2. Advanced research funding for many diseases?
  3. Research on and efforts in creative and innovative new approaches to helping others that no one has ever tried before?
  4. More local and smaller charitable endeavors?
  5. Funding for the arts, and important cultural endeavors such as the preservation of historically important structures and archives?
  6. Volunteerism for the general public, since most “worthy” efforts are overseas and require a professional degree to have what Friedman calls “deep expertise in niche areas”?
  7. Careers in the nonprofit sector? Since the spokespeople for this opinion suggest that it might even be ethical to have a “lucrative job in an immoral corporation” so that you can be a so-called “do-bester” and give all the money away, it is unclear who would then run the charities to which defective altruists would give.

Furthermore, we anticipate that defective altruism inevitably will move us toward a more centralized form of giving where the experts decide where the money goes, rather than individual donors. As Friedman accurately notes, the defective altruism distribution plan “requires a level of expertise that few individuals have.” Thus, over time, we would require a very centralized and top-down approach to marshal and manage social investment and charitable giving decisions in a manner acceptable to the proponents of this approach. Friedman hammers this point home when he observes, “Though not necessarily morally superior to do-gooders, do-besters may be intellectually superior …” (our italics).

Ironically, he notes in the last paragraph of his book, “Putting together all the pieces of the do-bester puzzle is difficult—in fact, it is impossible.” We could not agree more!

Charity Navigator does not judge whether one type of charity is better than another, because we rely on the intelligence of our users to make charitable decisions that are best for them and the causes they care about—decisions informed by both heart and head. That—and not Big Brother in the guise of defective altruism—comprises the informed giving that we think truly honors the altruistic spirit.

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  • Ozzie Gooen's avatar

    BY Ozzie Gooen

    ON November 25, 2013 09:31 AM

    I find it sad to see charitable individuals resorting to such mudd-slingling against other charitable agencies.

    “We believe a more accurate phrase for this concept is “defective altruism” and will therefore use that term for the remainder of this article.”

    How can any sort of intellectual discussion possibly begin like that?  Are they trying to completely demonize the entire field of Effective Altruism and everyone associated?  These are altruists too, I don’t see the point.

    Peter Singer is a world renown philosopher.  He’s one of the most recognized and prestigious thinkers in the entire field of philanthropy, having spent decades promoting both animal and human welfare.  He seems like and odd target to dismiss in one condescending paragraph.

    In addition, many of the arguments listed here are really related to the entire field of Utilitarianism, not Effective Altruism.  Valid arguments for and against utilitarianism fill textbooks.  A few-paragraph put-down without respect for an entire established field may be cute and exciting, but I doubt anyone would bet on this article shifting that debate. 

    I’m sure point-by-point refutations will come later.  In the mean time I recommend that readers check out Peter Singer’s TED video here (which they disagree with) and see for yourself what you think.

  • Very embarrassing article. Name-calling, petty, and below the intellectually honest discourse and open critique embraced by thinkers like Singer and other EA advocates.

  • Scott Weathers's avatar

    BY Scott Weathers

    ON November 25, 2013 10:59 AM

    Ken and Robert,

    I’m not sure this article actually helps anyone do more good in the world—in fact, I think it probably inspired a lot of animosity.

    I recommend that you get in touch with Peter Singer, GiveWell, Giving What We Can, or any other organization working in effective altruism. This is not a conversation that will move in a positive direction with more spiteful articles.


  • Looking past the unfriendly tone, I think the authors’ basic claim is on point - effective altruism compares causes and beneficiaries. What the authors find repugnant about this, I take it, is that beneficiaries should not be judged more or less worthy. However, as I understand it effective altruism does not judge beneficiaries to be more or less worthy. Beneficiaries are equally worthy, but there are insufficient resources to help everyone immediately. How should we use scarce resources when not all can be helped? This is a difficult and emotionally wrought question, so it’s unsurprising that there is a strong negative reaction to any proposed answer. One possible answer is that we should simulate a lottery and help the winners, because equal worthiness should entail equal chance of aid. I find more satisfying the answer that effective altruism gives - if we can’t help all then we should help as many as we can as much as we can. This can lead to “triage” - the prioritizing of some over others based on factors such as severity of condition, cost of treatment, and so forth (not inherent worthiness). This makes good sense to me, and I don’t see its making good sense as a bad thing (it’s not cold, uncaring, etc.; quite the opposite).

  • Benjamin Funar's avatar

    BY Benjamin Funar

    ON November 25, 2013 12:28 PM

    I think article misses the whole context in which charity occurs.

    Too little money goes to charity to truly accomplish any of the tasks the sector sets out to tackle, it’s far too easy to create a charity and struggle for decades with little or no real impact (even though the heart & passion are there) and there’s far too many charity organizations in each county duplicating each others work inefficiently. International charities are even more opaque and difficult to run or assess. And underlying all this is that most fund raising is successful when it plays to pain and fear which drives a lot of long term fatigue in the donor base.

    Funders trying to be smarter about their giving are not the problem. Lack of money is not the problem either. The US alone has nearly 100 Trillion in wealth and that’s growing rapidly even if it’s primarily in the hands of 40,000 households. Our society is wealthier and richer now than ever and because we have 2 million charity organizations there’s a large set of working solutions to these tough problems but the hard part is finding those really innovative, working solutions and helping them grow and scale. To do that you’ve got to be able to assess the real impact of those solutions and you’ve got to be able to make long term investments in those organizations to help them grow (as operational organizations).

    Critique’s like Dan Pallotta’s about the back-assward rules that charities are judged by and run illustrate that the sector is disabled for success. The sector treads water on almost all the issues its responsible for, not because of one funding fashion or another but for deep systemic flaws that prevent any smart mobilization of talents, capital or technology on the issues.

    Carping at a funding strategy feels like it’s so off the mark for what really needs to happen, a redesign and reboot of the charity sector to truly tackle the social issues we need it to solve.

  • BY David Geilhufe

    ON November 25, 2013 12:28 PM

    In an environment of rapid cultural change and great need, as I would argue characterizes the current state of the U.S. nonprofit sector, the mantra should be “all oars in the water.”

    GiveWell represents an important approach for some donors, Charity Navigator represents another.

    Lets spend our time building support and impact through our respective approaches by building up our communities and our beliefs. Let’s avoid tearing down the communities and beliefs of others working, in their own way, to improve the world.

  • Tomer Chachamu's avatar

    BY Tomer Chachamu

    ON November 25, 2013 12:33 PM

    I’m surprised at seeing this from the president of Charity Navigator. After all, Givewell and Charity Navigator perform very similar and indeed complementary functions.

    Charity Navigator tells its users how charities are spending their money. It protects donors from the “charlatans, tricksters, and outright thieves” the authors decry. It isn’t about shaming donors or smugly one-upping them, it’s about providing information to let donors make informed choices.

    Givewell does the same for causes. If donors can’t choose between charities on their own, how can they be expected to know how to help poor people in a country they’ve never been to? Why would following their heart - so affected by “the slogans and emotions generated by appeals” - work any better than following the evidence.

