Effective Altruism (It’s Complicated)
For some time now, we have been interested in a movement in the nonprofit industry known as “effective altruism.” We wrote about the topic here on NonProfit PRO in a blog way back in 2015. Effective altruism began as a research field which uses evidence-based data to maximize the effect of charitable giving to achieve the best outcomes possible.
In recent years, effective altruism has given rise to a number of organizations, like Givewell.org, that provide information to supporters and potential donors about nonprofits’ effectiveness. The focus of effective altruism has typically been on directly improving the lives of individuals. One of the fundamental assumptions of effective altruism is that donors should value all human lives equally. This assumption has led some researchers to conclude that making donations to help people in the developing world is valued greater than making donations to help people in the developed world.
In our 2015 blog we wrote, “Effective altruism is a laudable concept. But it runs counter to how we experience philanthropy as being meaningful—emotionally.”
A study published last month in The Journal Psychological Science titled, “Impediments to Effective Altruism: The Role of Subjective Preferences in Charitable Giving,” sheds light on just how important an emotional connection is to the decision to support nonprofit missions. The research supports the idea that people view their decisions about which charities to support as being subjective or personal, rather than as something they do to have the most impact.
In the language of the researchers, this desire to connect on an emotional level “inhibits the impact of effectiveness information on welfare maximization.” In other words, people are not persuaded to make charitable donation decisions solely based on information about the effectiveness of their donations.
This seems to be particularly true when people are deciding on the type of charitable organization to support, for example, those dealing with health care advocacy and research, refugee issues, animal rights, supporting people experiencing homelessness, etc. The connection that people feel to a particular cause is more important in their decision to donate than whether or not there are more effective options available, ones that might have more of an overall impact.
These findings are consistent with the “warm glow” theory of giving, which says that people find prosocial behavior to be personally rewarding, regardless of the magnitude of the benefits created by their donations. And why, for example, I give away $5 and $10 bills out of my car window to people asking for donations on street medians, as we recently wrote about here.
One interesting question that comes to mind is, do people differ in the way they approach charitable giving and other financial decisions? Maybe there is nothing special about how people select which charities to support. Maybe people approach other spending decisions in generally the same way, without as much regard for the ultimate benefits that we would imagine that they would.
That turns out not to be the case. The research clearly showed that people in the study used objective information while making personal financial decisions to a much greater extent than when they were making charitable decisions.
However, it turns out that effective altruism does influence people, and strongly so in some situations. Overall, the number of people who selected a “welfare-maximizing” option in the study was greater than chance. And when choosing between causes, people were more influenced by their personal preferences, but once they had chosen a cause, welfare maximizing considerations became very important. For example, if it was revealed that past donations were ineffective, they became discouraged, which might lead to the decision not to continue supporting the charity in the future.
In the final analysis, we can think of people as “distorted altruists.” They do care about welfare maximization—doing the greatest good—but it is often difficult to make comparisons. How do you compare animal suffering to human suffering? Clean water and opioid abuse? Veterans’ health and reducing hunger? It’s complicated. And without a way to make comparisons, people rely on their feelings to guide their decisions.
Love conquers data. Again.
Otis Fulton, Ph.D., spent most of his career in the education industry, working at the psychometric research and development firm MetaMetrics Inc., Pearson Education and others. Since 2013, he has focused on the nonprofit sector, applying psychology to fundraising and donor behavior at Turnkey. He is the co-author of the 2017 book, ”Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising,” and the 2023 book, "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape," and is a frequent speaker at national nonprofit conferences. With Katrina VanHuss, he co-authors a blog at NonProfit PRO, “Peeling the Onion,” on the intersection of psychology and philanthropy.
Otis is a much sought-after copywriter for nonprofit fundraising messages. He has written campaigns for UNICEF, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen, the USO and dozens of other organizations. He has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia, where he also played on UVA’s first ACC champion basketball team.
Katrina VanHuss has helped national nonprofits raise funds and friends since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Her client’s successes and her dedication to research have made her a sought-after speaker, presenting at national conferences for Blackbaud, Peer to Peer Professional Forum, Nonprofit PRO, The Need Help Foundation and her clients’ national meetings. The firm’s work is underpinned by the study and application of behavioral economics and social psychology. Turnkey provides project engagements, coaching, counsel and staffing to nonprofits seeking to improve revenue or create new revenue. Her work extends into organizational alignment efforts and executive coaching.
Katrina regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” She and Otis are also co-authors of the books, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising" and "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape." When not writing or researching, Katrina likes to make things — furniture from reclaimed wood, new gardens, food with no recipe. Katrina’s favorite Saturday is spent cleaning out the garage, mowing the grass, making something new, all while listening to loud music by now-deceased black women, throwing in a few sets on the weight bench off and on, then collapsing on the couch with her husband Otis to gang-watch new Netflix series whilst drinking sauvignon blanc.
Katrina grew up on a Virginia beef cattle and tobacco farm with her three brothers. She is accordingly skilled in hand to hand combat and witty repartee — skills gained at the expense of her brothers. Katrina’s claim to fame is having made it to the “American Gladiator” Richmond competition as a finalist in her late 20s, progressing in the competition until a strangely large blonde woman knocked her off a pedestal with an oversized pain-inducing Q-tip. Katrina’s mantra for life is “Be nice. Do good. Embrace embarrassment.” Clearly she’s got No. 3 down.