The effective altruism guide to donating this giving season

People in the effective altruism community aim to use evidence and careful reasoning to work out how to best promote the wellbeing of all. To find the highest-impact charities this giving season, they’ve done tens of thousands of hours of research and published over 50,000 words of analysis this month. We read it all, and summed up the main recommendations by area.

But which of the 9 problem areas listed should you personally give to? We’ve got you covered here too. This tool asks you six questions and adjusts the ranking based on your beliefs:2

Quiz: Which problem should you give to? →

In the full post, you can find (i) how we came up with the list, (ii) more advice on how to narrow down the list, (iii) more information on each charity.

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How much is one vote worth?

Just 537 votes in Florida would have been enough to change the outcome of the 2000 election from George Bush to Al Gore – a margin of 0.009% (recount pictured above). And that wasn’t even the closest-won state that year: in New Mexico the margin was a mere 366 votes.

People say it’s your civic duty to vote, but it also seems like it’s very unlikely your vote will make a difference.

Who is right? Is voting really valuable, or a waste of time?

We looked into the research on this, especially regarding the US Presidential election. The answer, surprisingly, is that the single hour you spend voting for the President and Congress can be the most important thing you do with an hour each four years – and we expect similar numbers for other kinds of elections outside the USA. It also looks like there are effective techniques you can use to ‘get out the vote’, if you want to do more than just vote yourself.

The impact of your vote largely depends on 2 things, which we’ll investigate in turn:

  • The chances of your vote changing the election outcome.
  • How much better for the world as a whole one candidate is, compared to another.

At first blush it might seem that the chances of your single vote changing the election outcome are zero. But while the chances are low, they could be around 1 in 10 million if you live in a swing state.

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Maria Gutierrez on doing good through art, Costa Rica and why 80,000 Hours changed her career

This week I interviewed Maria Gutierrez to learn more about how 80,000 Hours had changed her career plans. For the last year Maria has been our freelance graphic designer, producing most of the artwork on our site today.

I sped up the recording so it is quick to listen to:

Summary of the interview

  • In 2014 Maria had a general desire to improve the world, but no idea how to put that into practice. She didn’t see any way to do useful work while using her creative skills and was frustrated by this.
  • She stumbled onto 80,000 Hours and effective altruism while browsing the internet, and its ‘honesty’ immediately resonated with her. It provided a much more concrete way to assess what would actually be useful to do than she previously had. It was the first time she had considered ‘earning to give’ as a way to do good.
  • She realised that she could do a lot of good by using her artistic skills to contribute to any organisation that does exceptional work. She decided to make her first contribution by working for us.
  • Maria decided to move back to Costa Rica to dramatically lower her cost of living, and thereby be able to donate more. This is possible because all the work she does is online for groups in the US and UK. She recommends other people think about doing the same thing, and we suggest some careers that are particularly promising for remote work.
  • We discuss how the 80,000 Hours framework can be applied to others in the creative arts, and challenge the view that such skills are not valuable.
  • Long term, Maria is weighing up earning to give as a fine artist, against doing ‘direct work’ as a designer for non-profits or for-profits that she thinks are having a large social impact.
  • This raises tricky issues about personal fit, and which sacrifice she is willing to make and which she isn’t. Maria doesn’t think she could be happy without being challenged artistically. She also thinks she would burn out doing pure marketing.
  • Finally, we discuss RISE (Red de Impacto Sustenible y Effectivo), en effective altruism inspired organistion for Costa Rica, which she intends to launch with a friend. Maria explains why she doesn’t want to take donations away from charities that work in countries poorer than Costa Rica.

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The rent is too damn high – should you work on reforming land use regulations?

We’ve released a new ‘problem profile’ on reform of how land is used in cities.

Local laws often prohibit the construction of dense new housing, which drives up prices, especially in a few large high-wage urban areas. The increased prices transfer wealth from renters to landowners and push people away from centres of economic activity, which reduces their ability to get a job or earn higher wages, likely by a very large amount.

