Connections for Success



Effective Altruism Gains Momentum: Donors Are Looking for the Most Bang for Their Buck
Harry Fox

Proponents of so-called “effective altruism,” also known as strategic giving, have gained footing in recent years. That’s evidenced by the growing role of organizations like GiveWell and The Life You Can Save, which help so-called effective altruists select organizations to support. That help is based on objective data about the organizations’ effectiveness at helping others.

As more information on results becomes available, not-for-profits will need to adjust some of their reporting and marketing practices to better appeal to the altruists. Take some steps now to focus your message on your impact.

The movement, explained

To appeal to effective altruists, you first must understand what drives them. Effective altruism doesn’t focus on how effective a not-for-profit is with its funds. Rather, it looks at how effective donors can be with their money and time. Instead of being guided by what makes them feel good, altruists use evidence-based data and effective reasoning to determine how to help others the most.

Effective altruists generally consider a cause to be high impact to the extent it is:

  • Large in scale (it affects many people by a great amount);
  • Highly neglected (few people are working on it); and
  • Highly solvable (additional resources will make a substantial dent in the problem).

For example, a high impact cause may be to support the Against Malaria Foundation, which distributes long-lasting mosquito nets. Malaria is widespread, but easily preventable, with such nets. A donation of $2–$3 is estimated by the organization to protect two people for several years.

Because they strive to get the most bang for their buck, some effective altruists focus on not-for-profits that help people in the developing world rather than those that work with U.S. residents. Therefore, instead of donating to a U.S. school, an altruist interested in education might donate to an organization that provides nutrition to children in poor countries, because improving their diet also will improve their ability to learn.

Related Read: “Are You Thinking About Transparency?


Effective altruism is not without its skeptics. Some argue, for example, that planting doubt in the minds of would-be donors over whether they are making the right choices could deter them from giving at all. Pressuring them to do additional research might dissuade them, too.

Others question whether the focus on measurable outcomes results in a bias against social movements and arts organizations, whose results are hard to measure. Organizations in those arenas usually work to eliminate broader problems, such as income inequality or oppression, where progress isn’t easily quantified. The critics assert that effective altruism’s approach does little to tackle the societal issues behind many of these problems.

Critics also point out that an evidence-based approach ignores the role that emotional connection plays in charitable donations. When it comes to choosing which organizations to support, givers’ hearts frequently matter more than their heads. Look no further than the donations that pour in after a natural disaster for evidence that such motivation works.

Don’t overlook the trend

Traditional charitable giving is not going anywhere, but not-for-profits should not ignore the potential benefits of effective altruism. Once donors deem your organization worthy, they may well donate as much as 10% of their income. That kind of money could go a long way toward supporting your mission.

Helping staff recruitment

Effective altruists do not take the greatest good into account just when making decisions about which not-for-profits to financially support; they also think about it when choosing careers. This could pay off for not-for-profit organizations.

Job seekers (younger job seekers, in particular) increasingly look for what the website calls “high-impact careers.” According to the site, which bases its name on the number of working hours in a typical career, one-third of young graduates want to make a difference in their careers by working on causes in which they believe. Alternatively, they may want to establish a career in a more lucrative private sector career that allows them to give generously to their favored causes.

The primary factor these potential employees consider is how much of a contribution they can make toward solving problems they deem ripe for effective altruism. If your organization deals with such problems and hopes to recruit these candidates, hone your message. Include empirical evidence that highlights the significant contributions they can make by working for you.

For more information, contact Harry Fox at [email protected] or 312.670.7444. Visit to learn more about our Not-For-Profit Group.

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