How can we use our resources to help others the most?
Scared Straight is a program that takes kids who have committed misdemeanors to visit prisons and meet criminals to confront their likely future if they don’t change their ways. The concept proved popular not just as a social program but as entertainment; it was adapted for both an acclaimed documentary and a TV show on A&E, which broke ratings records for the network upon its premiere.
There’s just one problem with Scared Straight: multiple studies have found that the program actually increases crime. The effect is so significant that the Washington State Institute for Public Policy estimated that each $1 spent on Scared Straight programs causes more than $200 worth of social harm.1
Research shows that many attempts to do good are like Scared Straight. But while many attempts to do good fail, some succeed, and the best are exceptional. One example of an outstanding opportunity is providing bed nets that protect people from malaria in sub-saharan Africa. The charity evaluator GiveWell estimates that a donation of $7,500 to the Against Malaria Foundation will save someone’s life.
But many people aren’t aware of the best ways to help others, and as a result, they miss opportunities to make a tremendous difference. Effective altruism is a growing social movement dedicated to using evidence and reason to figure out how to benefit others as much as possible. Promoting effective altruism means promoting the key ideas of effective altruism and growing the community of people who take these ideas seriously, and put them into action. Often, this involves working at one of the organisations listed at the end of the profile.
By working on promoting effective altruism you can multiply your impact several-fold, by helping other altruists avoid ineffective ways of helping others, and channelling their efforts into strategies that are many times more effective.
Effective altruism is about using evidence and reason to figure out how to benefit others as much as possible, and taking action on that basis. Promoting its ideas can increase your impact many times over, through influencing other altruists to pursue the very best opportunities for doing good. Past efforts to promote effective altruism have already caused more than 2,500 people to pledge to donate at least 10% of their income to highly effective charities, with over a billion dollars in pledged lifetime donations. Promoting effective altruism also builds a community that will work on whichever global problems turn out to be most pressing in the future, so it’s a good option if you’re unsure about which problem is most pressing.
Very few people are working on promoting effective altruism directly (between 25 and 100 full time, with a budget of less than $10 million), making this one of the most promising ways to improve the world.
It seems plausible that the effective altruism community could eventually save 100-1,000 million QALYS a year by causing $10-100 billion a year to be spent on much more effective projects, or do good equivalent to reducing the risk of human extinction by 0.1-1%. There’s a lot of uncertainty in these estimates.
The annual budget of all money focussed on promoting effective altruism is between $5-10 million per year.
Doubling spending would be expected to solve 1% of the problem, but there is a lot of uncertainty in this estimate.
March 20th, 2017
Promoting effective altruism is closely linked to research to figure out the most effective ways to help others, which we cover in a separate profile.
80,000 Hours regards itself as an effective altruist organisation and also wrote this profile, so it should be taken with a grain of salt. On the other hand, if we weren’t working on a problem we thought was pressing, we’d be hypocrites.
Table of Contents
- 1 Why are the ideas of effective altruism important?
- 2 Why work on promoting effective altruism?
- 3 Why not to work on this area?
- 3.1 The ideas of effective altruism are incorrect, or will be badly implemented
- 3.2 There’s a specific problem that’s much more pressing
- 3.3 There’s a better opportunity for advocacy
- 3.4 There’s a better way to gain flexibility
- 3.5 Widespread promotion of the current ideas of effective altruism may be premature
- 3.6 It’s hard to know whether advocacy works
- 4 How to solve this problem
- 5 Learn more
- 6 Want to work on promoting effective altruism? We want to help.
Why are the ideas of effective altruism important?
Many attempts to do good fail
Working out how to help others is difficult, and many attempts to make a difference fail. Most large US social programs that have been rigorously evaluated, including those backed by expert opinion, turn out to produce weak or no effects, and in some cases negative effects.2 Within US education, 90% of interventions evaluated by the Institute of Education Sciences have weak or no effects.3 Within international aid, many projects fail, and for most programs the effects are unknown. This suggests that if you get involved with a charitable program without looking at the evidence, there’s a decent chance you’ll have no impact.
Large differences in effectiveness between successful approaches
Avoiding programs which are harmful or which have no effect is obviously the right call. But even if you consider only strategies which have a positive effect, there are large differences in how much they help others.
First, let’s consider different global problems. If you want to help others, should you work on climate change, U.S. education, animal welfare, or something else? When we used our framework to compare different global problems we found that you can do far more good working on some problems than others.
For example, within U.S. education, providing one year’s worth of pre-kindergarten education costs between $6,400 and $8,000 per child.
By contrast, in international health and development, the same amount of money can save a child’s life through providing bednets that protect people malaria, or deworm 6,000 children, or double the income of around 30 people for a year.4 And we think there are even more neglected and important problems than international development.