An opportunity to tackle the problem which nobody has yet taken is to start a non-profit or lobbying body to advocate for more housing construction in key urban areas and states. Another option would be to try to shift zoning decisions from local to state governments, where they are less likely to be determined by narrow local interests, especially existing land-owners who benefit from higher property prices.

In the profile we cover:

  • The main reasons for and against thinking that working on land use reform is among the best uses of your time.
  • How to use your career to make housing in prospering cities more accessible to ordinary people.

Read our full profile on land use reform.

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New report: Is climate change the biggest problem in the world?

We’ve released a new ‘problem profile’ on the risks posed by extreme climate change.

There is a small but non-negligible chance that unmitigated greenhouse emissions will lead to very large increases in global temperatures, which would likely have catastrophic consequences for life on Earth.

Though the chance of catastrophic outcomes is relatively low, the degree of harm that would result from large temperature increases is very high, meaning that the expected value of working on this problem may also be very high.

Options for working on this problem include academic research into the extreme risks of climate change or whether they might be mitigated by geoengineering. One can also advocate for reduced greenhouse emissions through careers in politics, think-tanks or journalism, and work on developing lower emissions technology as an engineer or scientist.

In the profile we cover:

  • The main reasons for and against thinking that the ‘tail risks’ of climate change are a highly pressing problem to work on.
  • How climate change scores on our assessment rubric for ranking the biggest problems in the world
  • How to use your career to lower the risk posed by climate change.

Read our full profile on the most extreme risks from climate change..

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Why and how to work on nuclear security

We’ve released a new ‘problem profile’ on the risks posed by nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons that are currently armed have the potential to kill hundreds of millions of people directly, and billions through subsequent effects on agriculture. There are many examples in history of instances in which the US or Russia came close to accidentally or deliberately using their nuclear weapons.

Fortunately, nuclear security is already a major topic of interest for governments, inter-governmental organisations and think tanks. However, this does make it harder for any additional individual to influence the outcome.

Most opportunities to reduce the risks posed by nuclear weapons seem to be through work in the military or foreign policy establishments, or research in the think tanks that offer them ideas on how to lessen the risk of nuclear conflict.

In the profile we cover:

  • The main reasons for and against thinking that nuclear security is a highly pressing problem to work on.
  • How to use your career to ensure nuclear weapons are never used.

Read our full profile on nuclear security.

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    How and why to use your career to make artificial intelligence safer

    We’ve released a new ‘problem profile’ on the risks posed by artificial intelligence.

    Many experts believe that there is a significant chance we’ll create artificially intelligent machines with abilities surpassing those of humans – superintelligence – sometime during this century. These advances could lead to extremely positive developments, but could also pose risks due to catastrophic accidents or misuse. The people working on this problem aim to maximise the chance of a positive outcome, while reducing the chance of catastrophe.

    Work on the risks posed by superintelligent machines seems mostly neglected, with total funding for this research well under $10 million a year.

    The main opportunity to deal with the problem is to conduct research in philosophy, computer science and mathematics aimed at keeping an AI’s actions and goals in alignment with human intentions, even if it were much more intelligent than us.

    In the profile we cover:

    • The main reasons for and against thinking that the future risks posed by artificial intelligence are a highly pressing problem to work on.
    • How to use your career to reduce the risks posed by artificial intelligence.

    Read our full profile on the risks posed by artificial intelligence.

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    Why and how to work on cause prioritisation research

    We’ve released a new problem profile on global priorities research based on our investigation of the area in 2014.

    Governments, charities, intergovernmental organisations, and social enterprises spend large amounts of money to improve the world but there is currently little research to guide them on what priorities they should focus on at the highest level.

    Global priorities research seeks to use new methods to determine in which causes funding to improve the world can have the biggest impact, and make a convincing case about this to people in a position to redirect large amounts of money.

    In the profile we cover:

    • The main reasons for and against thinking that global priorities research is a highly pressing topic to work on.
    • How to use your career to make progress in this research area.

    Read our profile on global priorities research.

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    Is global health the most pressing problem to work on?

