What Is Effective Altruism?

It's not just about doing good, it’s about doing good better. This article explores what effective altruism really means.

by Juliette Wyss, July 26, 2016

Effective altruism is a common expression in the social sector. But only few really understand what those two little words actually mean, even though it might not be as difficult as some people might imagine. Here's a neat definition of what it means to us.

It’s investing. It’s giving. It’s human, it’s – well, basically, we don’t really know what we mean by effective altruism. It’s an expression that has always been omnipresent, we have heard the words so many times and have tried using it in smart conversations when we were little, because who doesn’t want to sound smart from time to time. It’s one of those words. We all know what effective means and I guess most of us also know the definition of altruism.

But the combination of effective and altruism seems to trouble our brains. Not even the Urban Dictionary has a definition for it. So what is it supposed to be? 

An Idea

First of all, it is an idea. It is the idea of helping other people in a way that works. It’s not about buying washing machines for a poor family in Uganda that doesn’t have any electricity (which is not a made-up thing, this actually happens) or buying kids in a Favela in São Paolo a ton of chocolates (I’m not quite sure that is a thing, but I wouldn’t be too surprised). It’s the idea of helping others in a way that actually works, that has an effect on people that lasts longer than just a minute and supports people in making their current live situation better.

It’s also having an idea of what we want to change, what we want to do and how we want to do whatever we want to do to make this world a better place. Having an idea is the first step to actually doing something, it’s the impulse we need to set to get the thing going, the starting point of action.

Many people have had ideas and have given effective altruism an actual idea that developed into a project. One of them are Bill and Melinda Gates that managed to change the lives of thousands of people by designing a highly efficient foundation. According to statistics, the foundation has already saved 5.8 million lives and many more are to come. But of course, you don’t have to be a billionaire to become an effective altruist. Toby Ord is just one example of a middle class member that invests everything he can in effective help organisations, living just on the amount he actually needs and making sure that the rest of it will actually change the world by choosing organisations that are known to be not only effective but also transparent and honest.

A Dream

Many people dream about a world where we can live together without suffering from a bad conscious because we bought a third t-shirt from Puma. A world where parents don't have to tell their children to finish their plate because kids in Africa don’t have any food. A world where our news tickers on our phones aren’t going crazy because some state has restricted a country from its only water source because it simply doesn’t have enough water for itself.

We all dream about making this world a better place and effective altruism is the possibility to do so. We will never be able to make this dream come true if we decide to close our eyes, not only from the problem in general, but also from how we decide to invest ourselves to fulfil that dream.

As an example, if we decide to confront ourselves with world hunger we can either decide to write a letter to the country of YZ and express our concerns (I think we all agree on the fact that this might not be as effective as we hope it would be) or we decide to find a transparent organisation with a great idea, or even better, found our own organisation with a brilliant idea, and actively do something about the problem that makes us pull out our hair. So we have to find an effective way to reach our dreams.

A Way To Go

We all know that good intentions don’t always result in good outcomes. Effective altruism makes sure that what we invest, is actually having an effect.

It goes beyond good intentions, it uses a scientific approach to measure possible impact outcomes. Effective altruism is all about analysing what we invest in, instead of throwing money into a broken washing machine.

" Altruism isn’t just about doing good, it’s about doing good better."

An effective altruist analyses if the progress on the cause will drastically improve a large number of lives and if the effort in supporting it will create a measurable difference.

It’s a way, a path of thinking, which we have to follow to make sure that our emotional side of helping the whole world (#altruism) is not taking over our rational thinking and that we actually need to make the necessary decisions to change the world. 

However, not only the way is important in this context, but also the fact of going, moving, changing. Effective altruism is about achieving change and keeping it up, not sitting around and waiting for progress to happen. 

In conclusion, effective altruism is an active process that never ends. We must continue to find ways to improve this planet that actually work and when they work, make sure that they keep on working. It’s a running engine that needs constant input to create an output.

Because altruism isn’t just doing good. It’s doing good better.