Effective Altruism: Not “Either / Or” but “Both / And”

The closing of a year is often a reflective time, and an article that recently appeared in my Twitter feed definitely inspired me to take a step back. The piece, entitled “How Many People Died Because of Batkid,” was a Gawker post based on an op-ed by Peter Singer in the Washington Post. Singer is a passionate spokesman for “effective altruism,” and I truly admire his efforts to encourage individuals to give more to people less fortunate than themselves. His piece looked at the massive response generated by the city of San Francisco to the story of a little boy affected by leukaemia and argued that more good could have been accomplished by giving to causes that help people in developing countries. But while Singer may be a brilliant ethicist, his reasoning shows why he doesn’t make the greatest fundraiser.

We know from research that very few of us make our charitable donations in the manner that Singer would prefer: from a sense of moral imperative to help others followed by the creation of a “charitable budget” and a cold calculus of the maximum impact (as specifically constructed by Singer) that our pound could make. A recent study by NPC found that less than half of UK donors (that is, people who had given £50 or more to charity in the last twelve months) felt that people should donate to charity if they have the means; presumably, the percentage of the total population, including non-donors, who do not feel there is a moral imperative to give would have been even higher. Moreover, the same study found that only 7% of UK donors use research to help them evaluate a donation decision between multiple charities. So we’re working with a population that, as a whole, doesn’t share Singer’s view that there is a moral imperative to give to others and that doesn’t give in the way that he prefers. While it’s laudable that Singer is trying to change the way people think about giving, fundraisers ignore the current reality at their peril.

Indeed, Singer’s own giving experiment proves the point that most of us don’t give to causes solely based on an intellectual understanding of their effectiveness. In his essay, he describes an experiment in which his organisation, The Life You Can Save, handed strangers in the street free money and then offered them the choice to keep the money or to donate it to the Against Malaria Foundation. He notes that “almost all of them chose to give it away — and some even added their own money to what they had just been given.” In total, $2,500 had been given away to strangers, with $2,421 being donated to the Against Malaria Foundation as a result. Singer concludes that his ‘giving experiment’ proves “not only that many Americans would like to help the global poor but also that they are genuinely happy to do so. All they need is the knowledge to be able to do so effectively.” (Emphasis mine.)

I find it very difficult to reach that same conclusion. What that experiment shows me is that, when people are moved by the apparent generosity of strangers and experience the warm feeling that comes from being a recipient of kindness, it moves some of them (but evidently not all) to consider initiating a gift to others in response. If Singer were trying to prove that knowledge of how to give effectively was all that people needed to motivate them to give to others, he would have had grad students standing on street corners armed not with dollar bills but collection buckets and leaflets about the effectiveness of the Against Malaria Foundation; I doubt he would have achieved results that were as positive as he did with his reciprocity experiment. Moreover, the results themselves aren’t terribly compelling: ignoring the input of the volunteers (or staffers – it’s unclear which he employed) and the costs of producing the accompanying publicity video, the experiment produced an ROI of less than 1, hardly a result that most professional fundraisers would be rushing to brag about (particularly if they didn’t capture donors’ details to follow them up for a subsequent donation!).

Singer is troubled by the fact that Save the Children can raise more money by telling people the story of a specific African seven-year-old in need than by describing the condition of three million children in Malawi, and he calls this a “flaw in our emotional make-up.” This line of thinking is the luxury of a moralist. The pragmatist cares only about how to raise the most money for the cause. And if exploiting this “flaw” in our thinking is the best way to do it, then we should applaud this strategy, not criticise it. As the research cited above shows, fundraisers are competing to a relatively small extent with fundraisers for other causes, but if we’re going to move the needle on charitable giving (which, as a percentage of household expenditure has remained relatively flat), we’re going to have to start diverting money from other purchases. Do you think the marketers of televisions or junk food are at all concerned about whether or not we’re buying their products for what they deem to be the right reasons? Absolutely not.

And while Singer is also concerned about the moral superiority of one cause over another, I would argue that any giving to good causes is better than none, and it’s empirically false – not to mention unhelpful – to classify the choice of most individual donors as a rational one between two good causes after a defined budget for philanthropy has been set, because we know this is not how most donors behave. (Scientists still have found no fossil record for homo economicus!) A better headline for the Gawker piece would have been “how many people die every day because of hamburgers,” because we spend a lot more money on fast food than we do on any particular charity. Why frame the debate as a comparison only between the worthiness of expenditure on two different charities? Singer might well have increased the total amount of money given away to good causes via his experiment if he had offered donors a choice among multiple charities, including ones that might have held more personal resonance for the individual donors.

So in answer to the question posed by the title of the Gawker post that got me started on this train of thought – how many people died as a result of Batkid – the answer is: probably none. Because very few of us are rationally weighing decisions about whether to give to the Against Malaria Foundation or to Make-a-Wish. If anything, the heart-warming story of a city rallying to create a special day for a little boy did nothing more sinister than to encourage more donations to Make-a-Wish. In many cases, the choice to give to a particular charity is equivalent to an “impulse buy” triggered by an intense emotional connection to the cause (or, as in the case of Singer’s giving experiment, a momentary reminder of the capacity for human kindness). Most people don’t give very much to charity at all; they literally have to be moved to do so, and the most effective way to move people is to appeal to emotion.

So let’s not frame the “effective altruism” debate as a contest only between one good cause versus others, pretend that fundraisers are battling for clear-thinking minds over cuddly hearts that need to be warmed or assert that a pound raised from one is morally superior to a pound raised from the other. If we want to create more positive social change, we need to encourage more giving overall. We need to meet donors where they are by creating opportunities to give to causes that are meaningful to them (and an excellent fundraiser is distinguished by the ability to make her cause relevant to new audiences!) and harness both hearts and minds. Use rational analysis to make sure we’re maximising the impact of every pound we raise (and share that insight with the small percentage of donors for whom that makes a difference) and acknowledge that evidence of impact alone is unlikely to encourage greater giving at a massive scale. If Peter Singer wants to become a more effective fundraiser, he should take a lesson from Make-a-Wish and embrace the methods and stories that inspire giving.

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