Effective Altruism: Not “Either / Or” but “Both / And”

Published by Meredith Niles on

photo-7The closing of a year is often a reflective time, and an article that recently appeared in my Twitter feed definitely inspired me to take a step back. The piece, entitled “How Many People Died Because of Batkid,” was a Gawker post based on an op-ed by Peter Singer in the Washington Post. Singer is a passionate spokesman for “effective altruism,” and I truly admire his efforts to encourage individuals to give more to people less fortunate than themselves. His piece looked at the massive response generated by the city of San Francisco to the story of a little boy affected by leukaemia and argued that more good could have been accomplished by giving to causes that help people in developing countries. But while Singer may be a brilliant ethicist, his reasoning shows why he doesn’t make the greatest fundraiser.

We know from research that very few of us make our charitable donations in the manner that Singer would prefer: from a sense of moral imperative to help others followed by the creation of a “charitable budget” and a cold calculus of the maximum impact (as specifically constructed by Singer) that our pound could make. A recent study by NPC found that less than half of UK donors (that is, people who had given £50 or more to charity in the last twelve months) felt that people should donate to charity if they have the means; presumably, the percentage of the total population, including non-donors, who do not feel there is a moral imperative to give would have been even higher. Moreover, the same study found that only 7% of UK donors use research to help them evaluate a donation decision between multiple charities. So we’re working with a population that, as a whole, doesn’t share Singer’s view that there is a moral imperative to give to others and that doesn’t give in the way that he prefers. While it’s laudable that Singer is trying to change the way people think about giving, fundraisers ignore the current reality at their peril.

Indeed, Singer’s own giving experiment proves the point that most of us don’t give to causes solely based on an intellectual understanding of their effectiveness. In his essay, he describes an experiment in which his organisation, The Life You Can Save, handed strangers in the street free money and then offered them the choice to keep the money or to donate it to the Against Malaria Foundation. He notes that “almost all of them chose to give it away — and some even added their own money to what they had just been given.” In total, $2,500 had been given away to strangers, with $2,421 being donated to the Against Malaria Foundation as a result. Singer concludes that his ‘giving experiment’ proves “not only that many Americans would like to help the global poor but also that they are genuinely happy to do so. All they need is the knowledge to be able to do so effectively.” (Emphasis mine.)

I find it very difficult to reach that same conclusion. What that experiment shows me is that, when people are moved by the apparent generosity of strangers and experience the warm feeling that comes from being a recipient of kindness, it moves some of them (but evidently not all) to consider initiating a gift to others in response. If Singer were trying to prove that knowledge of how to give effectively was all that people needed to motivate them to give to others, he would have had grad students standing on street corners armed not with dollar bills but collection buckets and leaflets about the effectiveness of the Against Malaria Foundation; I doubt he would have achieved results that were as positive as he did with his reciprocity experiment. Moreover, the results themselves aren’t terribly compelling: ignoring the input of the volunteers (or staffers – it’s unclear which he employed) and the costs of producing the accompanying publicity video, the experiment produced an ROI of less than 1, hardly a result that most professional fundraisers would be rushing to brag about (particularly if they didn’t capture donors’ details to follow them up for a subsequent donation!).

Singer is troubled by the fact that Save the Children can raise more money by telling people the story of a specific African seven-year-old in need than by describing the condition of three million children in Malawi, and he calls this a “flaw in our emotional make-up.” This line of thinking is the luxury of a moralist. The pragmatist cares only about how to raise the most money for the cause. And if exploiting this “flaw” in our thinking is the best way to do it, then we should applaud this strategy, not criticise it. As the research cited above shows, fundraisers are competing to a relatively small extent with fundraisers for other causes, but if we’re going to move the needle on charitable giving (which, as a percentage of household expenditure has remained relatively flat), we’re going to have to start diverting money from other purchases. Do you think the marketers of televisions or junk food are at all concerned about whether or not we’re buying their products for what they deem to be the right reasons? Absolutely not.

And while Singer is also concerned about the moral superiority of one cause over another, I would argue that any giving to good causes is better than none, and it’s empirically false – not to mention unhelpful – to classify the choice of most individual donors as a rational one between two good causes after a defined budget for philanthropy has been set, because we know this is not how most donors behave. (Scientists still have found no fossil record for homo economicus!) A better headline for the Gawker piece would have been “how many people die every day because of hamburgers,” because we spend a lot more money on fast food than we do on any particular charity. Why frame the debate as a comparison only between the worthiness of expenditure on two different charities? Singer might well have increased the total amount of money given away to good causes via his experiment if he had offered donors a choice among multiple charities, including ones that might have held more personal resonance for the individual donors.