    Givewell protects donors from something far more common than charlatans - well-meaning charities that aren’t as good as they could be.

    Effective altruism isn’t absolutist. It doesn’t require giving every last penny, nor must you stop giving to charities that have personal meaning to you. Indeed, I know several effective altruists who set aside money for that very purpose.

    It also isn’t about moral superiority, as Friedman notes. It is not about labelling donors as callous. It’s about educating people on how to help humanity.

  • Besides the highly uncalled-for nastiness, this article is also full of non-sequiturs and strawmen.

    “This approach amounts to little more than charitable imperialism, whereby “my cause” is just, and yours is—to one degree or another—a waste of precious resources. This approach is not informed giving. “

    If the goal of the altruist is to help as many people as possible, then there are charities that are objectively better at achieving that goal than others. Some charities just do save more lives, or increase the quality of life more than others, as a matter of fact. Moreover, effective altruists generally don’t criticize people for having different goals, they just want them to understand the trade-offs involved in charity and to make the most informed decision if their goal happens to be to save as many lives as possible.

    “If we all followed such a ridiculous approach, what would happen to…”

    GiveWell recommends charities based on what is most effective at the margin. If everyone started donating to disease prevention in the Third World, those other causes would then become underfunded, and the effective altruist would thus switch priorities.

    “we anticipate that defective altruism inevitably will move us toward a more centralized form of giving where the experts decide where the money goes, rather than individual donors”

    This is alarmist nonsense. Nobody is forced to donate to any organization on the basis of Givewell’s recommendations. The benefit of using experts is that they are more likely to have an accurate opinion on the effects of giving to a certain charity. Individual donors can use this information however they wish, but it is always preferable that they have that information if it is more reliable than individuals’ judgment.

    “GiveWell truly is doing more harm than good to both the donor community and those thousands upon thousands of organizations that are doing much-needed work in areas that the defective altruism fringe deems unworthy.”

    On what basis is this article criticizing Givewell? Appealing to harms and benefits implies utilitarianism, in which case the authors concede the point that we ought to try to improve well-being as much as possible, and therefore the legitimacy of the effective altruist movement. If each charity is actually as good as any other, as this article implies, then effective altruism just transfers funds from some charities to others, which would be morally neutral.

    It seems to me that effective altruism’s real sin, in the eyes of the authors, is simply that they said things that could be used to criticize others. In which case the authors are just crybabies, and should be dismissed.

  • It’s also worth noting that one of the main reasonable-sounding points in this article—that it’s bad for Eric Friedman to be angry at donors who funded St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital—is actually fabricated based on a deliberately completely decontextualized quote. Friedman remarked that *if he were a parent in Malaje Province* he would be angry that St. Jude’s had more funding. Friedman himself is (correctly) not angry at these donors. He doesn’t “[presume] a callousness by St. Jude donors”—just a lack of awareness of how much worse things are elsewhere, which is much more defensible.

  • This seems to me to be the opposite of an open-minded treatment of the EA ideas. It polemically interprets every aspect of EA as negatively and uncharitably as possible rather than trying to see the deep passion, drive, and love for humans and other creatures behind this movement. To be honest, this article also didn’t seem very well reasoned.
    Yes—some EA ideas might seem unfamiliar to many of us. But this is no reason to dismiss them out of hand like this.

  • Catriona Mackay's avatar

    BY Catriona Mackay

    ON November 25, 2013 01:36 PM

    The Effective Altruism movement has inspired me to give about ten times more to charity than I did before I heard about it.

    But I like the term ‘Defective Altruist’, and have a mind to reclaim it. One of the things I most admire about the movement is the way it acknowledges its own limitations: Givewell links to a page on its ‘Mistakes’ directly from its homepage, and Giving What We Can’s website is suffused with warnings (for example) that other organisations “may turn out to have a significantly greater return than our current top-recommended charities”.

    My heart and head alike are proud and excited to be part of an imperfect, ‘defective’, deeply *human* bunch of people who are doing their best to help as many others as possible as much as possible; who mess up sometimes, but are committed to learning from their mistakes and finding ways of relieving even more suffering.

    The day the Effective Altruism movement says: “right, well, that’s it then - we’ve found the perfect charity, no need for any more work” is the day I’m out of there. So yes, we’re defective altruists ... and I wouldn’t trust any altruist who said they weren’t.

  • The authors seem to fundamentally misunderstand some of the most important aspects of Effective Altruism.

    For example, Effective Altruism does not place higher value on the wellbeing of Angolan children than American children. Quite the opposite - it values each life the same way. You could frame this as saying each person in the world has an equal right to be happy. Therefore Effective Altruism advocates individual donors to consider how their (limited) donation can ‘help the most people’ (produce the most wellbeing), regardless of where they are in the world.

    Given the (unfortunate) state of the world, it just so happens that it is considerably cheaper to help children in Angola than in America. Therefore you can, in general, do far more good for children with your money by donating to Angolan rather than American charities.

    With respect to what would happen if “we all followed such a ridiculous approach”, I think it would be quite beautiful. Money would flow to help those who we can help most easily and most cheaply - initially this would be largely in developing countries. As these opportunities quickly ‘filled up’ the cost of helping people would increase and money would begin to flow towards more expensive problems given in the list in the article. Effectively, we would be moving towards valuing people’s wellbeing more equally, no matter where they live.

    At the moment we live in a world where our system will pay up to £20,000 to produce a year of healthy life in the UK (roughly measured by health economists as a DALY), while opportunities to produce a year of healthy life exist for about $100 in developing countries. This does not value people equally.

    Similarly, by choosing to donate to a “domestic” (American?) charity (or, as the authors imply one should consider, an arts charity), you are implicitly choosing to help an American person a little over helping someone else a lot, with your same limited resources. (I’m not sure who the arts donation would help - the cultural enrichment of middle-upper class Americans?)

    There are numerous other examples of the authors’ fundamental misunderstanding of Effecive Altruism, and I look forward to a reply on the subject.

  • Michael Keenan's avatar

    BY Michael Keenan

    ON November 25, 2013 02:49 PM

    Name-calling (“defective altruism”) is counter-productive to truth-seeking; that’s a status-seeking game.

    It isn’t the effective altruism movement that asks us to choose between charities, but rather, reality forces us to choose. The effective altruists point out that we must make that choice. That the choice exists is not Peter Singer’s fault. Don’t shoot the messenger.

    “If we all followed such a ridiculous approach, what would happen to…”

    Imagine there’s an alternative Earth where global health initiatives are well-funded, and it was proposed that we fund the less-effective charities instead. You might protest that millions would die. You would be correct.

    Ken and Robert, I hope you will reconsider, or at least provide more substantive arguments, without the petty accusations.

  • Michael Keenan's avatar

    BY Michael Keenan

    ON November 25, 2013 02:56 PM

    “[Givewell’s blog culminates] in the following prescription: Choose what you’re passionate about.”