But there are also large differences between different ways of working on a specific problem. For example, if we look at interventions that treat illnesses in the developing world, we find that the best interventions are vastly more effective at reducing disease than others:
For instance, according to estimates in the Disease Control Priorities Report, $1,000 spent on treating HIV with antiretroviral therapy creates 1 extra year of healthy life, whereas $1,000 spent on educating high-risk groups about HIV creates 27 extra years of healthy life.5
The lesson here is that you can increase the amount of good you do many times over by changing which global problem you work on, and by focusing on the very best interventions. These large differences in impact are why one of the core principles of effective altruism is to use evidence and reason to work out what’s best for the world, and a commitment to do what’s best, whatever that turns out to be.
This makes it different from evidence-based policy, which only focuses on finding proven interventions within a given policy area, and from evidence-based development, which only focuses on finding evidence-backed approaches within international development. Effective altruism also considers the question of which area to work on in the first place, and doesn’t restrict itself to approaches for which there’s hard empirical evidence – rather, it aims to focus on whatever approaches produce the best results.
If more people made a significant commitment to helping others with their lives, and devoted those resources to the most effective approaches, they could each have far more positive impact on the world, and make a major contribution to ending challenges such as extreme poverty, factory farming, and risks to the future such as pandemics and climate change.
But if you think effective altruism is a good idea, why take the indirect approach of promoting it, rather than following its recommendations directly?
Why work on promoting effective altruism?
How could you double your lifetime impact?
Consider the following two options:
- Pledge to give 10% of your income to effective charities.
- Pledge to give 10% of your income to effective charities, and persuade a friend to do the same as well.
The second path does more good – probably about twice as much – and this illustrates the power of promoting important ideas. By promoting effective altruism you multiply your social impact because you increase the number of other people who take effective action to help others.
This is exactly what the founders of Giving What We Can realised in 2009. Rather than just donating to effective charities themselves, they created Giving What We Can — a community of people who pledge to donate at least 10% of their income to effective charities. For every $1 Giving What We Can has spent on creating and growing its community, its members have already given more than $6 to effective charities.6 In total, Giving What We Can members have pledged to donate over $1 billion over their lifetimes, which is vastly more than the founders could have ever given individually.
We chose to start 80,000 Hours for the same reason. Rather than take whichever careers we thought would be highest-impact, we thought we might be able to help hundreds of other people have a high-impact career, and so achieve hundreds of times as much. So far, with a staff of about 5, over 1,000 people have changed their career plans due to 80,000 Hours.
These examples illustrate an important lesson. For whichever actions are highest-impact, it’s always even more effective if you can mobilise more people to take them.
We don’t know which global problems will be the most pressing in the future, or which interventions will best solve them. So, if you commit to something today, you’re likely to be wrong – and have less impact in the long-term. Instead, it’s useful to keep your options open.
Building the effective altruism community is one way to do this.7 One of the core principles of effective altruism is to change what you’re working on in response to changing circumstances and in light of new evidence. For example, Giving What We Can promotes donating to the most effective charities, whatever those turn out to be. This means that future donations of members will change in response to new evidence (at least in part). This makes Giving What We Can far more flexible than organisations focused on a specific problem. More generally, building the effective altruism community increases the number of people willing to switch into whichever problems are understood to be the most pressing problems in the future, and to tackle them in the most effective ways known at the time.
So promoting effective altruism is not only a multiplier on whichever problems are most pressing today, it’s also a multiplier on whichever problems turn out to be most pressing in the future.
The ideas of effective altruism only coalesced in the 21st century, and the term was only coined in 2012. It’s currently highly neglected, and few people know about the ideas.
Moreover, very few people work on promoting effective altruism directly – between 25 and 100 full time, with a budget of well under $10 million:
|Estimated budget in 2016|
|Centre for Effective Altruism||$1,600,00012|
|Effective Altruism Foundation||$310,00011|
|GiveWell (2015 figure)||$3,400,00010|
|Students for High Impact Charity||$26,0009|
|The Life You Can Save (2015 figure)||$280,0008|
These figures overestimate spending on promoting effective altruism because the above organisations also spend a significant part of their budgets on research.
Why not to work on this area?
The ideas of effective altruism are incorrect, or will be badly implemented
Some people think that the ideas of effective altruism are wrong in important ways. Many objections are based on misconceptions about what effective altruism is, but there are also more substantive criticisms. We won’t go over them here, but here’s a summary of the main objections, along with responses to them.
We think the most powerful objections are not that the ideas are wrong, but that the effective altruism community, as it currently exists, is going to fail to live up to them. For example, the community may end up focused on the wrong problems if it is too biased or lacks enough diverse perspectives; or it will lack the skills to build a successful movement that puts effective altruist ideas into practice.