So in answer to the question posed by the title of the Gawker post that got me started on this train of thought – how many people died as a result of Batkid – the answer is: probably none. Because very few of us are rationally weighing decisions about whether to give to the Against Malaria Foundation or to Make-a-Wish. If anything, the heart-warming story of a city rallying to create a special day for a little boy did nothing more sinister than to encourage more donations to Make-a-Wish. In many cases, the choice to give to a particular charity is equivalent to an “impulse buy” triggered by an intense emotional connection to the cause (or, as in the case of Singer’s giving experiment, a momentary reminder of the capacity for human kindness). Most people don’t give very much to charity at all; they literally have to be moved to do so, and the most effective way to move people is to appeal to emotion.

Heart vs MindSo let’s not frame the “effective altruism” debate as a contest only between one good cause versus others, pretend that fundraisers are battling for clear-thinking minds over cuddly hearts that need to be warmed or assert that a pound raised from one is morally superior to a pound raised from the other. If we want to create more positive social change, we need to encourage more giving overall. We need to meet donors where they are by creating opportunities to give to causes that are meaningful to them (and an excellent fundraiser is distinguished by the ability to make her cause relevant to new audiences!) and harness both hearts and minds. Use rational analysis to make sure we’re maximising the impact of every pound we raise (and share that insight with the small percentage of donors for whom that makes a difference) and acknowledge that evidence of impact alone is unlikely to encourage greater giving at a massive scale. If Peter Singer wants to become a more effective fundraiser, he should take a lesson from Make-a-Wish and embrace the methods and stories that inspire giving.

Meredith Niles

Meredith Niles is the Head of Fundraising Innovation at Marie Curie. Prior to joining Marie Curie, she worked as a grant maker and advisor to high-growth charities with Impetus – The Private Equity Foundation and as an investment banker in New York, Frankfurt and London with Goldman Sachs. She lives in London with her husband and three young sons. She writes here in a personal capacity.


David Cravinho · January 23, 2014 at 15:25

Thanks, Meredith, for an interesting and thoughtful piece.

You could even take the line of speculative argument one step further by asking how many of the Batkid-inspired donors went on to donate to other causes that they may not have considered supporting, as a result of positive feelings generated by their original donation. I love to see good fundraising for ‘competitor’ organisations, not just because they’re generally raising money for a positive outcome, but also because I strongly believe that every donor who ends up feeling great about giving to them, becomes more likely, not less, to give to other organisations as well.

    Meredith Niles · January 23, 2014 at 21:09

    Thanks for the comment, David. I agree that giving, when it feels good and relevant for the donor, can become a self-reinforcing habit. Getting more people to give more often is about making them feel great about their gift and the impact it creates. If good story-telling can do this, why would anyone criticise it?

Mark Trotter · January 24, 2014 at 12:56

An interesting article and it under pins the argument that society doesn’t change. When Luke FitzHerbert raised this point in the 1980’s little had been established about collective emotional intelligence. Singer does illustrate the proximity principle extremely well.

The issue has always been emotional attachment to the individuals but too often the media link the issues to political issues with one side against another. Injustice causes poverty, education, kindness and charity raise the ordinary people out of it.

    Meredith Niles · January 25, 2014 at 20:05

    Dear Mark,
    Thank you for your comments. I agree – it is fundamentally easier to try to get people to take actions based on how they actually perceive the world/act rather than get people to change radically. If we know that people respond to emotion, a more effective fundraising ask will be one that taps into this rather than one that speaks to how we would like people to respond or how we think they ought to.

Helen · January 25, 2014 at 08:31

Thanks Meredith,this is a very interesting and thought provoking article. I also admire Singer’s work, but I don’t like the ‘way we are being moved to give,’ being described as a flaw, ( probably becauseof my flawed thinking) . If it is a flaw I think it is easier and more practical to exploit thar flaw than to try to fix it and transform homo sapiens into homo economicus.

    Meredith Niles · January 25, 2014 at 20:10

    Spot on! And by the way, the way we respond to individual stories of need (including people outside of our own immediate families/communities) is something that differentiates us from (most) other species. If that’s a flaw in the way we’ve evolved, it’s relatively low on my list of flaws that I hope will be “corrected” over time!

Ariel Speicher · February 16, 2014 at 02:50


As ever, a thought-provoking and well-written piece. You’ve made me think of this debate anew, which is timely given the number of charity appeals currently sitting on my desk.

The head vs heart argument is also alive and well in the sphere of politics. The Economist recently featured an article about American politics and the advantages to emotional vs rationale appeals.

We are lucky to have you as such a powerful advocate.

Jamie Strachan · February 17, 2014 at 11:07

Meredith, an excellent blog. Very well articulated against an ideal which as you say is unrealistic. I don’t think my own response would have been quite so well structured!

Chuck Smith · September 19, 2015 at 10:01

I agree that he wouldn’t make the best fundraiser, but that isn’t his role. Here’s an analogy.

If people find homosexuality viscerally disgusting and immoral, then some pragmatists will try merely to soften their hearts, without outright condemning them as bigots. Others, on the other hand, will simply point out what the correct, cold hard reasoning is and why these bigots are completely wrong in their views.

Peter Singer plays the analog of the latter. The role of the clear-headed intellectual is at least as important as the pragmatic fundraiser.

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