    This is a misunderstanding of the blog post, which says: “As GiveWell and Good Ventures have explored what causes to get involved in, the single most common advice we’ve gotten has been to “choose what you’re passionate about.” When we’ve described our desire to do “strategic cause selection” – choosing causes based on how we can accomplish the most good – we’ve seen a good deal of pushback and skepticism.”

    They’re saying that *other* people advised them to choose what they’re passionate about, and that that’s bad advice; instead they do “strategic cause selection”.

    It seems you accused GiveWell of the opposite of what they meant.

  • Katie Hartman's avatar

    BY Katie Hartman

    ON November 25, 2013 03:15 PM

    I think there’s a slightly stronger argument hiding behind the lines, here, and one I’d be a lot more sympathetic to. It would look something like this:

    “When people feel passionate about a given cause, it may be counterproductive to try to dissuade them from offering their support, even if the ultimate goal is to encourage them to instead direct their limited resources toward a cause where it would have much greater leverage. You may run the risk of instead leading them to feel disillusioned about the value of their charitable feelings, which may result in them giving nothing at all.”

    I don’t know whether there’s any research to support this idea, but it doesn’t seem implausible. I’d love to see it put to the test. I think we can all agree that it’s much better for a blind American to have her guide dog than for nobody to be helped at all, although I think it’s obvious to most of us that saving 2,000 people from blindness - regardless of who they are and where they live - would be even better.

    The idea that EA is about valuing one type of person over another could not be more off-base. The entire point is to improve the lives of human beings to the greatest extent possible with what we have, regardless of who they are, where they live, and the details of their suffering. It’s about learning to channel those vital feelings of compassion toward all people who need help, regardless of whether or not they’re visible to us or are suffering in a way that we can personally relate to.

    Ultimately, giving is not about the giver. It is not about making us feel better about ourselves or relieving our guilt about our good fortune in life. While it’s important to feel good about our giving - it’s not in our nature to make sacrifices if we don’t feel positively about them - the most important thing is the impact we can have.

  • Tony Rodriguez's avatar

    BY Tony Rodriguez

    ON November 25, 2013 04:36 PM

    This is not a very helpful or accurate post with respect to how the characterization of effective altruism or GiveWell’s valuable work & research in the sector.  Not sure why SSIR would publish this when there’s so many more pressing challenges & issues in philanthropy.

    I give SSIR and the authors of this article a “0-star rating” but in no way is my rating a judgment of whether one type of article is better than another…

  • Claire Knowlton's avatar

    BY Claire Knowlton

    ON November 25, 2013 06:18 PM

    I would like to correct the article’s claim that Effective Altruism is “weighing…beneficiaries against one another.” EA does not perceive some beneficiaries to be more deserving of help than others. In fact, EA views all potential beneficiaries as equally entitled to a healthy and happy life.

    This becomes evident when an effective altruist is faced with the decision of how to give money away. If she has money that can only save 3 lives in Neverland OR 45 lives in Wonderland, the effective altruist will save 45 lives in Wonderland. It does not matter that Wonderland is far away, or that she’s never been there. What matters is that she can save 42 extra lives if her money goes to Wonderland instead of Neverland. Someone who does not follow EA’s recommendations might choose to save 3 lives in Neverland, because Neverland is very close to where she lives, or because she vacationed in Neverland once.

  • BY Darren McKee

    ON November 25, 2013 06:48 PM

    (Full piece linked below)
    I typically promote a kind and respectful approach when discussing issues, especially those on which parties might disagree. Yet, there are times when an article or opinion piece is put forth that is does not deserve such kindness. The recent article The Elitist Philanthropy of So-Called Effective Altruism by Ken Berger & Robert M. Penna is just such a piece.
    Berger, President and CEO of Charity Navigator, and Penna, a consultant, have managed to write a piece attacking “Effective Altruism” and that is filled with so many dubious declarations, specious statements, and faulty logic that it deserves to be harshly refuted.  There are some important issues and concepts that are raised, but those will have to respectfully discussed another time.

    The authors have seemed to forgotten the very core of their own business, kindness and helping, in their attack. Their article is not only intellectually dishonest, it is actually morally irresponsible. Aside from being quite saddening, if this is the mindset of those in charge of Charity Navigator, I cannot, in good conscience, support it any longer. 

    The following is a thorough review of their article. My statements follow the quoted text from the article.

  • I found this article refreshing and thought-provoking. I appreciated the passion with which the two authors elucidated their point, which I understood to be—let donors make their own minds up about which charities they give to. I have worked for a charity that is not well known, and would certainly not be featured on any of these"Effective Atruism-esque” websites. I found the donors to be extremely loyal and committed to the mission. They were and still are not in it for the effectiveness of their investment, but to continue a legacy of giving that has been passed on from generation to generation. Giving IS about the donor, about their human impulse to help others. But, it also about “a thoughtful benevolence — a reasoned, prudent, discriminating, even skeptical benevolence — a benevolence that is acutely aware of the often unintended consequences of goodwill, that knows that it is more important to do good than to feel good [Beatrice Webb on the science of charity”  Ultimately, my understanding of effective altruism (after watching Singer’s TED Talk) is that it focuses on making donors feel better about their donations by mixing economic jargon and sentimental anecdotes in the hopes of maximizing impact and increasing returns- which even the most skeptical of people would admit is quite imperialistic - culturally and to some extent intellectually. There is no doubt that Singer and Friedman have noble goals, however I think their vision of effective altruism within the context of giving, or what some may call charity, is misplaced.

    Thank you Ken and Robert for bringing this different perspective to the fore.

  • “In an example of the Sophie’s Choice that the movement offers the donor community, Singer posed the following question: Which is the “better” thing to do? To provide a guide dog to one blind American, or cure 2000 people of blindness in developing countries? Even had he not employed the adjective “American,” which was clearly intended to make his audience feel a distinct pang of cultural guilt, it was obvious which choice Singer thought was the “better” of the two; indeed, he said the choice was “clear.””

    Are you seriously suggesting this choice does not have a clear answer? More specifically, if you had to choose between curing 2000 people of blindness, and providing one blind person with a guide dog, which would you choose? If you fund the former charity, welcome to the world of effective altruism. If you fund the latter, or refuse to answer, or say all charities deserve equal support, then what possible good is Charity Navigator?

    I’d continue, but I’ve started to suspect that this is some kind of hoax.

  • Anonymous's avatar

    BY Anonymous

    ON November 26, 2013 03:24 AM

    The lack of neutrality — and the use of emotional assumptions — in this article is disheartening.

  • Jonathan R.'s avatar

    BY Jonathan R.

    ON November 26, 2013 04:35 AM

    I wasn’t familiar with the expression ‘effective altruism’ before reading this article.  I must say that the piece struck me as poorly written and ill-conceived, and has actually made me more sympathetic to the individuals and organizations that are being criticized.

  • The weakness and poor attitude of the article are highlighted well by other comments above, but I would like to add my voice to the crowd.
    Not that the conclusions (or even the principles) of the EA crowd are incontestable, but this is a very poor effort.
    Get better Ken and Robert.