    Every year around ten million people in poorer countries die of illnesses that can be very cheaply prevented or managed, including malaria, HIV, tuberculosis and diarrhoea.

    In many cases these diseases or their impacts can be largely eliminated with cheap technologies that are known to work and have existed for decades. Over the last 60 years, death rates from several of these diseases have been more than halved, suggesting particularly clear ways to make progress.

    In our full ‘problem profile on health in poor countries’ we cover:

    • The main reasons for and against thinking that this is the most pressing problem to work on.
    • How to use your career to combat diseases of poverty.

    Read our profile on health in poor countries.

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    We’ll pay you up to £1,000 to write a career review for us

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    Update: Unfortunately, due to staff limitations we cannot accept any more freelance career reviews.

    You can earn £1,000 by writing a review of a career path that’s sufficiently good for us to publish it on our site. At the same time you’ll help tens of thousands of people choose a career path with more social impact.

    We are willing to pay £1,000 if you send us something that’s as good as, or better, than what we could have done ourselves, and only needs minor revisions; £300 if it’s usable but requires significant input from us; and £150 if it’s a helpful input into one of our reviews.

    Before you start, send an email to rob@80000hours.org to confirm the title you’ll work on.

    Some example reviews that we think have an appropriate level of detail to target include Economics PhD, Journalism, and Marketing.

    An outstanding career profile is Medical Careers. Here’s a list of all our career profiles (including some ones in an old format and some that are both much longer and shorter than the 3 above).

    To help you get started see our list of headings we fill out when writing career reviews, and a list of links we often refer to. In most cases you will want to speak to 1-3 people in the relevant career to collect information to include.

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    Is nursing or headhunting the best career for you?

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    Read our full review of nursing.
    Read our full review of executive search.

     
    One of the most frequent criticisms of our career recommender is that it usually recommends highly competitive options that are beyond the reach of most people. Furthermore, it disproportionately recommends careers for people with strong mathematical skills.

    To begin to address this we have written two shallow career reviews of options that are both less competitive and less quantitative – nursing and executive search (also known as headhunting). Both are primarily ‘earning to give‘ careers.

    Try our career recommender to get personalised career ideas.

    Join our newsletter for regular updates about all our new career reviews.

    What were the bottom lines?

    Nursing:

    • is quite well paid in some countries, with a low risk of unemployment
    • provides a launching pad for a career in medical management
    • is satisfying work for most nurses, with flexibility around hours, though nurse ‘burn out’ at unusually high rates
    • offers the opportunity to study advanced nursing degrees which are even better paid.

    On the other hand,

    • we expect more nurses in the developed world will improve health outcomes only a small amount
    • we are cautious about recommending a nursing degree to high-school leavers because it won’t be much use to them if they decide not to become nurses –

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    Doing good through for-profits: Wave and financial tech

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    Get the rest of our series on doing good through start-ups by signing up to our newsletter.

    Wave is one of the most high potential social impact for-profit startups we’re aware of, and it was co-founded by someone in our effective altruism community – Lincoln Quirk. Wave allows immigrants to send money from North America to relatives in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia with much lower fees than if they used Western Union or MoneyGram. (Though Wave existing is nothing to do with 80,000 Hours, someone we recently coached chose to work for Wave and help them expand into the UK.)

    Why is Wave such an important company? Previously, if immigrants wanted to send remittances, they had to use Western Union or MoneyGram. Both the sender and receiver would have to go to a physical outlet to make the transfer, and worst of all, the sender would have to pay 10% in transfer costs! Lincoln Quirk and his cofounder Drew Durbin have built software that allows instant transfers from a mobile phone in the US or Canada to a mobile phone in Eastern Africa or Ethiopia – and they only charge 3%, a saving of 7%.

    For each dollar of revenue that they make, they are saving $2.33 for someone in the world’s poorest countries. Assuming a 20% profit margin, the figure is $12 in savings for each $1 of profit.

    The potential positive impact of this idea is huge.

