Will effective altruism destroy the arts? No.

158300A recent article on the Washington Post expressed concern that the growth of effective altruism could seriously reduce funding for the arts. It even mentions that the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation recently decided to focus 100% on funding the arts and culture, in part because “philanthropy, directly or indirectly influenced by the effective altruist approach, is increasingly focused on problems perceived as more pressing”.

This was astonishing to me.

Here’s why effective altruism is not going to destroy the arts.

1) Only a couple of percent of American philanthropy is influenced by effective altruism, and it’s not taking funding from the arts.

Explicitly “effective altruist” giving is well under $100m per year, only 0.03% of the total Americans give to charity each year.

If we look more broadly to giving that has an effective altruist style, even if it doesn’t explicitly use the label, the Gates Foundation is the largest proponent. But the Gates Foundation spends about $4bn per year, only 1% of the total Americans give to charity each year.

It seems hard to claim that more than a couple of percent of American philanthropy is even remotely influenced by effective altruism. One study found that only 3% of American donors give based on the relative performance of the nonprofits they donate to. Only 4% of total American giving even goes to international causes, compared to 5% given to the arts; and arts funding grew 9% last year, compared to international giving which shrank 2%.

The day when effective altruist donors significantly crowd out the arts is a long, long way off.

Moreover, I’ve never met a donor influenced by effective altruism who said they would have donated to the arts otherwise. My guess is the money influenced by effective altruism mostly wouldn’t have been donated otherwise, because donors influenced by effective altruism give far more money to charity than people normally do. And if the money came from another cause, it wouldn’t have been arts and culture.

2) If effective altruism became mainstream, effective altruist donors would start donating to the arts

People within the effective altruism community don’t think the arts have no value. They just think they’re not the top priority right now for your donations or your career (unless you’re very unusually talented), insofar as you want to make other peoples’ lives better off.

If a much larger of fraction of people, however, were influenced by effective altruism, then first, we’d solve many global problems, and then priorities would change. Donors influenced by effective altruism would start giving to the arts.

Setting up a foundation focused on the arts in reaction to effective altruism is premature by many, many years. And when it does get to that point, we’ll be behind you.

For a much more nuanced discussion of how people in the effective altruism community think about the arts, see this interview with GiveWell.

Also check out our mini career profile on arts and entertainment.