If you were walking past a shallow pond and saw a child drowning, would you jump in and save them? Of course you would. If you knew you’d have to pay $100 to dry clean your clothes after you jump in the water, would you still save the drowning child? There’s a good chance you still would. Did you know that you could keep 100 people from dying from malaria for three to four years by donating $100 to the Against Malaria Foundation? These questions form the basis of the effective altruism movement.
Effective altruism uses evidence-based research to discover cost-effective ways to create the greatest benefit for others. EA asks, how can I have the greatest impact for good with my donations?
People who practice effective altruism don’t choose charities based on publicity campaigns, family traditions or proximity. They take an unsentimental approach to charitable giving that relies on data and the belief that all human lives are valuable, not just the lives of people we see on a daily basis. Taking emotions out of the giving process might sound like a paradox, but it makes sense if you define “doing good” as saving lives and keeping people from suffering from preventable diseases.
The Against Malaria Foundation exemplifies the EA principals as an organization. Giving $100 to the Against Malaria Foundation keeps 100 people from dying of malaria for three to four years by providing them with a long-lasting insecticidal bed nets. The Foundation publishes their research and lists details about the LLNIs, distribution methods and tracking mechanisms.
Peter Singer explains EA best. He’s an Australian philosopher who teaches at Stanford University, and some of his ideas form the foundation of the EA movement.
Singer practices what he teaches. His most popular book, The Life You Can Save, is free for download. He’s also recently released a second book on the topic, The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically. This book introduces a group of people who have restructured their lives based on the principles of effective altruism. Their stories demonstrate the good they’ve done, along with the personal fulfillment and joy they’ve found living this way.
Effective altruism isn’t only about making donations — it’s also about how we live our daily lives. It’s about choosing careers that don’t contribute to pain and violence in the world, even if it’s violence we don’t see in our day-to-day life. It’s about negotiating for higher salaries and living modestly in order to give more of our income to EA organizations. It’s about donating blood and bone marrow. It’s about finding happiness and satisfaction in contributing to the well-being of everyone. It’s about long-term gratification and community growth. It’s about preventing human extinction.
It’s not about saving the world on your own. It’s about doing your best to save as many people as possible and surrounding yourself with others doing the same.
There are still some open questions within the EA community. Common conversations discuss the possibility of better ways to define “good.” What about changing broken economic, political, and social systems — should we put our effort into fixing those rather than supporting nonprofit organizations? How can we practice EA with a long-term perspective? These debates are welcome. They push the community to think deeply and have honest and always developing responses.
It’s easy to find effective organizations. The resource sections of Givewell and The Life You Can Save allow you to search by cause and provide research into the work of each organization, so that you can be sure they’re genuinely effective. Organizations listed on The Life You Can Save have a feature that allows you to put in a dollar amount and they’ll tell you how much good they can do with it. If you’ve ever wondered how much of your charity donation is helping individuals, and not being lost to bureaucracy, features like these help set your mind at ease.
For example, a $10 donation to the Iodine Global Network provides 1000 people with a year of protection against iodine deficiency and reaches 200 people currently at risk. Iodine is crucial for healthy brain development, and deficiencies — which are most common in pregnant women and newborns — can lead to cognitive impairment, miscarriage, stillbirth and infant mortality. 2.2 billion people live in areas at risk of iodine deficiency, making it the leading cause of preventable mental impairment.
You can also donate to The Center for Effective Altruism’s funds and let them make the choices for you. The Centre and Givewell prioritise transparency, even when it might be embarrassing, so you’ll also find “Mistakes we’ve made” tabs to see where they’ve fallen short in the past and how they’ve corrected those missteps.
Monetary donations aren’t the only way to participate. Most organizations will accept whatever you have a little bit extra of — maybe that’s time you can give, skills you can contribute or a social network you can share.
As a young company, we’re doing what we can to contribute –– one of our contributions is providing Contentful services pro bono to worthy charities and other community organizations. The Center for Effective Altruism is one of our pro bono customers and runs on Contentful for free.
Managing editor of the Contentful blog and API obsessed. Kiersten collaborates with Contentful's makers and users to write articles that support the Contentful community. She’s happiest when helping others talk about their Contentful-powered dream projects.