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 <$2,000 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 others 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 from Giving What We Can have already caused almost 5,000 people to pledge to donate at least 10% of their income to highly effective charities, with over $125 million donated so far and much more pledged in 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. The total staff at effective altruism-aligned organizations is probably about 500 — that includes many people who are not involved in building the effective altruism movement but also excludes some that are, like local group leaders.2 The combined budgets of organizations that work on building effective altruism is around $25 million. In part because doing so is relatively neglected, we think building effective altruism is one of the most promising ways to improve the world.
Our overall view
Recommended This is among the most pressing problems to work on.
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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.
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The annual budget of all money focussed on promoting effective altruism is on the order of $10 million per year.
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Doubling spending would be expected to solve 1% of the problem, but there is a lot of uncertainty in this estimate.
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.
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.3 Within US education, 90% of interventions evaluated by the Institute of Education Sciences have weak or no effects.4 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.
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.6
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 in expectation.
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 catastrophic pandemics and extreme climate change.
If you think effective altruism is a good idea, is there a case for taking an indirect approach of promoting it, rather than following effective altruist principles 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 actions 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, as of 2014 its members had already given more than $6 to effective charities.7 In total, in 2014 Giving What We Can members had pledged to donate over $1 billion over their lifetimes, which is vastly more than the founders could have ever given individually. Membership has about doubled in the years since.
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.
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 (another is working on ‘global priorities research‘). 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 ideas and research. 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.
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 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:
Reducing the chance of great power conflict
Improving cooperation between countries
Improving incentives and norms in academic research to better advance human knowledge
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 improving reasoning and cognition 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 15 or so years. Given that the effective altruism research program has been relatively small in scale so far, it may be premature to 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 are aggressively promoted, the credibility of effective altruism might be damaged, and its brand could be significantly tainted. This would limit the future potential of the movement. (This is one reason we favor a ‘high fidelity‘ model of movement growth — which favors quality of outreach over speed of growth.)
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. (Although it’s worth noting that effective altruism is one of the main ways people get involved in global priorities research, so these areas are not separate.)
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.
If you have deep expertise in areas relevant to effective altruism, for example in 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.
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 raised over $200m in legally binding pledges in under two years. Read more about Founder’s Pledge in our interview with the founder.
Example: Tara switched from pharmacy to working on promoting effective altruism
As a teenager Tara applied to study pharmacy, motivated by a desire for direct impact by improving the health of customers. After completing her training, she worked at a hospital in Melbourne and then later worked in Indonesia and Bhutan with the Red Cross. While working in Melbourne she encountered 80,000 Hours. The concrete stories of people who made major changes to their career path in order to help more people caused her to become excited about effective altruism. She decided to intern at the Center for Applied Rationality in Berkeley. In addition to wanting to be directly useful there, she thought this would be a good chance to build her knowledge and network, and help her find better high-impact job opportunities in future. After being encouraged by her friends, she applied to work at the Center for Effective Altruism, as well as several start-ups in the San Francisco Bay Area. She had multiple offers, but ended up deciding to work for CEA.
Tara became the Chief Operating Officer of the Centre for Effective Altruism. She did an outstanding job bringing our operations up to scratch for a mid-sized non-profit and preparing us for future growth. This was due to a combination of an excellent fit with the role, as well as her past experience in management and logistics. She has since become CEO of Lantern Ventures.
“If I hadn't encountered 80,000 Hours' website, there's no way I'd be in the job I am today.”
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.
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.
Or join our newsletter and get notified when we release new problem profiles.
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.
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.