Telofy’s Effective Altruism 101

I’ve published a similar introduction to effective altruism a few months ago. If you think that my last one is not ideal for your audience, then you can link them this one. I also published it on my own blog including a video that I can’t embed here.




If you want to do as much good as possible with your donations and other resources, then you may already be part of the effective altruism movement. The following ideas are central to the movement:

  1. Top charities make it cheap and easy for us to have a huge positive impact because they are ten, a hundred, or a thousand times more cost-effective than other charities.12
  2. Hence, it is typically more important where we give than what we give, and empirical, scientific research lends great confidence to these giving decisions.
  3. Consequently, most of us have the ability to save lives without even having to change our line of work.

The following sections will explain these points in more detail, and the final one will give an overview of the movement.


As children and probably as adults, most of us have wished to be life-savers and heroes like Batman, Blossom, or Buffy Summers—to leave a mark on the world and an eminently good one at that. If they weren’t fictional, these heroes could look back on their lives, see the permanent change for the better that they have effected, and feel proud of a life well lived.

Now some people discover a knack for professions such as doctor or lifeguard, others make inventions that improve the lives of millions, but none of these vocations have a monopoly on great positive impact.

The secret is one that every martial artist knows. If you’re in a fight with mighty opponents such as extreme poverty, disease, and malnutrition in far-away countries, you might be tempted to beat them with pure force—because, in fact, you have a lot of that. Most people who are likely to read this will have a one-in-ten, one-in-a-hundred, or even rarer innate gift for giving simply thanks to being born in a developed country with high earning potential, infrastructure, social security, a working health system, and much more.

Yet, if you want to win the fight with force alone it is still possible that your opponents will be stronger. Instead you can use your training: You elegantly side-step their attacks, anticipate the vectors of their momenta, and then throw them with just a gentle touch. That is what top charities allow us to achieve.

Top cost-effective charities, such as the ones listed below, provide the techniques that allow any donor to amplify their impact to the point where a few thousand dollar suffice to save a life. Thanks to them, effective altruism has been a breakthrough for many of us. In some cases we didn’t know what impact our donations had, if any. In other cases we were used to being able to do some good with our donations. But by optimizing the cost-effectiveness of our altruism, we found that we could do as much good with a fraction of the money and have enough left to add orders of magnitude more good on top.

Moreover, since they are among the best investments we can make with our money, these exciting opportunities have in many cases enticed us into donating more in addition to donating better and even choosing higher-earning careers to maximize what we can give—all the while saving more lives and feeling exuberant about it!

Intervention Prioritization

How can you achieve such an enormous boost to your altruism? Science!

Cause areas such as extreme poverty, diseases, and forms of malnutrition can be addressed through a variety of interventions. Often it is possible to allocate a certain budget to an intervention, randomly select treatment and control groups, and afterwards compare what relative improvement the intervention has achieved at what cost. Such randomized controlled trials or RCTs and systematic reviews across them are as central to evidence-based altruism as they are for evidence-based medicine.

But the situation is more complex than that because charity can be a bit like the stock market. Once an amazing new intervention has proved itself, governments and major foundations often jump on it, pouring in enough money that the marginal benefit of further donations is low. A great giving opportunity is hence one that addresses an important cause, relies on a well-proven cost-effective intervention, and yet remains underfunded.

Cause Neutrality

It is crucial to us to be unbiased about whom we help and never judge beings by the nature of their plight: all we want is to do as much good as possible. Hence we compare all interventions—whether medical, educational, agricultural, vel sim.—as well as we can, not just the ones within one category.

This means that organizations within the movement also investigate whether there are highly effective giving opportunities in areas that are usually deemed political. For example, opportunities within the US policy areas of labor mobility and criminal justice are being investigated by the Open Philanthropy Project. It also investigates types of global catastrophic risk (also known as existential risk)—such as biosecurity and geoengineering—and what can be done to avert them. Investigations into giving opportunities in the area of scientific research funding are also on the agenda.

Cause neutrality also embraces nonhuman animals. There is no agreed-upon method for comparing the suffering of different species, but Animal Charity Evaluators estimates that the cost for saving the lives of farmed animals4 might be four orders of magnitude less than that for saving human lives,3 a consideration that might outweigh whatever lower value one might assign to the life of an animal. On the other hand, animals are much less likely to benefit from long-term flow-through effects.5

Weighing all these considerations is a mighty undertaking.

Charity Evaluation

Two organizations have put years of work into doing just that and more. GiveWell and Animal Charity Evaluators assess empirically which interventions excel in all these categories. Furthermore, they look for charities that implement these interventions in a fashion that is highly transparent, scalable, and subject to rigorous self-evaluation. The charities that stand all these tests are thus the world’s best giving opportunities for donors.

The reliability of their evidence is paramount to GiveWell and Animal Charity Evaluators, and they go to great lengths to subject their reasoning to public scrutiny, so that they can continually improve.

As of December 2014, GiveWell recommends:

  1. The Against Malaria Foundation, which funds mosquito nets for malaria prevention
  2. GiveDirectly, which distributes cash to people in extreme poverty
  3. The Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, which treats people for parasite infections
  4. The Deworm the World Initiative of Evidence Action, which provides advocacy and technical assistance to governments to conduct deworming.

As of December 2014, Animal Charity Evaluators recommends:

  1. Animal Equality, which advocates for farmed animals through media outlets, grassroots outreach, undercover investigations, and legal and corporate outreach
  2. Mercy For Animals, which advocates for farmed animals through undercover investigations, corporate and legal outreach, online vegetarian ads, and grassroots outreach
  3. The Humane League, which advocates for farmed animals through online advertising, grassroots outreach, public campaigns, presentations, and corporate outreach.


  1. GiveWell and Animal Charity Evaluators find the best charities in existence and publish each step of their processes.
  2. The Open Philanthropy Project investigates promising giving opportunities including those that lie outside the focus of GiveWell.
  3. Giving What We Can accepts pledges from effective altruists who plan to donate at least 10% of their income.
  4. 80,000 Hours provides career coaching for everyone who wants their life to have the greatest possible positive impact.
  5. Charity Science experiments with different ways to conduct outreach and fund-raising.
  6. The Effective Altruism Forum can help you find answers to your questions.
  7. The Effective Altruists Facebook group provides you with another forum for effective altruism discussions.
  8. Effective Altruism Hub encourages you to be public about your donations to inspire others.

  1. D.T. Jamison et al., Disease Control Priorities in Developing Countries, 2nd ed., NCBI bookshelf (World Bank Publications, 2006), 52, ISBN: 9780821361801. 
  2. Toby Ord, “The Moral Imperative Towards Cost-Effectiveness,” 2012. 
  3. GiveWell, “GiveWell’s Cost-Effectiveness Analyses,” 2014. 
  4. Animal Charity Evaluators, “Top Charities,” 2014. 
  5. Owen Cotton-Barratt, “Human and Animal Interventions: The Long-Term View,” 2014. 

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