What small things can an EA do?

How can we make the world a better place? Effective altruism encourages people to think deeply about how to prioritize their time to make the most difference. However, frequently doing something and starting somewhere is a lot better than just thinking and ending up not doing anything. So here's a quick list of things that EAs can do.

Donate Smarter

This is perhaps the most classic option for an effective altruist. Money can go a long way when donated to a top charity -- and GiveWell has spent tens of thousands of hours to find some outstanding charities that are thoroughly vetted and in need of funding in order to make the world a better place!

If you're already donating money to a GiveWell top charity, then great! But, if you're not, then consider whether your existing donations might go further when guided by the highest quality research on how to get the biggest bang for your buck in the charity sector. There are certainly good reasons -- both personal and altruistic -- to not donate to a GiveWell-picked org, but a great way to make the world a better place is to donate some of your money there!


Small Life Boosts

However, you don't just have to donate money. There are other small boosts you can make to increase your charitable contributions at no cost to you.

Join Amazon Smile. Sign up at smile.amazon.com and choose a charity of your choice, and they'll get 0.5% of all future Amazon purchase amounts, as long as you remember to go to smile.amazon.com when you shop. You can type in the charity into the box. Both "GiveWell" (under their non-profit name "Clear Fund") and "GiveDirectly" are available.

Use Charity Science's "Shop For Charity".  Consider turbocharing your Amazon Smile and gain an additional 5% of your Amazon purchase amounts by making purchases on the Charity Science "Shop For Charity" page.

Join some mailing lists. Stay informed about what organizations are up to by following The Life You Can Save mailing list, GiveWell mailing list, and Animal Charity Evaluators mailing list.

Set up an altruistic tip jar. If you're feeling weighed down by rejecting nice causes that happen to not be the single best cause in the whole world and/or you feel the urge to donate now but think it more prudent to make one donation at the end of the year, you could make an altruistic tip jar -- throw in a poker chip every time you feel moved to donate, and then count the results at the end of the year when you want to turn that donation into cash. The system also feels more tangible and exciting than donating online. ...Here's more on this idea.

Try Out Advocacy

Also, you don't have to donate your own money -- you could encourage other people to donate, which not only raises money, but spreads the word!

Talk to friends

The easiest way to advocate for top charities is to simply talk to people. When effective altruism comes up in conversation, don't be afraid to talk about it. (Though no need to go out of your way to talk to people about it if you feel shy.) And sometimes it comes up in unexpected ways. For example, if someone mentions that they don't know what they want to do after college, you could suggest they look into 80,000 Hours.

Run a Giving Game

Another way to engage people with the idea of weighing charities is to run a Giving Game. Giving Games are when players are introduced to a few pre-selected charities and are given an opportunity to dialogue about them and ultimately decide which of the charities to make a donation to, with the donation usually being supplied by the person running the Giving Game. Many Giving Games involve a moderated discussion, but other structures could be used. Giving Games could be online, over casual conversation, at a university, or placed on a street corner.

Ben Kuhn and Harvard Effective Altruism found that Giving Games are one of the best ways to engage people with effective altruism. The Life You Can Save runs many Giving Games and has compiled a lot of resources on them.


Run a Fundraiser

A specific way to advocate for top charities is to run a fundraiser. One idea is to run a fundraiser for your birthday -- people tend to be very receptive to this, and it's really easy to do.

You also could run other fundraisers, for Giving Tuesday, or for Christmas. If you make the fundraiser look compelling and promote it heavily -- and don't run too many fundraisers in any given year -- you should come out with a good amount of money moved to good charities and awareness to boot!


Join or Start a Local Meetup Group

Another way to engage people is to join or create a local meetup group. The meetup group could be about effective altruism, but it also could be about something related, like skepticism. You probably could even find traction in vegetarian groups or humanist groups or religious groups. Just try it out! Joining a pre-existing meetup is lower cost and gives you the benefit of connecting with an already existing group, but don't be dissuaded from starting your own -- starting a LessWrong (or any other kind of) meetup is easy!

Resources for Joining a Pre-existing Meetup

  • List of LessWrong Meetups

  • Meetup.com is a great way to find meetups -- for example, search for "skeptic" or "vegetarian". Keep in mind that even if you don't find a good meetup right away, by staying subscribed to email updates, you could still stumble upon something.

  • Ask around.

Resources for Starting Your Own Meetup

Try Vegetarianism (or Veganism!) for a Week

Another easy way to make a difference is to eat less meat. Every day, millions of nonhuman animals suffer in factory farms, and by eating less meat, we can help end this suffering. Going vegan -- or vegetarian, or even simply eating less meat -- may seem hard at first, but it's really not difficult at all, and there are lots of delicious vegetarian options. Give it a try for a week and see how it goes! Consider ordering a vegetarian starter kit!