There’s a specific problem that’s much more pressing
Promoting effective altruism has the effect of getting more people to work on problems which the effective altruism community thinks are most pressing. Currently these are mainly international health and development, animal welfare, and ensuring a long and positive future for human civilisation. So, if you help to promote effective altruism, your impact will be spread out over these areas.
If, however, you think that one of these problems is much more pressing than the others and will remain so in the future, or that a different problem is much more pressing, it may be more effective to work on that problem directly, rather than promoting effective altruism in general.
There’s a better opportunity for advocacy
The multiplier effect isn’t unique to promoting effective altruism — you can increase your social impact by getting people to work on any problem. For example you can get a multiplier through mobilising other people to work on climate change, nuclear war, risks from artificial intelligence, factory farming, and other global problems.
To think that promoting effective altruism gives you a higher value multiplier, you have to think that the problems effective altruism will prioritise over time are more pressing than other problems, or that it is easier to get people to work on them than on other problems. Hopefully the former is true because the community will (due to the flexibility point) keep updating where it focuses as the situation changes, but you might disagree if you think the community is importantly mistaken about where to focus.
There’s a better way to gain flexibility
If you’re uncertain about which global problems to focus on, then instead of growing the effective altruism community, it may be better to build some other kind of capital (e.g. saving money which you can donate in the future); doing more global priorities research; or working on a broad intervention. Broad interventions are interventions that will help in many different scenarios in the future, and include:
- Improving cooperation between countries
- Improving democracy
- Improving incentives and norms in academic research to better advance human knowledge
- Improving collective decision making
- Cognitive enhancement
There is already a large amount of work being done on improving democracy and cooperation between countries, making it harder to make a significant contribution to them. But improving academic research, collective decision making and cognitive enhancement are more neglected. If you have better personal fit for working on these areas than for promoting effective altruism, they may be better for gaining flexibility.
Widespread promotion of the current ideas of effective altruism may be premature
The current ideas of effective altruism are primarily based on research done by a handful of research groups over the last ten or so years. Given that the effective altruism research program has been relatively small in scale so far, it may be premature to aggressively promote its ideas and push for widespread adoption of its current recommendations.
One risk is that some of the current recommendations of effective altruism will have unintended harmful consequences, which could be discovered with more research. If this turns out to true, then promotion of current recommendations would be harmful. Future research could also show some of the current recommendations to be misguided (even if not harmful), and if these had been aggressively promoted, the credibility of effective altruism would be damaged, and its brand could be significantly tainted. This would limit the future potential of the movement.
Finally it’s plausible that further research will uncover new recommendations that are many times more effective than current recommendations. If this is true, then promoting current recommendations is premature, and it would be better to invest more in global priorities research first.
It’s hard to know whether advocacy works
As with any advocacy work, it is hard to measure how successful past promotion efforts have been, and what has worked in the past may not continue to work with new audiences. To work on promoting effective altruism you should be comfortable with the uncertainty that comes with advocacy work.
How to solve this problem
What are some top career options within this area?
- Working at organisations which figure out how to best promote the ideas of effective altruism, and spread them to their full potential. Read more about this option in our career review on working at effective altruist organisations.
- Promoting the ideas of effective altruism as a public intellectual, in journalism, party politics, the civil service or think tanks.
- If you have deep expertise in areas relevant to effective altruism, for example in global development, or scientific disciplines relevant to global catastrophic risks (e.g. AI research, biology, biosecurity, disaster risk, forecasting and governance), use your position to strengthen the connections between your field and the effective altruism community.
- Take a high-earning job and donate a percentage of your income to organisations promoting effective altruism. Organisations within the community say they’re somewhat more talent constrained than funding constrained, but both talent and funding are needed. Read our advice on how to maximise the amount you’re able to donate.
- There’s also a need for founding new organisations. To do that, it’s best to get involved with the community first, then you might spot a good opportunity.
Which organisations do we recommend applying to?
We recommend applying to work at the following organisations which work directly on promoting effective altruism:
- The Centre for Effective Altruism (CEA) (our parent organisation) is the organisation that coined the term effective altruism. It’s the leading organisation in charge of growing and strengthening the movement. It helps to run Effective Altruism Global conferences, local effective altruism groups, and effectivealtruism.org. It’s led by William MacAskill who wrote the book Doing Good Better, an introduction to effective altruism. It includes the project Giving What We Can which encourages people to pledge 10% of their income to the most effective organisations for helping others. If you want to promote effective altruism, CEA is the best place to work. If you’d like express interest in working the CEA, fill out this short form. See current vacancies here.
80,000 Hours – yes, that’s us. We do research into which careers do the most good and help people pursue them.
- Founder’s Pledge encourages entrepreneurs to make a legally binding commitment to donate at least 2% of their personal proceeds to charity when they sell their business. It has raised over $200m in legally binding pledges in under two years. Read more about Founder’s Pledge in our interview with the founder.
See other organisations working on promoting effective altruism here.
