Entries for 2013

How poor are we?
When we are directly confronted with another person's pain, particularly a small child's, we are instantly compelled to help even though the circumstances may be much less dire than those experienced every day by people living in extreme poverty. Our desire to help is almost automatic - we can't maintain our self-image without helping - we are generous, caring people.
“Surely you don’t just want to make a difference; you want to make the most difference.”
This has become something of a catchphrase for 80,000 Hours Founder Will MacAskill (at least, I like to tease him that it is). I heard The Humane League Founder Nick Cooney say something similar in a recent talk: “We need to ask ourselves, not ‘Am I doing good?’, but ‘Am I doing the most good?’”.
Everything we do has both good and bad consequences. I give money to a homeless woman – she is grateful but her friend down the road feels jealous. I lose my temper with a friend – he feels hurt but it also makes him more emotionally resilient. I go for a run – the exercise improves my health but also makes my legs hurt. Even doing something with very good consequences like donating to our top charity, the Against Malaria Foundation, is bound to also have some bad consequences somewhere down the line – perhaps bed nets block a welcome breeze for a lot of people.
The case of the ethical vegetarian is quite a tricky one. At first it seems that it makes no difference whether he eats the meat or not, since the animal has already been raised and slaughtered, the meat has already been purchased, and no one else is going to eat it. But perhaps if he gives in today, from now on his hosts will know that he will eat any meat perceived to be “left over”, and so will buy more meat accordingly, and over time this could affect consumer demand in such a way as to influence supply.
“It’s just a drop in the ocean.”
This kind of thinking can be discouraging for people who want to help the world, but who feel that their efforts would be futile because the world’s problems are so intimidatingly large. Unsurprisingly, this leads to many people giving up altogether and not contributing to good causes at all, but it can also lead to people making a smaller difference that only feels larger because they have chosen a smaller problem to tackle.
Giving Games for Thanksgiving
In the United States we will soon be gathering for our Thanksgiving dinners. We all have so much to be grateful for, but we also recognize that there is suffering and premature death that could be prevented throughout the world.

At The Life You Can Save we have been discussing how to approach the upcoming holidays and the "giving season". One of the ideas we have come up with, inspired by one of our pledgers in southern California, is a "Giving Game" at your Thanksgiving dinner; it could also work at any occasion you are gathering people together to celebrate or just to dine.
Flipping the Philanthropy Switch
The Life You Can Save is focused on increasing pledges and subsequent donations in the fight against global poverty. On a broader level, we are concerned with changing the culture of giving so that people think and feel that using one's discretionary income to help the world's poorest people is a responsibility like helping one's family or neighbors in times of need. In order to help us achieve our goals we are engaging in research relationships to learn more about what messaging, in general, best facilitates donations and 'pledging' to fight global poverty effectively. We will also be looking at individual differences, psychological and demographic, that may affect responses to messaging. For example, do some people respond more from the head and others respond more from the heart? How can you appeal to these different people? We also hope to be helpful to social psychologists in advancing their academic research that leads all of us to a better understanding of human behavior.
Charities must spend MORE on marketing, not less
When I went to Long Beach to hear Peter Singer at TED I had the pleasure of also hearing Dan Pallotta's talk: The way we think about charity is deadwrong. Of course Peter's talk was great – I knew it would be – but I did not know Dan and, therefore, I was pleasantly surprised and pleased by his message. In part, Dan was saying that non-profits, as a group, have demonstrated anemic growth rates because they do not use marketing strategies that have worked extremely well in the for-profit arena. These marketing strategies have contributed to very high compounded annual growth rates over many, many years for many, many companies. Based on my experience as Head of Marketing and President of a large retail company, Dan's message rang true to me.
It's good to see more people thinking seriously about how to make philanthropy more effective. The latest addition to the literature is Eric Friedman's Reinventing Philanthropy: A framework for more effective giving (Potomac, Washington DC, 2013). It is, as Friedman says in the introduction, "by a donor, about donors, and for donors who want to look critically at what they can do to improve their philanthropy." As a donor who knows the field of philanthropy well, and has had many conversations with others in this field, Friedman is well-placed to speak of the "code of silence that suffocates constructive discourse."
Considering that the term “effective altruism” was coined less than two years ago, I’m excited to have joined 150 other people at three effective altruism camps around the globe this year, and to know that there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of others identifying as “effective altruists” whom I have yet to meet.
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