And, if you have some extra time, a lot of effective altruist organizations need some help. Giving What We Can and Animal Charity Evaluators could both use some help. Additionally, there is an organization .impact and coordinates a lot of volunteer work toward EA, including the creation of this forum.


Donate More

Lastly, even if you're donating money effectively, you might be able to donate more and increase your impact! If you have a full-time job, chances are you already have more money than you'd ever need to live a happy life. Toby Ord lives a fulfilling life on just £18,000 per year, donating the rest to charity. Julia Wise and Jeff Kaufman live a fulfilling life -- with a baby! -- even while donating half their pre-tax income. The secrets to living a frugal life are not hard, and your life will be even more fulfilling than it was before. In fact, scientific research has demonstrated that empowering worthy causes with your money is one of the best ways to become happier!

You certainly don't have to donate half your money to do something. Try starting with 1% and increase from there. One couple, Chris and Madeleine Ball donated 1% of their income on the first year of their marriage and then increased by 1% every year, gradually building up to 8% . They're still going strong.

If you think you're ready to make a sizable and worthwhile commitment, consider joining Giving What We Can, an international society of people pledging 10% of their income. It may seem daunting at first, but 574 people have already joined and many -- including me :) -- would attest it was one of the best decisions they ever made!

If you are undecided about which organization is currently the best to fund (and live in the US), you might consider setting up a Donor Advised Fund, which has the commitment and tax deduction advantages of donating without actually deciding which charity to donate to at the time.  And if you can't donate more than the minimum needed to itemize your taxes (roughly $5,000 a year), you can bunch your donationsby donating every other year or so.



This post was originally written from notes brainstormed by .impact people, and has had additions by various other EAs during it's time on the EA Wiki.  I've thought it fitting to repost here.

Comments (17)

Comment author: lincolnq 15 September 2014 04:21:17PM 10 points [-]

Practice thinking about EA related stuff in your daily life.

Even if you don't always take the action, even just thinking about it can start to build the mental patterns which you will be able to follow later.

  • What food would I order today if I were vegan?
  • What job would I take today if I were earning to give?
  • How would a utilitarian analyze this ethical dilemma?
Comment author: ImmaSix 08 October 2014 05:03:07PM 2 points [-]

This could lead to good habits, but it might also make you focus on details rather than the big picture. Thinking EA too much can be exhausting, make you feel more guilty than necessary or you could become estranged from the people you meet in everyday life.

On the thoughts you sum up, you might add: - Is the small mistake I made today really bad? - Is this small thing a good step in the way to a greater goal?

For example, I always forgive myself if I happen to spend a few dollars more in the supermarket than absolutely necessary in order to eat healthy, and I there are a lot of bigger mistakes I should forgive myself as well. It's more important to spend enough time on my career and donation strategy.

Comment author: MichaelDello 24 August 2015 11:01:47AM 0 points [-]

I have to say that after EA Global Melbourne, where on the middle day I spent almost 16 hours straight thinking and talking about EA related topics, I felt tired but so fulfilled. It was actually hard coming back to my day job. As long as you turn the thoughts into energy and motivation to do more good and you don't despair (easier said than done) you'll be ok.

Comment author: MichaelDickens  (EA Profile) 15 September 2014 04:52:38AM 10 points [-]

For Amazon Smile, you can get browser addons that automatically redirect amazon.com to smile.amazon.com.

Chrome: https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/smile-always/jgpmhnmjbhgkhpbgelalfpplebgfjmbf?hl=en

Firefox: https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/amazonsmileredirector/

Comment author: Peter_Hurford  (EA Profile) 15 September 2014 03:05:40PM 1 point [-]

Thanks. I installed that!

Comment author: RyanCarey 15 September 2014 04:55:56AM 6 points [-]

In situations like this, it can be good to put one suggestion in each comment so that other users can upvote each suggestion separately.

Comment author: Tom_Ash  (EA Profile) 16 September 2014 03:25:37AM 5 points [-]

On the birthday fundraiser, we've just made a form where you can indicate that you might be interested in having one next time you age: http://www.charityscience.com/birthday-fundraisers.html . People are finding their friends really responsive, so it's a great, natural opportunity to direct money to some fantastic charities!

Comment author: [deleted] 15 September 2014 08:48:02PM 5 points [-]

I'd only add that providing support to other effective altruists can be a great use of time :) Even just a simple Facebook message to someone asking how their life is going can give them a solid boost. Especially reaching out to each other in terms of emotional and mental health to make sure we all have strong support systems!

Comment author: Austen_Forrester 15 September 2014 04:28:09AM 6 points [-]

Nice. Some of mine:

For donations, pay without using a credit card or PayPal so the charity won't have to pay the 2-3% fee. (Sometimes charities can process credit cards for free, though.) And don't be shy about letting others know how much you like donating to “top” charities, either! Monkey see, monkey do.

