Some facts about charity are so useful that they just have to be shared. Here’s one from the website of Giving What We Can:
‘It is not even a matter of some charities being 10 or 100 times as effective: even restricted to the field of health programs in developing countries, research shows that some are up to 10,000 times as effective as others.’ 
By reading this, most of us will have gained some motivation to give effectively, and this will deliver years of healthy life to those in need of charity.
Just as we’re grateful to Giving What We Can for this help, it’s natural to wonder what we can do to nudge others towards cost-effective philanthropy. First, I will evaluate whether philanthropic influencing can be effective in principle. Then, I’ll describe the classes of philanthropic influencing to get us thinking about what philanthropic influencing means in practice.
To discuss cost-effectiveness, we will use a point of comparison. Let’s put ourselves into the shoes of Jane. Jane is a professional donor, someone who earns money and donates it as cost-effectively as possible. If Jane earns a typical American income for forty years and donates 10%, she can expect to save 44,000 years worth of healthy life .
One day, however, Jane makes a change. She cuts down her hours at her relatively well-paid job so that she can no longer afford to donate in order to spend more time persuading other people to donate professionally. As a philanthropic influencer, will she save more years of life or less?
Well, suppose at the end of one month, she has convinced one person to donate their life’s income to charity. At first glance, this would seem like something of a failure. However, if this person earns a similar salary to Jane, and will donate as much as Jane would have for the same amount of time, then Jane’s single act of persuasion has saved 44,000 years’ worth of healthy life. She has already broken even. If she completely convinces three people about effective philanthropy, she will have saved 132,000 years’ worth of healthy life.
Clearly, her impact across 40 years will be tremendous. In this simple calculation, although a professional donor can change the world a great deal, a philanthropic influencer can change the world by many times more .
Our actual situation is slightly more complicated than Jane’s. Our potential audience will probably not donate as much, as cost-effectively, or for as long as we will. We probably shouldn’t give up donating either. After all, if we continue to donate, we will be practicing what we preach, which will make us more persuasive.
In the more complete calculation, there is a large margin of error, but philanthropic influencing promises to be cost-effective . Note that for an influencer whose income is significantly larger than their audience’s, the break-even point is harder to reach .
Philanthropic influencing, then, promises to be highly effective. However, in general, people are not interested in philanthropy. One cannot simply stand on a soapbox by a local shopping centre and begin to preach the merit of donating! We owe it to ourselves, to any potential donors and to their beneficiaries to be far more deliberate than that. It is time to discuss what classes of philanthropic influencing there are and how well they might work. I will cover these in order:
Funding philanthropic influencers
Let’s begin with something the founder of Giving What We Can, Toby Ord said to an audience of Oxford students last year:
‘I was surprised to find that, because I’d actually set up an organization to look at [poverty], within a couple of years, we’d got $30 million worth of pledges, which is more than my lifetime’s earnings. And it’s eminently possible for people in this room to help me out with this kind of thing – they could also produce more wealth going to help the poorest people by convincing others [to donate] than their entire lifetime’s earnings.’ 
This pledged total has since risen to $44 million dollars, an impressive figure for an organisation founded as recently as November 2009. So how does Giving What We Can attract this money? Well, it begins with the pledging system. Pledging is not a legal commitment, but by pledging, people make it less attractive for themselves to stop giving. Pledging also permits everyone to make their donations public. This is preferable to a tradition of donating privately and anonymously because when we perceive that others give, we all give more .
By generating publicity, Ord further encourages effective giving. So too does the Giving What We Can community, by informing, supporting and encouraging each other. As Ord says, we can all help. By making a pledge, by joining the Giving What We Can community, by volunteering and by founding new branches, we can potentially add many millions to this pledged total. Giving What We Can is not the only organised philanthropic effort, either, and one’s impact may be more or less elsewhere.
Although Peter Singer’s work bears some similarities to Ord’s, it mostly seems to belong in its own class of popular philanthropy. Peter Singer’s website, also founded in 2009, is based on his book, The Life You Can Save. There, Singer has assembled $61 million of pledges. These pledges are yearly, not lifelong. So if Singer’s pledgers renew their commitments five times on average, they will donate a sum nearer to $300 million . This adjustment allows comparison with the Giving What We Can figure and other alternatives, as in the chart below.
Singer does indeed attract a lot of money, and this is primarily because of his role as a public intellectual. Moreover, because Singer is a public intellectual, his influence greatly exceeds this dollar value. Each time he writes for the New York Times or speaks on the Colbert Report, he addresses an audience of around a million .
The majority will not take his pledge. But one would imagine that they are still, on balance, more likely to donate cost-effectively thanks to his influence, an effect which is not to be underestimated. This massive audience is the defining characteristic of popular philanthropy.
One’s chances of successfully finding such a large audience are decidedly slim. If one hopes to emulate Peter Singer, one will require not only a powerful intellect and a talent for writing, but also good timing. One would have to find a message that will resonate with today’s population, a different audience to the one that received Animal Liberation 35 years ago.
It is difficult to know what that message will be and it is not even clear that writing a book is the best way to reach people any more. Is it better, for example, than a group blog like Less Wrong or a video series?