  • BY Joshua Zelinsky

    ON November 26, 2013 09:19 AM

    “Instead, GiveWell has a particular fixation with global health and nutrition charities. “

    Yes, because the most lives can be saved that way. If more lives could be saved with disaster relied, they’d focus on that.

  • BY Joshua Zelinsky

    ON November 26, 2013 09:25 AM

    Anyone who thinks that charity is about the donor is essentially saying that charity isn’t to actually help people but to make one personally feel good, and feel like one is helping people, or to show to one’s community that one really is a good person. If those are your goals, be honest about it. In that case the EA movement and you have a fundamental value disagreement, since they are essentially much less selfish in their charitable motivations.

  • BY Thomas Eliot

    ON November 26, 2013 10:41 AM

    Oh my goodness. Charity Navigator, you guys, oh my gosh you guys. You’re really shooting yourselves in the foot here. Whatever point you have buried in all that vindictiveness is being completely lost in what I best can tell is spite at no longer being the biggest name in charity evaluation. You’ve revealed an awful lot of flaws about yourself, and completely failed to make whatever your point was. I’m really looking forward to your inevitable response to this backlash.

  • I’m struck by the passionate tone of both the article AND ensuing comments from proponents of Effective Altruism organizations.
    Both the authors and their opponents are essentially *advertising charities* based on quantified,  rational decision-making processes. All parties are competing to attain a pro-social goal which makes donors feel better about the world, themselves, or whatever else they feel they should do.

    My limited understanding of human behavior tells me that a systematic, rational decision making endeavor is implicitly driven by value biases. The righteous desire to subjugate emotional biases in favor of the more valid “rational” ones ( most often presented by “the experts”) seems naive and misleading.

    This looks like a game of ‘who can get the more compelling numbers’  to support an undeniably subjective drive to help others. It’s a worthy game in many ways and I look forward to seeing who can beat the numbers well enough to get a corner on the altruism market.  The mud slinging seems a bit unnecessary, though provocation does often spur useful dialogue.

  • It’s interesting that Charity Navigator are themselves in the process of adding (evaluations of) Results Reporting to their evaluations and recommendations of charities. They provide statements in support of this addition on their website, which statements indicate that they are intent are taking a very large step towards effective altruism. Here is one thing they say about organizations that would get high rankings from them on their planned new measure:

    “These are the organizations that are worthy of our highest ratings and the maximum support from wise donors who want to invest in those charities that provide the most meaningful change in communities and people’s lives.”

    I would like to hear someone explain how this and other statements on Charity Navigator’s website fit with their criticism of GiveWell and effective altruism more generally. I’ve put a lot more statements from Charity Navigator’s website and some commentary below.

    From the website:

    “Why is it important that Charity Navigator add a review of each charity’s Results Reporting to its methodology? Because mission-related results are the very reason that charities exist! Effective charities have a strong focus on results; on the outcomes and impact resulting from their work. So we developed a new rating dimension that specifically examines how well charities report on their results. CN 3.0 thus further fulfills the purpose of Charity Navigator - to help charitable givers make wise decisions in choosing the charities that are most worthy of their donations.”


    So, just to be clear, some charities are *more worthy* of your donations than others and you might have made *unwise* decisions regarding where to send your donations. Charity Navigator is “Your Guide to Intelligent Giving” and would like to help you make more intelligent decisions. And they want to do this by paying more attention to outcomes and reporting on outcomes.

    From the website:

    “By results we especially are interested in the outcomes of the work of the charity and whether these results are providing a social value (in other words, offering meaningful change in communities and peoples’ lives). Mission related results are the very reason that charities exist. Therefore, it is the most important dimension of all for our rating system and yet the hardest to measure due to the tremendous variation in the work that charities do as well as the lack of standardized public reporting on results by most charities. However, after years of research and with the advice of many experts, we believe we have taken a major step forward by adding this new dimension to our rating system.”

    “ . . .  we hope to shift the paradigm of results reporting from selectively reporting, such as storytelling, that may not be representative of overall performance, to reporting on demonstrably important measures, and showing how the organization learns and improves based on those measures.”

    “We believe it is that important because donors will have access to much more robust information than ever before about each charity’s ability to bring about long lasting and meaningful change in the world. It is also important because many more charities will become focused on measuring and managing their performance. In other words, we believe this work and the new rating system that is evolving out of it is critically important because our users will be able to direct even more money to high performing charities. Ultimately we believe this will lead to a significant and measurable improvement in human welfare and acceleration in solutions to our world’s most persistent problems.”

    “Charity Navigator believes that a shift in paradigm is critically important to the future of the non profit world. We aim to recognize charities that do a better job of reporting their results. Here, we mean those that do not just put out promotional marketing materials, but that report on demonstrably important measures and show how the organization learns and improves based on those measures. As more charities report their results, givers and social investors will have more and better information to inform their decisions. These are the organizations that are worthy of our highest ratings and the maximum support from wise donors who want to invest in those charities that provide the most meaningful change in communities and people’s lives.”


    You might think that curing two thousand people of blindness would provide an unequivocally greater increase in human welfare (or an unequivocally greater meaningful change) than providing a guide dog to one blind person. But Berger decidedly rejects this judgment in his criticism of Singer. So, one is left wondering what Berger thinks makes one charity more high performing than another in terms of bringing about “significant and measurable improvement in human welfare.”

    In reading Berger’s criticism of GiveWell and effective altruism, we also learn that Charity Navigator is against centralization in charitable giving:

    “Furthermore, we anticipate that defective altruism inevitably will move us toward a more centralized form of giving where the experts decide where the money goes, rather than individual donors. As Friedman accurately notes, the defective altruism distribution plan “requires a level of expertise that few individuals have.” Thus, over time, we would require a very centralized and top-down approach to marshal and manage social investment and charitable giving decisions in a manner acceptable to the proponents of this approach.”

    Of course, Charity Navigator is working on building up expertise regarding how well charities report on their effectiveness at bringing about the outcomes they aim to bring about. And this is so difficult, they say, that it will be years before they are willing to incorporate their results into their recommendations regarding which charities to give to. So, on their own view, wise altruism requires “expertise that few individuals have.” And they expressly aspire to guide donors’ contributions towards certain “high-performing” charities. So, given their concern about centralization, you would expect them to welcome other organizations that evaluate the effectiveness of charities and the quality of charities’ reporting on their effectiveness (even if they also publish thoughtful criticisms of those organizations). But it is, I think, very unclear how that aim fits with the above criticism.

    To be clear, I am not claiming that Charity Navigator is headed towards becoming identical to GiveWell. But, given their increasing similarity, the above attack on GiveWell and effective altruism more generally seems poorly thought out.

  • BY Robert M.Penna

    ON November 26, 2013 01:08 PM

    It seems from the number of posts in response to our SSIR Blog article, that we have struck a nerve, which was our intention in writing the piece in the first place.

    The responses seem to fall into three categories:
    1. People who objected to our tone;
    2. At least one person who agreed with our message.
    3. People who disagree with our interpretation of “Effective Altruism” as presented by Mr. Singer and Mr. Friedman;

    To those who were offended by our tone, we will say “Sorry.” It was not our intention to offend anyone.  Rather, it was our aim to utilize language equal, we felt, to the dramatic tone employed by Singer and Friedman to impress upon their audiences the gravity of their claims.