For advocacy:

  1. make more friends and acquaintances. The more people you know, the more you can influence.
  2. Enter more social spheres. To spread things by word of mouth, the more different social spheres you are in, the more it will spread. Even if you talk to the same number of people, those people that you talk to will be talking to different people themselves if they are in different groups/locations. If you stick to one group that you deal with, those people will be more likely just to talk to each other.
  3. Letter writing can be very effective, especially if lots of people do it. Ie. I emailed a coffee and donut chain recently and complained that they don't have soy milk. If more people complained, they'd have to start carrying it.
  4. Improve your appearance: People are influenced by those that look like them, or are good-looking and successful. Also, appearing to be a happy, well adjusted person would make you a far better advocate. If you come across as weird, unhappy, etc, people will think “I wouldn't want to be part of any club that would have you as a member,” to paraphrase the old Groucho Marx joke.

For volunteering: if you have a trade or profession that is expensive to employ, that can be very high impact/irreplaceable. Ie. volunteering your accountancy services, or electrical work.

My number one advice for small steps, or what to do when you don't know what to do for EA, however, is ironically to focus on yourself. Read and watch Youtube videos to educate yourself about whatever topics you feel are most important. Meditate to transcend negative emotions. Cultivate better social skills, or technical skills. As you become more educated on various issues, the manner in which to contribute best will reveal itself. Or you can become more effective at something altruistic you are already doing. Not to mention, if people see that you are educated, they will listen to you more so it greatly improves advocacy.

Comment author: Jackson_Sussman 10 October 2014 11:38:32AM 1 point [-]

How Important do you think appearing as not-weird and well adjusted is to our advocacy efforts?

EA's are known to do some crazy stuff to maximise their impact and I wonder, even if that stuff maximizes their personal impact does it reduce their overall impact by undermining their advocacy.

Basically how significant is the "i wouldn't want to be part of any club that would have you as a member' effect?

Comment author: Austen_Forrester 20 November 2014 02:22:24AM 1 point [-]

I don't think the importance of image in advocacy can be overstated. From what I've learned about vegetarian promotion and from my own observations in life, people don't judge things by their merits, they judge them in terms of how cool they are (ie. How much acceptance it has received from others) or how congruent they are with their existing self-image/worldview.

I don't think that a person can do “too much” to help others, even if others see it as extremist. I just think that people should keep quiet about actions/beliefs of theirs that could have a negative effect if other people found out about it.

Of course nothing is ever cut and dry. There's always the possibility that others will come around. For instance, people may at first feel threatened by someone who is making too big a sacrifice – let's say not having a child so as not to contribute to overpopulation, but then later come to think of it as a good thing once they get accustomed to the idea.

Comment author: Nicholas_Bregan 20 November 2014 03:04:36AM 0 points [-]

There is no overpopulation. Let's at least not use such myths to falsely frame decisions as altruistic sacrifice.

Comment author: RyanCarey 10 October 2014 02:17:21PM 0 points [-]

I think we can apply common sense to this question. If you want to appear as a mainstream advocate or fundraiser, and you're staking your reputation on a few unpopular positions, like animal rights or existential risk reduction, then you should be willing to make some compromises in other areas, like your clothes, hairstyle and conversational manner. Also, you might want to remain apolitical. For example, Jaan Tallinn, who founded the file-sharing program Kazaa, doesn't discuss the politics of file-sharing these days, instead focussing on his core business of mitigating existential risk. In contrast, if you want to be a contrarian academic leader like Robin Hanson, then you can talk about anything in order to get attention. This path seems riskier though, as it's much easier to detect whether your personal reputation is growing than to detect whether you are having small detrimental reputational effects diffused over hundreds of other effective altruists.

The other thing that I would say is that if you think X is probably very important yet unpopular, and you think that it's best not to advocate X in order to preserve your popularity, this is usually a rationalisation. Because if you want to preserve your popularity while promoting X, it will probably be best to attempt to do so right away. Promoting Y instead will not help with the very important end goal.

Comment author: Ben_Todd 05 October 2014 12:48:31AM 2 points [-]

I've linked to this from our new page on how to make a difference in any career.


Comment author: Tom_Ash  (EA Profile) 23 March 2015 06:39:31PM 1 point [-]

I'd recommend trying out/bookmarking http://www1.maths.leeds.ac.uk/~mmjhh/stuff/findmeatask/

Comment author: ImmaSix 22 March 2015 07:43:44AM *  1 point [-]

Can anyone think of small actions you can take to improve a specific skill? I am mostly looking for something concrete that you can do in one afternoon or less.


Comment author: Diego_Caleiro 26 September 2014 01:00:20AM -1 points [-]

One very cost effective thing to do is to pay someone in india or other outsourceable cheap country to spread the main videos related to effective altruism. Services like MyTasker YourManInIndia and others of the same sort.