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The contemporary effective altruism movement seeks to transform philanthropy in two ways: 1) by directing philanthropy to the most important objectives, and 2) by ensuring that philanthropic dollars are spent as effectively as possible. Among the proponents are the UK’s Centre for Effective Altruism; the US charity rating organization, GiveWell; and Eric Friedman, in a recent book, Reinventing Philanthropy: A Framework for More Effective Giving. But both aims of effective altruism face significant barriers.

The father of effective altruism is the utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer, who argues that people should give away everything that they don’t spend on necessities to help the world’s neediest. He acknowledges in his book The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty that this would call for drastic changes in Americans’ lifestyles, writing: “Over many years of talking and writing about this subject, I have found that for some people striving for a high moral standard pushes them in the right direction. … [But] asking people to give more than almost anyone else gives risks turning them off. … To avoid that danger, we should advocate a level of giving that will lead to a positive response.”

While few people are likely to radically restructure their entire budgets, many of us have an explicit or tacit budget for charity. A less demanding and possibly more realistic version of effective altruism would be to devote one’s charitable budget to providing for the basic needs of the world’s poorest.

Even in this limited domain, a donor might have a philosophical argument with Singer about the value of, say, the arts or education—even when weighed against basic needs. But Singer’s argument might nonetheless lead the donor to reconsider her overall charitable portfolio and perhaps recognize that some giving, even though blessed by an IRS tax deduction, is not philanthropic in spirit. For example, as Rob Reich pointed out in his recent New York Times article “Not Very Giving,” it is hard to justify a contribution to one’s own children’s elementary or secondary schools as charitable. And donors might take a skeptical look at giving that is motivated largely by vanity or reciprocity, with little regard to how it actually improves society.

As a modest step, donors might reserve a small portion of their charitable budgets for such projects but devote the lion’s share to organizations that have the potential for real social impact. If the effective altruism movement moves even a few high-net-worth donors in this direction, it could have a positive effect on their peers’ giving for the benefit of the world’s poor.

What about the second strain of effective altruism—effectiveness? Its proponents apply a benefit-cost analysis to charitable giving so that every philanthropic dollar will likely make the greatest possible difference in improving the lives of the poor. This is how GiveWell’s website assesses charities. And it is the approach of the Robin Hood Foundation, which fights poverty in New York.

Effectiveness would seem a sound criterion for a philanthropist seeking to achieve outcomes in any area. Yet it faces significant barriers as well. For one thing, the in-depth analysis that GiveWell and Robin Hood do is costly. Many donors are unwilling to pay for such administrative costs when they can give funds directly to beneficiaries, even though the research may pay for itself many times over by directing philanthropic dollars to high-performing organizations. More fundamentally and sadly, the vast majority of donors aren’t interested in doing any research before making a charitable contribution. Many seem satisfied with the warm glow that comes from giving; indeed, too much analysis may even reduce the charitable impulse. At the same time, efforts to motivate and teach donors (including the large majority of the 90,000 foundations in the United States) to consider the effectiveness of their philanthropy, whatever their goals may be, have not met with resounding success.

All things considered, my unsolicited advice to proponents of effective altruism is to stay the course. While not many donors may embrace even a limited version of Peter Singer’s prescription, the movement has the potential to create an aspirational anchor, which may change giving practices over time. And if GiveWell can broaden the scope of its recommendations and if other charity evaluators like Charity Navigator 3.0 continue to move in the direction of reporting on results, they will bring evidence of impact to the doors of donors who are unwilling to step outside and search for it for themselves.

Video: Paul Brest talks about why it is important for donors to fund general operating costs and overhead.

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