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Effective Altruism at Your Work

Talking about effective altruism with coworkers can be really awkward. There's potential to come off as "I'm more moral than you", potential for "I think the charities you do support are useless", for "I'm so rich I can afford to give away lots of money", "I'm trying to convert you", "I think you're a bad person because you don't do this", and for just seeming weird. Most of the year I just don't bring it up, but as we get into giving season I feel like I ought to try.

I think most of the social difficulty around effective altruism comes from the demandingness aspect, the idea that to be a good person you should be devoting a substantial effort to making the world better. One way around this is to mostly focus on the effectiveness angle, saying "here's an awesome charity that can do huge amounts of good with your donation". The best charities are so much better than the rest that pushing effectiveness seems well worth it, and any sort of discussion of giving helps normalize it and lead people to give more. So here are three ideas for promoting effective giving among your coworkers:

  1. Matching Donations. Offer to match donations to one of GiveWell's picks. This provides openings to talk about effective altruism, why evaluation matters, and the good this charity can do. Lots of people are more willing to give if they see the people around them are giving too.

  2. Donation Drives. Many workplaces traditionally have donation drives around the holidays. If your work has one, consider getting involved and helping out. This can then let you push some for effectiveness as a consideration in choosing what charity to raise money for. If you don't have one yet, or the one you have is tightly coupled to an existing charity, like collecting cans for a foodbank, then consider starting a new one.

  3. Updated Recommendations Discussion. GiveWell will be putting out their updated recommendations by December 1st, and judging from their recent blog posts there are likely to be several new top charities, each presenting different benefits and tradeoffs. Hosting a discussion to talk about these new options when they come out is a great opportunity to get into ideas about how to choose a charity and what matters.

I hosted a recommendations discussion last year and this year I'm doing that again plus getting together with some other EAs here to match donations. I haven't tried organizing a donation drive but it seems promising.

Comments (11)

Comment author: Peter_Hurford  (EA Profile) 12 November 2014 05:19:05PM 5 points [-]

I feel pretty shy about EA in general and especially EA at my workplace, but I'd be curious about specifics for how you go about doing these kinds of things that I can maybe replicate.

I'm thinking of doing a Birthday for Charity Fundraiser for my Dec 11 birthday, which connects with Christmas, and I was thinking it would be appropriate to pass that around at work -- and discuss effectiveness a little bit.

Comment author: Jeff_Kaufman 12 November 2014 05:54:31PM 1 point [-]

I'd be curious about specifics for how you go about doing these kinds of things

When I did the effective giving discussion at work last time I sent out an email to an internal "misc" mailing list saying day/time/location and then sat at a table in the cafeteria with a sign. People came over, we talked. For the matching I would do something similar: send something out to an internal mailing list describing and advocating for the charity and offering to match.

(In the case of matching this year there's a semi-formal program where groups of employees get together and offer to match donations to a specific charity, and a group formed for SCI while I was out on leave, so when I came back I just had to notice the email and say "hey, can I join this matching party?")

Comment author: Vincent_deB 13 November 2014 03:49:56PM 0 points [-]

Finding an 'excuse' to talk about EA like this seems like a good idea.

Comment author: Robert_Wiblin 20 November 2014 02:06:52AM 2 points [-]

Has anyone actually tried this and gotten blow-back? I worry that this expected reaction might be mostly in our heads.

Comment author: Ben_West  (EA Profile) 20 November 2014 08:25:17PM 0 points [-]

My old company required charity groups associated with the company to help local charities. It wasn't "blowback" but rather just bureaucratic stonewalling that led me to give up (admittedly I didn't try superhard).

Comment author: Austen_Forrester 20 November 2014 02:40:27AM 0 points [-]

I think it depends on the demographics at work. I work with right-wing libertarians so obviously they have a lot of resentment towards me for donating a lot. From the old "all charities are scams" to "you're not a real person."... I've heard it all. But there are also a lot of Muslims where I work and I was pleasantly surprised at how positive they are towards my EtG, as helping others is part of Islam they tell me. But no one likes to be patronized so I never discuss philanthropy unless the other person brings it up (donating most of your income is so unusual that if you tell one co-worker, everyone at work will know REAL FAST! LOL!)

Comment author: Robert_Wiblin 20 November 2014 12:16:28PM 0 points [-]

""you're not a real person.""

Could you expand on this at all? It sounds quite amusing. :)

Comment author: Austen_Forrester 20 November 2014 09:39:59PM 2 points [-]

Well, I have to be somewhat judicial here as I post under my real name and I need to be mindful of work ramifications, but what happened there was I walked into the meeting room and my co-workers were talking about something, I forget what. Anyhow, one of them said “Austen doesn't count, he's not a real person.” completely serious, actually quite angrily. This was someone who knew me very well, so I was really offended. They kept talking and I didn't even get a chance to say anything. I was really mad at first but I eventually concluded that the bitterness from him is the same that I get from everyone else. It comes down to human psychology: no one wants to admit that someone is able to do something that they aren't so they attribute the person's “caring” actions to vices, rather than virtues. In other words, I am vegan, not because I have compassion for animals and have the balls to carry it out but because I'm “weird.” I donate a lot because I'm a naive idiot, not because I care about protecting others, and I volunteer not because I believe in effective altruism and make it a priority but because I let myself get “screwed over” (as another co-worker of mine put it.)

If someone admits to himself that I eat veg, volunteer, and donate out of virtues, then he'll feel inferior. We can't have that now, can we? Therefore, they usually attribute these seemingly benevolent acts to vices, so as to protect their threatened egos. Even my own satsang leader (basically, like a pastor), accuses me of being “egotistical”, “greedy”, and “underhanded” for giving to charity and volunteering. He himself donates nothing, so to prevent himself from feeling inferior he villainizes me :^) The lengths people will go to protect their egos is astounding. Being a serious do-gooder really polarizes people – either they love you or they hate you, depending on whether they have a moral-based or domination-based life philosophy. In Alberta, most people are the latter, which explains the blowback.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 22 November 2014 05:31:02AM 1 point [-]

I gave a presentation at work on effective altruism as part of a series of talks that one of my co-workers organized. It seemed well-received. You can see more details here.

Comment author: Andrew 13 November 2014 07:04:09AM 1 point [-]

Thanks for the encouraging post Jeff. I've struggled to find ways to let my coworkers know about EA without feeling hesitant for the reasons you've pointed out above. Have started getting involved with my work's philanthropic arm, but i also feel a bit conflicted with being involved in promoting some pretty average local Australian charities (since this is what the company does currently).

Comment author: Phil_Thomas 18 November 2014 02:45:00PM *  0 points [-]

Offering to match donations seems like it would be particularly effective. In that case, you're acting alongside someone else rather than telling them to do something. Also, this could be even more effective if your company has a matching gifts policy.