    To the one person who supported our position, we say “Thank you.”

    To the rest, we believe some clarification is in order.

    As one reads the various posts disputing our position, one sees some of the confusion the EA movement has engendered.  On the one hand, it is said that EA merely seeks to contribute to the greatest good for the greatest number.  On the other hand, Mr. Singer’s comparison of one blind American needing a guide dog versus thousands who could be spared blindness in Africa calls for an obvious value judgment that goes past mere numbers.  To the point, one commentator wrote, “…by choosing to donate to a “domestic” (American?) charity (or, as the authors imply one should consider, an arts charity), you are implicitly choosing to help an American person a little over helping someone else a lot, with your same limited resources. (I’m not sure who the arts donation would help - the cultural enrichment of middle-upper class Americans?).”

    This statement, which echoes Mr. Singer’s TED presentation, implicitly suggests that giving for the benefit of any Westerner –American or European- is a morally indefensible choice.  Moreover, the snide tone aside, it clearly deems donations to the arts to be an unaffordable luxury.

    This is precisely where we part company with the foremost advocates of “Effective Altruism.”

    We have made it clear: we do not judge the worthiness of charities -neither as individuals nor as representatives of Charity Navigator- on any basis other than their effectiveness.  If a charity is effective at treating or preventing a disease, we are wholeheartedly behind the idea of supporting it…no matter where it operates or who it benefits.  If a charity can demonstrate effectiveness in reducing poverty, illiteracy, child abuse, violence against women, or environmental degradation, we are in favor if it’s being supported, again irrespective of where it operates or who it benefits.  More to the point, if an organization is effective in preserving cultural treasures, safeguarding historically important buildings, or making art, literature, or culture available to those who could otherwise not be exposed to it, we are in favor if it’s being supported. 

    Human life has many variables.  Yes, health, food, and shelter are the primary needs worldwide; but they are not the only needs.  By the calculus of at least some in the EA movement, however, until all disease is eradicated, until no one is ever hungry ever again, until no one dies prematurely, nothing else matters or is truly worthy of support.
    This is a position we cannot endorse.

    The notion of freedom of conscience is deeply embedded in the American value system.  That freedom extends to the right to make choices about what causes or charities to support.  They may be, as is in line with some of the proponents of “Effective Altruism, the eradication of disease.  They may be in support of the socially or politically marginalized.  They may be in support of one’s religious creed.  They may even be in support of what one considers the finest of one’s culture.

    Our essential position is that such a decision is for no one other than the individual to make.  Moreover, we do not believe that it is the role of anyone to say to another that his or her cause is not “worthy.”

    We agree with that all donors should seek the most effective charities to support.  But we believe that it is up to the individual to determine for himself or herself how to define the area in which that effectiveness is to be demonstrated, whether it is fighting disease Angola or serving local needs around the block.

  • Michael Keenan's avatar

    BY Michael Keenan

    ON November 26, 2013 01:56 PM

    Hi Robert, thank you for your reply, and for its civil tone.

    It could be that you’re misunderstanding Singer. When he compares saving thousands from blindness in Africa or providing one guide dog in America, the locations of the people are only mentioned because that’s where the opportunities happen to be in the world today. He doesn’t think Africans are more valuable than Americans; if it were a thousand Americans who could be cured with the same resources as providing a guide dog to an African, he would advise that instead. So, when seeking the greatest good for the greatest number, Singer chooses the higher number (thousands compared to one), wherever they are.

  • Alexander Popiak's avatar

    BY Alexander Popiak

    ON November 26, 2013 02:10 PM

    I’d like to write a few words in response to Mr. Pennas clarification:
    This response is the kind of language that is the minimum requirement for having any sort of fruitful discussion and you would have been well advised to use it in the article itself.
    It also allows people to clearly see your arguments and tackle them directly without having to find your motivations and points hidden behind emotional accusations of the Effective Altruism community.

    You still seem to underly the confusion that Effective Altruism compares where one ought not compare, but where do you draw the line?
    Is it fair to compare the effectiveness of two charities that treat blindness directly, one in Europe and one in Asia?
    Quote: “If a charity is effective at treating or preventing a disease, we are wholeheartedly behind the idea of supporting it…no matter where it operates or who it benefits.”
    I think you would agree it is.
    Now what if we don’t compare two charities that treat blindness, but one that treats blindness and one that treats an infectious disease? Is it suddenly impossible to make a judgement which one is more effective? In the end it is about treating sick people to make them feel better. But if you don’t draw the line there, where do you? Between poverty reduction and disease treatment? It is also about making the lives of humans better.
    Of course it is very difficult to compare the merit of an artwork with that of helping a person with blindness, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try if we care about doing good.
    And if you personally come to the conclusion that the artwork is worthy of your money and the blind person is not - then so be it (no Effective Altruist would say you cannot make that judgement), but you just made a moral judgement that other people can (and will) argue against.
    Effective Altruism doesn’t tell you what to do, it just points out that there is a very difficult question that is worth answering, but difficult to answer:
    “What should I do to do the most good?”

  • Carl Shulman's avatar

    BY Carl Shulman

    ON November 26, 2013 07:34 PM

    It’s very strange for the authors to call effective altruism a ‘fringe’ idea. For one thing, more donations now flow through GiveWell than through Charity Navigator, with GiveWell’s money moved doubling almost every year while Charity Navigator has been stagnant. Does this make Charity Navigator fringe?

    More importantly, the Gates Foundation, the world’s largest, has as its credo that “every life is of equal value,” and as a result it focuses mainly on interventions that help the developing world, since it can save millions of lives in that area, orders of magnitude more cheaply than by funding hospitals or direct care for the global rich. When venturing into other areas, the direct life-saving efforts provide a benchmark for comparison of effectiveness.

    And Bill Gates is ready and willing to critique philanthropists on the priority of different causes, e.g. Mark Zuckerberg for putting internet connectivity ahead of disease:

    The view that Bill Gates is at the fringe of philanthropy is impossible for me to swallow.

  • BY Barry Horwitz

    ON November 26, 2013 07:44 PM

    It’s interesting how aggressively some of the writers attack the admittedly aggressive tone that Ken and Robert took in the article.  And perhaps it is too bad that these days, it takes some aggressive language to get through with some points.

    I’ve worked for several years with a nonprofit that focuses on seeking a cure for brain tumors.  The people focused on that issue are most often those who have lost a loved one to a brain tumor.  You can tell them, as GiveWell does, that their money would be more effectively spent, in terms of numbers, focusing on issues in Africa - but that is not what is on their mind after the losses they’ve suffered.  I do think that an analysis that helps one compare the charities focused on brain tumors - to assure that one doesn’t give funds to an organization that is less effective than others focused on their same cause - is a useful one.  But an analysis that says that they should put their emotions and passions aside and realize that the money would go farther in a developing country is heartlessly judgmental and not appropriate.

