Measuring Charity

Effective altruists are using scientific methods to do the most good with their charitable dollars.

By Benjamin Hayward.

So, you want to make the world a better place, but you quickly come up against the unpalatable question charity cannot avoid: what can one person do? A lot, it turns out—something we know thanks to the science of effective altruism, a science that provides remarkably precise answers to the question.

For instance, a donation of precisely $2,838 to the Against Malaria foundation has been proven, on average, to prevent one death due to the disease. This has been confirmed by over 20 randomized, controlled trials conducted on the effects of the charity. That money distributes 535 insecticide-treated mosquito nets to Sub-Saharan Africa, which, over the lifetime of the nets, saves one person from dying and prevents many more from becoming non-fatally infected with malaria.

Effective altruism is “the application of cost-effectiveness to charity and other altruistic pursuits,” according to Stuart Armstrong of the Future of Humanity Institute, in interview with Gizmodo. “Just as some engineering approaches can be thousands of times more effective at solving problems than others, some charities are thousands of time more effective than others.”

Effective altruism is a growing movement that tackles charitable giving from a scientist’s perspective. It got its impetus from Australian philosopher and Princeton University professor, Peter Singer, who, in a 1972 essay titled “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”, asked whether it was morally justifiable to save just one life by donating locally when the same amount of money could save ten lives in a developing nation. The cause was later championed by two young Oxford philosophers, Toby Ord and William MacAskill, the latter of whom wrote Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference. It has spread rapidly, and there is even an organization, Giving What We Can, whose members pledge to give 10 percent of their income to “whichever organisations can most effectively use it to improve the lives of others”.

Giving Effectively

The goal of effective altruists, to make the world a better place, is an old one; what’s new is …

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