The roles currently most needed at the above organisations include managers, web developers, operations, marketing & outreach and administrators/assistants.
Note that most effective altruist organisations have fewer than 30 staff, which means they don’t always advertise vacancies publicly. As a result your best bet is to get in touch through a referral and try to do a trial or meet the people involved.
How to enter this area
How to get started
- If you’re new, learn more about effective altruism by joining the effective altruism newsletter and reading Doing Good Better. To get involved in-person, apply for an effective altruism global conference to meet people who work at effective altruist organisations. You can also find a local meet-up group to meet other people in the community.
How to get a job within the community
- From there, if you’d like to get a job at one of the organisations, try to do freelance work, an internship, volunteer work or a project with someone else in the community. The organisations usually only hire people who have a track record of working in the community and have referrals from other community members. One type of volunteering that can be very high-impact and also helps you get started promoting EA is helping to run a local group. It gives you experience in talking about effective altruism and you can easily get a couple of people to take the Giving What We can pledge.
- If you’re not yet ready, try to build one of the skills listed above by working for a couple of years in a relevant area. The organisations mostly hire people with at least a few years experience. Alternatively, you could find your best earning to give option and donate to support the growth of effective altruism.
- To stay updated on the latest job openings each month, join the effective altruism newsletter. You can also join this Facebook group.
- We’re happy to help people one-on-one who want to get a job at one of these organisations. Fill out this form to let us know you’re interested in it.
How to help out part-time
- If you already have a public platform or expertise in areas relevant to effective altruism, get in touch with us.
- Help run a local group, as above.
Where to donate to help promote effective altruism?
If you’d like to start helping right away you can donate to effective altruist organisations.
We recommend donating to the Effective Altruism Community Fund. Finding promising donation opportunities in this area is especially challenging for individual donors because existing charity evaluators such as GiveWell and Animal Charity Evaluators don’t evaluate organisations working on promoting effective altruism. The Effective Altruism Community Fund is managed by Nick Beckstead, a Program Officer at the Open Philanthropy Project, who has helped advise a large private donor on donation opportunities in this area for several years. He makes use of his strong network in the effective altruism community to identify and evaluate new opportunities.
Disclosure: Nick Beckstead is a trustee of our parent organisation, the Centre for Effective Altruism, and 80,000 Hours is a potential recipient of donations to this fund.
Otherwise, you can do your own analysis of the organisations listed above and donate to where you think is best.
- Doing Good Better, by William MacAskill (co-founder of 80,000 Hours), an introduction to effective altruism.
- Podcast: Our descendants will probably see us as moral monsters. What should we do about that?
- Podcast: You want to do as much good as possible and have billions of dollars. What do you do?
- Podcast: Why it’s a bad idea to break the rules, even if it’s for a good cause
- Article: Why operations management is one of the biggest bottlenecks in effective altruism
- Career review: working at effective altruist organisations (pros, cons, comparing alternatives, and how to get hired)
- Leaders survey: What are the most important talent gaps in effective altruism – and which problems are most impactful to work on?
Notes and references
- The theory for why Scared Straight increases crime is that spending time with convicted criminals makes you more likely to commit crimes yourself.
See Table 1 in Aos, Steve, et al. "Benefits and costs of prevention and early intervention programs for youth." (2004). Archived link
A meta-analysis by the Campbell Collaboration, a leading evaluator of the effectiveness of social policies, concluded:
RESULTS The analyses show the intervention to be more harmful than doing nothing. The program effect, whether assuming a fixed or random effects model, was nearly identical and negative in direction, regardless of the meta-analytic strategy. AUTHOR’S CONCLUSIONS We conclude that programs like ‘Scared Straight’ are likely to have a harmful effect and increase delinquency relative to doing nothing at all to the same youths. Given these results, we cannot recommend this program as a crime prevention strategy. Agencies that permit such programs, however, must rigorously evaluate them not only to ensure that they are doing what they purport to do (prevent crime) – but at the very least they do not cause more harm than good to the very citizens they pledge to protect.Archived link↩
- GiveWell Blog - Guest post: Proven programs are the exception, not the rule↩
- Practical Evaluation Strategies for Building a Body of Proven-Effective Social Programs: Suggestions for Research and Program Funders. The Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy. October 2013. Archived link↩
Mean daily per capita consumption among eligible households = $0.65.http://www.givewell.org/charities/give-directly#footnote28_m5l9mx5
We estimate that children are dewormed for a total of around $1.19 per child.http://www.givewell.org/charities/schistosomiasis-control-initiative↩
- Jha, Prabhat, et al. "Disease control priorities in developing countries." Disease control priorities in developing countries (2006).
Figure for antiretroviral therapy is on page 62, for educating high-risk groups, page 74.
However note that the report contains errors, and some of the differences are likely overstated due to regression to the mean.↩