22nd May 2019



On Tuesday the 30th of April, Prism hosted a panel discussion titled ‘The Guiding Principle For Philanthropy: Has Effective Altruism Found The Answer?’. Effective Altruism (EA) has gained traction within philanthropy, with donors increasingly applying principles from the movement to help guide their giving. Prism held the panel discussion to explore what these principles are and to ask the question, does EA offer the answer on how to give?  

The discussion on the night was chaired by Charles Mesquita (Charities Director at Quilter Cheviot and Prism the Gift Fund Trustee) and the panel was made up of Beth Breeze (Director of the Centre for Philanthropy), Natalie Cargill (Founder and Executive Director of Effective Giving UK), Seán Ó hÉigeartaigh (Executive Director of Centre for the Study of Existential Risk), and Wendy Harrison  (Executive Director of the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative).


What is Effective Altruism?

Charles opened up the discussion by offering a definition of EA. Effective Altruism can be understood as “a philosophy and social movement which applies evidence and reason to working out the most effective ways to improve the world.” With this idea in mind, Charles directed the overall question of the evening – ‘Has EA found the answer?’ – to our panel members.


Applying a cost/benefit analysis to philanthropy

Wendy started off by explaining that the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI), that she is Executive Director of, has benefited massively from the EA movement. She explained that this is largely due to the fact that a central tenet of EA is about being able to demonstrate the effectiveness of a project. Effective charities or projects will be ones that are able to demonstrate a large impact with an associated small cost.

The focus that EA has on evaluating the impact/cost ratio of a charitable programme works well for organisations like SCI. SCI conducts scientific based research to measure impact, whilst also being very transparent with their financial management. This makes it clear to donors how money donated to SCI is spent and the impact that this can have. 

Wendy highlighted that often EA can favour global health initiatives that aim at helping those in extreme poverty. In areas where there is extreme poverty, low-cost health treatments can have a huge impact. It is in these cases where donors are most able to ‘save a life’ with a relatively small amount of money. Effective altruists suggest that if we are able to save a life without having a negative impact on our own, then morally we should. 

Whilst Wendy suggested that the principles of EA help to ensure that donors can maximise the impact they have, the reality is often far more complex. For example, whilst certain global health initiatives can demonstrate the exact cost of saving a life, the costs of the research that is required for discovering a treatment is often missed out from this calculation.



Should we be favouring short term or long-term initiatives?

In contrast to Wendy, Seán’s work focuses on researching global risk, and the large threats that exist to human life.

As already discussed, a central tenant of EA is about maximising your impact. Seán highlighted that there are two different strands to this. The first strand is looking at the world today and how we maximise our impact in the present. This strand of EA leads donors towards supporting programmes that help mitigate or eradicate the effects of extreme poverty today.

The second tenant EA asks us to consider is future impact and the big risks facing us. A good example of this would be the issue of climate change. If EA says that we should maximise our impact, then arguably it could be considered more effective for donors to give to causes that aim to mitigate climate change. Tackling issues like climate change could have a more positive impact on the world, as this is an issue that will greatly affect everyone if not addressed now. However, where this becomes hard to reconcile with the EA movement generally, is that a goal to eradicating the effects of climate change is not something that is easily measurable.

Bearing this in mind, Seán proposed that a blended approach to philanthropy, one that looks at donating to causes that have tangible values such as eradicating poverty, whilst also considering projects that might have less tangible metrics, such as donating towards climate change research is best.

Does Effective Altruism lead to certain causes being prioritised?

Another outcome of EA is that it leads to certain causes or projects to be prioritised over others. As we have seen, effective altruists tend to favour causes that are able to empirically demonstrate they effectively improve the world.

Natalie, the Founder and Executive Director of Effective Giving in the UK, suggested that an advantage of EA is that it removes certain biases from the decision-making process when deciding where to give. This leads to causes being supported based on their relative importance as opposed to purely people’s emotional connections. Natalie highlighted this point by delving into the term ‘empathy’. She argued that whilst emotive forms of empathy can be a good motivation for giving, they can also lead us to inadvertently overlook the suffering of those we don’t relate to. EA, by promoting giving based on reason and evidence, removes biases that can prevent people from giving to causes that do not directly affect them, enabling a more inclusive form of empathy. Therefore, whilst EA does lead to certain causes being favoured, it can be argued that based on research and evidence and a more inclusive form of empathy, that these causes should be prioritised.

Some problems with the Effective Altruism movement

Finally, Beth, Director for the Centre of Philanthropy, looked in greater depth at some of the issues with EA. Beth outlined some aspects of EA that can be problematic.

The first being that EA flies in the face of how donors act. Beth highlighted that in a lot of cases a large motivation that moves people to give is an emotional connection to an issue or cause. EA, by removing emotion from philanthropy, risks discouraging people from giving in the first place.

EA can be reductionist. This point was raised by both Wendy and Seán and was then expanded on by Beth. EA reduces philanthropy down to costs and looks to create the most overall good from the lowest amount of money. For example, research from those within the movement will focus on demonstrating the exact impact of a donation. The issue with this is that it causes more expensive, harder to measure long term options to get ignored. This can sometimes be detrimental to finding an overall solution to problems we face today. Further, by focusing so much on the cost/benefit analysis, Beth suggested that EA unhelpfully promotes the idea of philanthropy as transactional. People might come to believe that because they follow the principles of EA their giving is better. EA can, to a certain degree, make people competitive in a sector which is fundamentally about generosity.




From the panel discussion that took place on the evening of the 30th, ‘The Guiding Principle For Philanthropy: Has Effective Altruism Found The Answer?’, we land on the conclusion that Effective Altruism has found AN answer. Effective Altruism offers a tool and a way for donors to find out the most effective ways of improving the world, and this is greatly appealing to some donors. However, Effective Altruism is not for everyone, and therefore it has not found THE concluding answer for deciding how to give!

Personal description of the evening written by Stephanie Berger (Prism the Gift Fund)

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