Giving with the Heart and Head: Effective Altruism

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Effective Altruism.   Heard of it?  According to Miriam – Webster:

Effective = Producing a decided, decisive, or desired effect

Altruism= Unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others.

According to Peter Singer’s Ted Talk: The Why and How of Effective Altruism, it’s a new philanthropic philosophy and movement and it provides food for thought for nonprofit professionals trying to make the case to prospective donors, advocates and volunteers.

Recently, my teenager was contemplating the purchase of some outdoor toys.  In helping him decide whether this was a wise expenditure of his hard earned cash, we talked a lot about what else he could do with that same amount of money and then compared the value (measured in satisfaction and use) he would get out of each of those alternatives.  The philosophy of effective altruism is a lot like this, but applied to improving the welfare of others rather than acquiring material goods.  In a nutshell, it’s using your heart and head to evaluate what impact you can make on the welfare of others by making an investment of time or money.

Whether you embrace the concept of effective altruism or not, I think there are two key takeaways to consider when developing your messaging and appeals to prospective donors and volunteers.

  • Reason, not just emotion, helps people recognize the needs of others and decide how they want to help.  Nonprofits tend to focus on emotional appeals: we look for what will pull at the heartstrings or make people feel like they want to help.  However, there are a number of philanthropists who evaluate projects and ideas based not on what their heart tells them to do, but on a rational understanding of the world.  They begin with a premise such as all lives have equal value and evaluate programs based on measurable and significant impact to the greatest number of people.  Want an example?  Singer points to Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet.  All three of these individuals use their intelligence to support not causes but rather effective changes on a very large scale.  These philanthropists are unique in their capacity to give, but there are certainly individuals who operate on a smaller scale and still achieve large impacts through effective altruism.

How do we respond?   Define our impact, both in terms of scope and outcomes.  Know how many people are going to benefit from the impact and prove it with research and data.

  • People want to know:  How much of a difference can I make?With altruism as part of the equation, individual donors, volunteers and advocates may want to know how they individually are making a difference in the welfare of the population we serve.  With a well-crafted argument, a person operating under an effective altruism philosophy might go so far as to choose a donation to a charity over a material purchase if they believe the value or impact from their individual contribution is greater than the temporary pleasure they might receive from the item.   In my own experience this has played out during holidays when I choose to “gift” a donation.  I know the gift recipient values the impact the donation will have far more than whatever trinket could be purchased with the same dollar amount.  But, to select the right gift donation, I must understand not just what the organization achieves, but how my particular gift will contribute towards the impact.  The impact is the gift, not the dollars contributed.

How do we respond?   Make sure we know what certain donation levels or hours of volunteer time can achieve, and be prepared to use this information in solicitation information.   Some nonprofits have taken this to heart and allow donors to receive updates on projects that were funded with their particular contributions.    If you can’t do that, at least be able to say generally what impact a donation will have and then have real-life stories to back it up.

Interested in more information on effective altruism?  Visit the Centre for Effective Altruism’s website or come join the discussion about effective altruism in the 501(c)ommunity (login required).


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