In any case, if Singer had not become a public intellectual, he could have fallen back on a position as an academic. There, he would still have had some influence over his students, readers of his papers and so on. The same cannot be said for aspiring producers of online material.
A life in politics appears promising, if only for the size of the national budget. For example, the Australian government will give 4.8 billion dollars to international aid in 2011-12. This sum is controlled by 226 members of parliament. If power was distributed equally among these members, each would control $21 million per year.
Compared to non-aid related political decisions, this figure will have colossal impact. To make as much of a difference as possible, one might set the following three objectives: increase developmental aid, improve aid effectiveness and get re-elected. If so, the political philanthropist might toe the party line and play the Machiavellian game of politics for decades until a key voting opportunity arose.
Political philanthropy has some serious drawbacks, though. It is not so compatible with other approaches: being a member of Giving What We Can could make a career in politics more difficult as no major party in recent Australian political history has campaigned on foreign aid reform.
A political philanthropist, then, probably ought to donate anonymously. The larger problem is that the chance of winning an election is thin. On the one hand, independents are rarely elected. On the other hand, Australia’s two major political parties have over 35,000 members , many of whom compete fiercely for leadership positions.
What is one’s chance of getting elected in a country of this size? If we place this probability at between one in ten and one in a hundred, then the expected value of a career in political philanthropy will be the lowest of the four classes. Of course, we may always get some mileage from writing a letter to our local member of parliament, but actually entering politics appears to be a suboptimal choice.
Funding philanthropic influencers
Funding philanthropic influencers is a fourth option. This means giving money to a middle man who will convince others to donate effectively, for example,
Advertising through mass media to encourage viewers to demand an increase in the foreign aid budget from their local members of parliament.
Funding Giving What We Can or advertising it.
Funding Givewell or advertising it .
These warrant further exploration. I will just make the general reminder that the greater your income, the less worthwhile it will be for you to volunteer and the more viable it will be to fund philanthropic influencing .
We can now draw some tentative conclusions:
As an adjunct, philanthropic influencing will increase the influence of almost any professional donor.
The gold standard for influential philanthropy is pledging to an organization and giving one’s time to support it.
On average, political philanthropy seems the least effective class of philanthropic influencing.
Peter Singer’s impact exceeds Toby Ord’s by one or more orders of magnitude. The expected impact of an aspiring popular philanthropist deserves further investigation.
The possibility of funding influencing philanthropy also needs exploration.
Here is an example of a break even point for the marginal utility of a philanthropic influencer compared to a professional donor:
You give 50%
As per Bill Gates’ Giving Pledge, the 50% league, Toby Ord’s own further pledge, etc. 50% would seem a realistic estimate because those considering a switch to philanthropic influencing are highly motivated.
Your ‘converts’ give 10%
As per the Giving What We Can pledge
You would earn double the salary of your ‘converts’
Again, this is reasonable because those considering a switch to philanthropic influencing are highly motivated.
You have the same number of years left in your working life as your audience
This factor can be adjusted according to age
Your ‘converts’ give up on the pledge, on average, halfway through their working life, while you would have continued to donate for your whole life.
Because complete ‘conversion’ is unlikely
Your ‘converts’ donate half as cost-effectively as you, on aggregate.
It would seem reasonable to expect that most ‘new converts’ would donate to Malaria International or Schistomiasis Control Initiative if suggested to do so by their philanthropic influencer. If the philanthropic influencer believes AI or animal welfare-based charities to be more valuable, then they may have more difficulty directing their ‘converts’’ funds.
Given these assumptions, to break even, you would have to gather 40 new professional donors in your lifetime. Here is the calculation:
Impact of your influencing compared to your donating
= (Number of persuaded audience members)
× (Their salary) ? (Your salary)
× (Their % donated) ? (Your % donated)
× (Their years until retirement) ? (Your years until retirement)
× (Their adherence to the pledge) ? (Your adherence to the pledge)
× (The cost effectiveness of their donations)?(The cost effectiveness of your donations)
= 40 × 0.5 × (0.1/0.5) × 1 × 0.5 × 0.5
That is, the impact of your influencing equals of the impact of your donating. There is a large margin of error on all of these estimates. Note also that that this calculation only includes those who have initiated giving because of you. You may have more success getting people who already donate to direct their funds more cost-effectively.
However, if one earns much more than their potential audience, funding professional influencing may be a viable alternative.
Peter Singer, The Life You Can Save chapter 5, referring to various studies including Jen Shang and Rachel Croson, ‘Field Experiments in Charitable Contribution: The Impact of Social Influence on the Voluntary Provision of Public Goods,’ The Economic Journal.
Using an alternative model, if each year 80% of the previous year’s donors renew their commitment, at the end of 20 years they will have donated a total of $301.
Theoretically, we could fund any of the four approaches to philanthropic influencing. We could commission a popular nonfiction book, for example, but would it be persuasive? We could fund an electoral campaign, but for which candidate? And would the cost and chance of success be any better than the direct pursuit of an electoral seat?
Impact of funding philanthropic influencing compared to doing philanthropic influencing
= (Your salary) ? (Your Persuasiveness)
× (Persuasiveness of whatever is funded) ? (Funds required)
Note, persuasiveness here refers to more than just the personality trait, it also depends on the audience, the context, the message and so on.