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    Rule-breaking in children predicts future success

    A paper was recently released looking into which personality factors in childhood predict success in education and work. The study followed participants over a 40 year period and attempted to control for intelligence and socioeconomic background. Much of it is exactly what you would expect. But here are some quotes that are more surprising (emphases ours). Note of course that the result has not yet been replicated:

    In general, we found significant relations for childhood IQ and SES [socioeconomic status] with educational attainment that is in line with the sociological and psychological models (see Blau & Duncan, 1967; Eccles, 2005). As there is much previous research on the validity of these predictors for educational success (e.g., Gottfredson, 2002; Gustafsson & Undheim, 1996; Kuncel et al., 2004), we will focus our discussion on student characteristics and behaviors.

    Educational attainment was best predicted by defiance of parental authority, [lack of] sense of inferiority, and teacher-rated studiousness. The effects were still significant after including IQ and parental SES as predictors.

    First, students with high rule breaking and defiance of parental authority might be more competitive in the school context and more visible in interactions in the classroom. This might lead to at least higher oral grades compared with students with lower levels of rule breaking and defiance and to more demanding and encouraging teacher behavior. Rosenbaum (2001) demonstrated that teachers used not only the students’ cognitive abilities to determine grades but also students’ noncognitive behaviors.

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    We can learn a lot from Tara, who left pharmacy to work in effective altruism

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    Tara saved lives working as a pharmacist in Bhutan – no really we checked, and she totally did – but she nevertheless left to try to find something better.

    This is part of our series of profiles of people who changed their career in a major way in order to have more impact because of their exposure to 80,000 Hours.

    Today Tara Mac Aulay is the head of operations in the Centre for Effective Altruism. But just two years ago she was working as a pharmacist. How and why did she make this transition? Her career path is sufficiently fascinating it’s worth telling the story form the start.

    Tara was extremely conscientious and hard-working from a very young age. As a result she was able to finish high school and start studying at university at the young age of 16, rather than the usual 18 or 19. She managed to do this while at the same time i) redesigning the staff and inventory management for an Australian restaurant chain, then, because this saved them so much money, being promoted to a more senior role to ii) travel around the country to make major changes to failing stores to save them from closure. As a teenager! Needless to say, this entrepreneurialism and ambition allowed her to develop a wide range of professional skills at a young age.

    At the age of 15 she applied to study pharmacy,

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    Just how bad is being a CEO in big tobacco?

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    In 1994 the CEOs of the largest tobacco companies all testified before congress that they thought nicotine was not addictive and were widely mocked. How much were they paid relative to the damage they were doing?

    Last year I wrote about the most harmful careers and had encouraging smoking at the top. But how bad is it exactly?

    Two researchers recently put together some data that can help us estimate this and the numbers are pretty remarkable.

    They compared the number of deaths caused by a cigarette company with the amount the CEO was paid. For this they used market share in the cigarette industry as a proxy for harm, and the WHO’s old estimate that 5.6 million people die due to cigarettes each year – now up to 6 million.

    Doing some calculations, it looks to me like across the companies they could track, which collectively make up 45% of the global market, CEOs are paid $23 for each premature death resulting from the existence of their firms.

    Note that there are other moral and practical reasons not to take jobs that do harm, but here we will focus just on the direct damage caused.

    The authors draw a comparison to the life-saving treatments available if these CEOs wanted to make up for their harmful work by donating to charity:

    If it is assumed that all of the CEOs analyzed are attempting to maximize their income in order to give to charities to save lives [25],

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    Where should you donate to have the most impact during giving season 2015?

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    Many of our readers choose to give away substantial sums over the ‘giving season’ around Christmas and New Year. Where should they give so that their money has the biggest social impact?

    This post is based on a combination of my existing knowledge, some judgement calls based on three years working in effective altruism, and brief consultation with the people involved in the groups below. It’s not based on in-depth research, and the recommendations could easily change. Take this post as a starting point for your own analysis.

    Note that we’re looking for the charities that help others the most, treating everyone’s welfare as equal. If you have a particular attachment to a specific cause, you’ll need to factor that in separately.

    This flowchart is a summary of the advice below. Read on for more details.

