What is Effective Altruism?

Effective altruism (EA) is all about return on investment for philanthropic dollars. That starts with picking a high-priority cause, and suggests that donors should focus where there is the greatest need, informed by data. Usually, the causes associated with EA are the most pressing and the least funded. Since stretching your dollar is essential to EA, practitioners usually focus on poor areas where each dollar will go farther. EA is often associated with tackling poverty in developing countries.

Donors may, and often do, disagree about each of these factors. Anyone involved with EA will have their own evaluative criteria that they use to determine their course of action. While the issue, approach, and desired outcomes may differ between donors, all of them will be data-driven and have a clear rationale.

Effective Altruism vs. Impact Philanthropy:

As Stephanie Fuerstner Gillis, senior advisor for the impact-driven philanthropy initiative at the Raikes Foundation, describes it: EA and impact-driven philanthropy (IDP) “are 85 percent aligned, with some small nuanced differences.” Both practices are data-driven and focus on maximizing the change achieved for each dollar spent. But while EA emphasizes the “head,” IDP recognizes that donors also come to philanthropy with passions and interests, and that philanthropy can bring joy to givers and recipients. Thus, IDP asks donors to engage with their heads first, but also their “hearts,” focusing on areas where they have passion and can bring their own knowledge, skills, talents, and networks in addition to their dollars. Those who align with IDP suggest that taking this approach will allow donors to connect more deeply and sustain their work over time, leading to greater impact.

As a result, impact-driven philanthropists are more likely to give to a wider range of issue areas and geographies. Some may choose to work in their own communities where they can draw on a wider range of resources, or on causes or strategies where they are uniquely positioned to contribute value. Learn more about impact-driven philanthropy.

Effective Altruism Players:

There are a number of players working on EA. While they all adhere to the core tenants of EA, practitioners have their own methods of prioritization and execution.

GiveWell clearly outlines their philosophy on EA, which closely aligns with the description above, and offers a list of organizations that they consider worthy of donations.

The Life You Can Save emphasizes the importance of healthcare as the most important use of philanthropic donations. They include a list of vetted charities along with the cost of their intervention per person.

The Centre for Effective Altruism splits donations among a selection of their approved causes.

The Effective Altruism Forum is a place for individuals involved in EA to discuss the various components of the practice.

The Open Philanthropy Project lays out their grantmaking strategy, including their own funding priorities and opportunities for other EA grantmakers. Read more here.

Effective Altruism and You:

Before you embark on your EA journey, take some time to decide if this is really the method of giving that makes sense for you. It may be that your passions and talents align with the issues and geographies that would be prioritized in an effective altruism approach. If you decide that EA is an appropriate path, spend some time reading various sources and deciding what your priorities are. Once you start, remember that constant reevaluation is a core tenant of EA.