    So it is a shame that strong words were used - and triggered even stronger words in response - but I do agree, strongly, with the premise of their article here.  And I wish for a world where it doesn’t require such strong statements to get people to pay attention or to make a point.

  • Scott Weathers's avatar

    BY Scott Weathers

    ON November 27, 2013 11:17 AM


    Thanks for your reply.

    Effective Altruism believes that all life is equal. It sounds like you agree.

    What EA does differently, however, is that it evaluates charities by how well they improve life. It does not matter where that life is located, whatsoever. From my understanding, Charity Navigator believes that it should evaluate charities by how well they spend their money, and let individuals decide who to donate to.

    From this reasoning, it seems that people should donate to EA-recommended charities if they want to make sure their dollars have the greatest impact. Maybe this is not a goal of everyone, but it certainly is one of mine.

    Why is this not a sound goal? Isn’t it pretty similar to what Charity Navigator does, just taken one step further?


  • BY Jeff Mason

    ON November 27, 2013 01:24 PM

    Ken and Bob, I actually like the ideal of Effective Altruism – in theory.  I just don’t think it’s realistic.  People just don’t think and act this way.  People want to give to the things they feel passionate about.

    What is more realistic is allowing donors to feel good about giving to the things they feel strongly about but also assessing whether or not the organization they give to has any chance of generating social value.  To assess this capability, you need to determine if the organization is high performing.  More specifically, does the organization have the systems, people, and processes in place to navigate their way to success?  This means setting clear and reasonable goals, determining indicators that they can use to measure their progress towards their goals, regularly collecting data that relates their efforts taken to their desired outcomes to determine what is working and what’s not working, and then using this information to make adjustments to their approach to continuously improve. 

    Organizations that actively manage their performance will eventually navigate their way to success.  So, in my opinion, philanthropists should give to things they care about - but only give to organizations that have high-performing characteristics.  Getting philanthropists to just do this is tough enough.

  • BY Chris Cardona

    ON November 27, 2013 03:15 PM

    Jeff, this is an eminently reasonable response to a highly contentious discussion.

    I think the key unexamined factor in this discussion, alluded to by at least one commenter, is the role of utilitarian philosophy I believe explicitly in Singer’s approach, and probably implicitly in GiveWell’s approach. This is the “one step further” to which Scott Weathers alludes.

    It’s one thing to say all life has equal value. (Which, let’s not even get into whether that should be all “human” life, I know enough about Singer to not want to chase down that particular rabbit hole, haha.)

    It’s another to say that as a result, you should actively IGNORE ties of familiarity and place in making giving decisions.

    It’s yet another to say that if you do NOT do so, your approach to giving is morally inferior.

    Let’s call these propositions A, B, and C.

    It sounds like all are in agreement about proposition A. Effective altruists I believe want to argue that B logically follows from A. Berger and Penna resist this conclusion. They further contend that C is also characteristic of effective altruism, and this really gets them going.

    So there are at least (!) two areas of debate here: does B logically follow from A? And do effective altruists also believe C?

    Let’s call these bones of contention 1 and 2.

    I think 2 can relatively easily be addressed. It would be interesting to hear some of the many folks who have commented in this thread in favor of effective altruism speak to this point.

    I think 1 is, as Ozzie Gooen kicked us off by pointing out, the topic of libraries worth of debate. I’m with Jeff Mason that we’re not likely to resolve it here. Reasonable people can disagree on it. At least, that’s how I see it.

    Thanks for a very thoughtful set of comments, and happy Thanksgiving!

  • David Lawson's avatar

    BY David Lawson

    ON November 27, 2013 04:03 PM

    In response to Robert’s comment, I don’t buy that the donor’s freedom to make their own decisions is an issue here -

    Charity Navigator aims to persuade donors to give to the most effective charities for the cause that the donor has chosen. While Effective Altruism aims to persuade donors to give to the most effective charities for the most effective causes.

    If donors are interested in giving to the most effective charities for the cause that they have chosen then they may listen to Charity Navigator; if they don’t then they won’t. And if donors are interested in giving to the most effective causes then they may listen to Effective Altruism; again, if they don’t then they won’t.

    Donors are free to ignore both Charity Navigator and Effective Altruism - and often do. So, neither Charity Navigator nor Effective Altruism infringe on the donor’s freedom to make their own decisions.

    The real crux here is whether donors should give to the most effective causes. Charity Navigator says “no” arguing that many goals are important. While Effective Altruism says “yes” arguing that the overriding goal is to achieve the most good per dollar spent. And the answer, of course, is up to the donors to decide.

  • David Moss's avatar

    BY David Moss

    ON November 28, 2013 11:45 AM

    I hope people read about Effective Altruism and what it actually says, rather than judge it based on this article, for where this article makes any concrete claims about EA, they mostly get it wrong, indeed, sometimes the positions described are the exact opposite of the ones described here.

    Mostly though, this article contains zero arguments, merely ad hominem. The arguments that are identifiable are presented as simple and obvious, but instead are deeply confused.
    Taking one example: the article makes much of what would happen IF *everyone* *exclusively* gave to the handful of charities that (it inaccurately claims) EA recommends: there would be no domestic charity at all, no research, no new charities ever etc. But this counter-factual argument is transparently ridiculous. For one thing, it clearly will not be the case that everyone shifts all resources to these few charities. Given that, it should be uncontroversial to say that it would be better to give to under-resourced charities, rather than over-resourced charities. Yet even if it were the case that donations were so dramatically shifted by this advice that suddenly some other charity became more effective to give to, then EA would recommend giving more to that charity. Further, the suggestion that EA would have no-one give resources to research is demonstrably false- EA clearly endorses resources being devoted to research and has discussed this a lot. The “If everyone did the thing being recommended now, all the time forever” argument is recognisably ridiculous. Compare: we might say of a given patient, “What they need now more than anything else is a blood transfusion”- it would be ludicrous to object to this advice about what goal is better or worse to pursue, at present, by saying “If we only ever devoted medical resources to giving people heart transplants over and over again, then where would we be?”

  • Jay Quigley's avatar

    BY Jay Quigley

    ON November 28, 2013 01:08 PM

    The straw man is this: the article makes it sound like EAs are hellbent on choosing some causes over others.

    In reality, GiveWell & EAs only recommend alleviating developing-world starvation, deaths, and diseases *given that* the problems of disaster victims and Westerners are either overfunded, are much more costly to counteract with, and/or are less serious.

    If those facts about the world were radically different, then charity could begin at home.

  • Ozzie Gooen's avatar

    BY Ozzie Gooen

    ON November 28, 2013 01:59 PM

    Robert M.Penna,

    Thanks for your reply.  Thank you in particular for referring to Effective Altruism as Effective Altruism and not “Defective Altruism” as was done in the original article.

    I originally assumed that the article may have been a somewhat false attack.  It seemed like the authors would be doing a lot of good for the movement to attack it as such, though I guess at this point it may be good in terms of publicity for all parties involved. 

    “we have struck a nerve, which was our intention in writing the piece in the first place.”