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    Even if we can’t lower catastrophic risks now, we should do something now so we can do more later

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    Does that fit with your schedule Mr President?

    A line of argument I frequently encounter is that it is too early to do anything about ‘global catastrophic risks’ today (these are also sometimes called ‘existential risks’).

    For context, see our page on assessing the biggest problems in the world, evaluation of opportunities to lower catastrophic risks and our review of becoming an AI safety researcher.

    This line of argument doesn’t apply so much to preventing the use of nuclear weapons, climate change, or containing disease pandemics – the potential to act on these today is about at the same level as it will be in the future.

    But what about new technologies that don’t exist yet: artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, atomically precise manufacturing, and others we haven’t thought about yet? There’s a case that we should wait until they are closer to actually being developed – at that point we will have a much better idea of:

    • what form those technologies will take, if any at all;
    • what can be done to make them less risky;
    • who we need to talk to to make that happen.

    Superficially this argument seems very reasonable. Each hour of work probably does get more valuable the closer you are to a ‘critical juncture in history’.

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    Lehua closed down her fundraising startup after reading our blog: plan change story

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    Learning about ‘counterfactual analysis’ threw some puts on sunglasses cold water on Lehua’s startup idea.

    Lehua Gray’s story is an interesting ‘significant plan change’ because she increased her social impact simply by realising what she was doing was not accomplishing anything when the true counterfactual was taken into account.

    Lehua is an entrepreneur in Texas who studied environmental sciences but afterwards taught herself coding. In late 2014, along with two co-founders she had just met at the eBay Hackathon, she founded a company that offered charities an innovative fundraising platform and took a cut of the money raised. Her role in the startup was a combination of coding, UX and sales.

    The team’s hope was to make the viral nature of the ‘ice-bucket challenge’ replicable. In their platform, someone would donate money to a charity, but it would only actually be delivered if, say, 3 friends who they nominated matched their donation. They might also be offered the option to do a public challenge on social media that would spread the fundraiser instead of donating the full amount, as in the ‘ice-bucket challenge’.

    Over a period of 9 months they had built this platform and were improving it while some charities tested it out.

    However, in the first half of 2015 Lehua started following me on Facebook and so started regularly encountering and reading new 80,000 Hours’ blog posts about how to have more social impact.

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    How to pursue a career in research to lower the risks from superintelligent machines: a new career review.

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    This is a summary of our full career review on artificial intelligence risk research.

    Have you read the profile and think you want to contribute to artificial intelligence risk research? Fill out this form and we’ll see if we can help.

    Many people we coach are interested in doing research into artificial intelligence (AI), in particular how to lower the risk that superintelligent machines do harmful things not intended by their creators – a field usually referred to as ‘AI risk research’. The reasons people believe this is a particularly pressing area of research are outlined in sources such as:

    Our goal with this career review was not to assess the cause area of AI risk research – on that we defer to the authors above. Rather we wanted to present some concrete guidance for the growing number of people who want to work on the problem.

    We spoke to the leaders in the field, including top academics, the head of MIRI and managers in AI companies, and the key findings are:

    • Some organisations working on this problem,

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    Our new tool can help you make the right career decision

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    We’ve released a new tool to help you think through career decisions, such as which major to study, which jobs to apply for, and which of various offers to accept. We’ve tested it in one-on-one coaching over the last six months, and are now making it freely available.

    These decisions can both be very important and very difficult. This tool will make these decisions easier by walking you through a step-by-step process, asking you the questions we use during coaching, and checking that you’ve applied the most important results of our research. We designed the process using the scientific literature on decision making to reduce bias and it has received positive feedback from many users:

    1. Try out the tool.
    2. Share it on Facebook or Twitter.

    It won’t tell you what to do, but it will make sure you haven’t missed anything obvious, are asking the right questions, and have a clear next step. It takes about 30 min to run through.

    We will continue to improve the tool in coming months based on your feedback and our experience in coaching.

    If you know a friend or family member trying to make a career decision you might also like to pass it on to them!

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