How can we use our resources to help others the most?
Scared Straight is a programme that takes kids who have committed misdemeanours 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 programme 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 programme actually increases crime. The effect is so significant that the Washington State Institute for Public Policy estimated that each $1 spent on Scared Straight programmes 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 this 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 organisations 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 organisations 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
This is among the most pressing problems to work on.
We think work on building effective altruism has the potential for a very large positive impact. It seems plausible that the effective altruism community could eventually save 100–1,000 million quality-adjusted life years (QALYs) per year by causing $10–100 billion per year to be spent on much more effective projects. As an alternative measure, it seems plausible that the effective altruism community could do good equivalent to reducing the risk of human extinction by between 1% and 10%. These estimates are extremely rough and uncertain.
This issue is moderately neglected. Current spending is between $10 million and $100 million per year.
Making progress on building effective altruism seems moderately to highly tractable. We expect that doubling spending on this issue could perhaps be expected to take us around 10% of the way toward seeing the full potential benefits of the effective altruism community.
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 programmes 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 programmes the effects are unknown. This suggests that if you get involved with a charitable programme without looking at the evidence, there’s a decent chance you’ll have no impact.
Large differences in effectiveness between successful approaches
Avoiding programmes 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, US 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 one 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 evidence-based development (which only focuses on finding evidence-based 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. As of 2014, for every $1 Giving What We Can had spent on creating and growing its community, its members had already given more than $6 to effective charities. 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 the 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 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)
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 programme 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 be 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 favour a high-fidelity model of movement growth — which promotes 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?
There are several ways you can use your career to promote effective altruism:
Working at organisations that 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 like AI research, biology, biosecurity, disaster risk, forecasting, and governance — use your position to strengthen the connections between your field and the effective altruism community.
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?
We recommend applying to work at the following organisations, which work directly on promoting effective altruism:
Founders 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 $200 million in legally binding pledges in under two years. Read more about Founders Pledge in our interview with the founder.
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.
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 effective altruism is helping organise a local group. This 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 to apply for work in these organisations, try to build one of the skills most in demand 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.
Where to donate to help promote effective altruism?
If you’d like to start helping right away, you can donate to effective altruist organisations.
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. As a result, we recommend donating to the Effective Altruism Infrastructure Fund.
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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.
AUTHORS’ 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.