    This sounds like you were explicitly trolling.  I’m used to trolling online, but am surprised to see it as part of the philanthropy discussion on the Stanford Social Innovation Review. 

    The claim that “all people must be effective altruist” is quite a strong one and I think very few people anywhere would support, even within the EA community.

    From what I can tell though, it seems like everyone’s arguments would accept the claim that “It’s fine for some people to be effective altruists.” 

    There happens to be a community who isn’t particularly attached to any other cause and is quite receptive to Effective Altruism.  I’d be curious if there is anyone here who would be upset when these individuals spend their money on what they see as the best global causes.

  • BY Jeremy Kohomban

    ON November 29, 2013 09:12 AM

    Ken and Robert;

    Great Job!!!

    This conversation was needed, especially during this season when so many are considering their end-of-year giving.

    I would add that you missed one very important point when you say that “….whatever the origin of their impulse to give, should be informed and see their donation as an investment”.  I know we want every donation to be an investment, however sometimes despite all our wishes and education, a donation is simply a “gift” and the donor is content with the give.

    We live in a democracy and there is no need for us to be prescriptive anymore than we already are.

  • As someone not highly invested in the charitable sector I had not heard of “EA” but from what I’ve read it “applies evidence and reason to working out the most effective ways to improve the world.” This is lovely and all in theory but people give from their heart for causes they care about. If a disaster happens you don’t say well yes this raises disaster awareness, give to the general cause to a place that “needs it more”. No, people want to give to THAT disaster because that is why they want to donate now (referring to the Japan tsunami and how that was handled by GiveWell). You can’t say only donate to certain causes, if someone comes to a website that effectively guides donations they want to know safe effective charities to give to for THAT cause. If you think of it like a business, you have to satisfy the customers. If they want to know where to donate for a cause then you tell them first. Don’t just try to sell them something they didn’t come there for, no one likes that.
    That ends my GiveWell rant, back to EA. It may help more people to give to a third world country (may being the operative word considering not all charities are effective) but people are still going to give to causes they care about. As long as people do that, there will be change. It may be slower but the average donor is going to give not to what people say is the “right” place to give but to something close to their hearts.

  • Several people have brought up the fact that donors give from their hearts for causes they care about. This is true of effective altruists as well, it’s just that the “cause” they care about is achieving the most good they can with their donations.

    Effective altruists seek to answer the question “how can I do the most good with the money I have available to donate?” They want to have the greatest possible impact—that is their cause, and it comes from the heart and inspires just as much passion as someone who donates for any other cause.

    I don’t think most effective altruists who give to anti-malaria charities or deworming charities are deeply interested in malaria or intestinal worms. In fact, they may actively avoid getting too emotionally involved in those causes because GiveWell’s recommendations could change next year and they’ll have to switch to funding charities working on some other issue. Effective altruists may not even be deeply interested in the populations they are helping. Instead, they are driven by having the greatest possible positive impact for their donation. They want to do the most good.

    That may seem cold and heartless, but it isn’t: most effective altruists I’ve encountered (admittedly only online) are very passionate about their goal of achieving the greatest possible impact with their donations—they want to make a real, measurable, verifiable difference. Is that so bad?

    I agree that relentless optimization can get out of hand, and many of the proponents of effective altruistm are young intellectuals who seem more interested in theory than in the practical application of effective altrusim. But it’s an evolving field, with lots of smart, passionate people working to advance its principles.

  • BY Robert Wiblin

    ON December 3, 2013 05:24 PM

    One point that hasn’t yet been made:

    “Charity Navigator does not judge whether one type of charity is better than another”

    The case presented seems self defeating.

    If you really couldn’t compare the relative value of different charitable activities, then there shouldn’t be anything wrong with the many charitable activities undertaken under the banner of ‘effective altruism’. The authors would simply be indifferent rather than hostile to it; or at most this would be purely their own subjective reaction and nobody would have any reason to listen.

  • Brian Anderson's avatar

    BY Brian Anderson

    ON December 29, 2013 06:28 PM

    This article is an intellectual embarrassment to both Berger and Penna.

  • Charles G's avatar

    BY Charles G

    ON January 15, 2014 09:39 AM

    Although the original article has its problems, it did succeed in generating wonderful comments.

    I am perhaps a “typical” middle class individual donor, and was very excited a few years ago to discover Charity Navigator (CN), which enabled me to focus my giving and feel better about it. Recently, I discovered Effective Altruism (EA) and have been reading about the concept and its application. I’m now even more excited about my giving, and intend to give more.

    One thing the EA movement has done is push CN (and similar sites) to be more comprehensive and more discriminating. Bill Gates and company have also been positive influences.

    There is a huge cultural bias toward giving to local and/or emotional causes (I see this in friends and family), or to not give at all because “it would be a drop in the ocean.” The EA movement, I am hoping, can help counter these biases, but I don’t believe we are in any danger of EA forcing people to give a certain way or taking over the charity field.

    I am going to give more money to the most effective causes, but still support certain artistic and political causes I feel strongly about. It does not have to be an “either-or” game. But I am going to focus more on effectiveness, and less on emotion. I hope CN will add more guidance about effectiveness, while still covering most charitable organizations.

  • BY Eric Friedman

    ON January 30, 2014 08:14 PM

    I’m the author of the book “Reinventing Philanthropy: A Framework for More Effective Giving” and one of the people criticized above.  Shortly after this was posted, I wrote a blog entry to respond; by the time I realized that the SSIR was not going to post it, the discussion had died down.  Since then, several people have asked for my reaction and it appears that the blog post continues to be referenced, so I want to post my response.  I apologize for the tardiness. 

    Mr. Berger and Mr. Penna doled out heavy criticism of my book.  They mischaracterized it as well as the entire Effective Altruism movement.  This comment thread includes ample discussion of Effective Altruism, so I see no need to rehash that.  With respect to my book, there were so many misquotations that pointing out each of them would not productively advance the discussion on philanthropy. 

    Berger and Penna include me as one of the people described as a “zealot” and my book has ideas they stated were “infused with logic so cold that even Mr. Spock would cringe upon hearing it.”  I want to clarify my opinions so others can judge for themselves.  There is not enough money to support every charity that does good things, so we must prioritize.  If I had a choice between saving one person’s life or ten, then I would choose ten.  My decision wouldn’t be affected by what country they live in.  If I could save a hundred lives or build a really cool wing in a major art museum, then I’d choose to save lives.  If I had a choice between saving one person’s life or lifting ten people out of extreme poverty, it would be a tough decision.  Of course, in the real world, evaluating charities is much more complex.  Most charities impact multiple things, and there is never certainty about the impact.  These views affect my thoughts on the relative merits of giving to different charities and the opinions expressed in my book. 

    Berger and Penna describe Effective Altruism as “weighing causes and beneficiaries against one another. In this, it is not moral, but rather, moralistic in the worst sense of the word.”  Any time a donor selects one health charity over another, that donor is choosing one who suffers over another.  When a donor makes a choice between a health charity and a non-health charity, that donor is making a decision between health and other ways to improve the quality of life.  These are realities I cannot change.  Donors can either acknowledge the consequences of their decisions or remain willfully blind.  For those who choose to consider the consequences, there is no single, objective way to address them.  My book advocates that donors should discuss these issues openly and incorporate them into their decision-making.  Apparently Berger and Penna disagree. 

    In a comment below the original post, Penna justified the inflammatory style of his writing by saying “it was our aim to utilize language equal, we felt, to the dramatic tone employed by Singer and Friedman to impress upon their audiences the gravity of their claims.”  I disagree with that comparison.  While my book (and Peter Singer’s writing) addresses controversial issues, it does so in a thoughtful and constructive way to advance the discussion on charitable giving.  Others are welcome to judge for themselves based on reading an excerpt ( or the whole book. 

  • Why don’t you address the actual reasoning and methodology of effective altruists, and the ethical foundations of the concept, instead of complaining that “it’s icky and moralistic?” This must be a joke.

  • Ill-tempered drivel.

  • Rather self serving of Charity Navigator to bash a movement which may impact it’s own endeavors. As a previous poster commented, Peter Singer, Give well, and the Effective Altruism movement convinced me that: 1) extreme poverty can be effectively addressed, 2) As a middle-class American, I enjoy enormous privilege, and 3) It is immoral for me to ignore the profound needed of the extreme poor when I have the ability to help. How is that wrong, exactly? I also support many local charities and nonprofits who have nothing to do with international poverty, and I sense no pressure from the EA movement to cease doing so on order that all of my charitable giving be directed toward supporting a handful of highly effective charities.

  • BY rob pyne

    ON March 29, 2015 04:24 AM

    Adding my voice to many in the comments section, I would say that the arguments in the article are very weak indeed, and that the tone of voice is very counterproductive. I make no swipe at the authors as that would bring me down to their combative level, but I do hope they take all the feedback received to this post and either open their minds (seems unlikely which is a shame), or improve their arguments and make them constructive.

    Balancing heart and head in charity is a good idea. Like many, i have given much to charity in my time, and I have no idea if it worked, and every time I want to give more I find it hard to make objective decisions. Effective Altruism offers some scope for that, and improves on websites which just get us to compare charities on stats like how much of my dollar gets wasted in overheads.

  • Matthew White's avatar

    BY Matthew White

    ON June 11, 2015 05:53 AM

    This is just an awful article.

    It was quite a surprise when I saw that those who had written in such a tone were with Charity Navigator.

    That makes me think a lot less of that organisation.

    I won’t even address the fundamental ethical issues involved, as this is a subject which requires much more than I can examine in a comments section. And much more than can be examined in this brief article on the Internet.

  • Michael T.'s avatar

    BY Michael T.

    ON June 24, 2015 12:43 PM

    I can’t imagine what drove such distinguished individuals to write such a poor article.

    Name-calling, misrepresentations, and slippery-slop arguments aren’t helping the charitable movement.

    Best I can tell, the two points of the article are:

    1. Every charity and cause should be seen as equally valuable
    2. Every person has the credentials and expertise to choose the best charity

    Ignoring that those two assumptions are wrong on the face of it, I think what’s really going on here is that the authors feel emotionally attacked by the idea that a particular cause they like may not be the most effective one. I can relate, that’s an unpleasant feeling.

    But no one is arguing to take away the freedoms of people to choose what’s important to them. What is being promoted by the Effective Altruist movement is that people—who want to have the largest impact possible—can go about it in a systematic way. If that doesn’t describe you, you can and should donate to the cause you do believe in.

    And that’s OK, too.

  • BY Michael Dello-Iacovo

    ON October 24, 2015 09:15 PM

    “Which is the “better” thing to do? To provide a guide dog to one blind American, or cure 2,000 people of blindness in developing countries? Even had he not employed the adjective “American,” which was clearly intended to make his audience feel a distinct pang of cultural guilt, it was obvious which choice Singer thought was the “better” of the two; indeed, he said the choice was “clear.” “

    But it is clear. To say otherwise would be to insinuate that the sight of 1 person is worth more than the sight of 2,000 people.

  • BY Michael Dello-Iacovo

    ON October 24, 2015 09:18 PM

    The conflict of interest is so strong that it’s hard to take this article seriously. Charity Navigator has been singled out as an organisation that could do more, and rather than examine this they have resorted to attacking the critiquing parties.

    “Ironically, he notes in the last paragraph of his book, “Putting together all the pieces of the do-bester puzzle is difficult—in fact, it is impossible.” We could not agree more! “

    Just because we can’t find the perfect solution to doing the most good, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

  • BY Michael Dello-Iacovo

    ON October 24, 2015 09:20 PM

    This article also neglects the fact that some well meaning charities with low overhead costs and high transparency can actually cause more harm than good. Charity Navigator does not yet allow for this, and I hope it takes this into account in the future.

  • Awful article. Misses completely all the literature and that ethics is a philosophical field, dismissing it as “moralistic and hyper-rationalistic”.

  • This article is the most ridiculous and badly written one I read in a long time. The writers are clearly biased and are writing in a rather poor, emotionally driven way which reminded me of a huffish kid in kindergarten. To denunciate a movement (whose name is it’s trade mark) that is driven to do the most good one can do and instantly rename it to mean something clearly negative is just the most wrong an educated person can do in a objective article. Didn’t we do ” unpleasant nickname building” in school or kindergarden to make other kids feel bad? Is this the way well educated people write about a movement that is guided by some of the most influential ond impactful moral philosophers of our time?
    Well…it just shows how desperate the heads at charity navigator are..
    Because rather than stubbornly following an ideology (or here a fix program) that is known to not be fully effective; EFFECTIVE ALTRUISM (Don’t you dare to use the other term ever again) is self-reflecting and highly scientific and does not follow one programm rather than bare facts! Point.

  • Your problems with EA seem to come down to two things:

    A) Tone - to which I say look in the mirror.
    B) Focusing narrowly on a few charities, which is only true because everyone who isn’t an EA donates to a variety leaving the relatively small number of EAs to donate to a few specific charities that have the greatest impact.  They understand the need to control most problems, and if everyone was an EA then the utilitarian thing to do would be to spread their effort out over many charities in proportion to marginal utility, as it happens that isn’t the case.

  • Kevin Graham's avatar

    BY Kevin Graham

    ON December 23, 2015 11:25 PM

    This entire article was nothing more than indulgence in the idea that maximizing the good that you do in the world is “pretentious.” That idea is downright silly.

  • There is absolutely NO danger in the foreseeable future that the majority of people will stop giving the majority of their $ to the causes the authors fear are left out by effective altruism.
    But why is it “defective” altruism to be concerned how many people are helped how completely by our donations? Why shouldn’t more of us have more info that can help our donations save THOUSANDS more lives?
    If you read between the lines, the article above raises serious ?s about the motivations and priorities of Charity Navigator. Their limited criteria for reporting charities’ practices leaves out MANY vital concerns! These concerns ARE a matter of life and death in many cases.

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