Effective Altruism's Fatal Flaw
I’ve been reading about effective altruism (EA). So has the Beloved, Otis, my husband and Turnkey’s psychologist. Effective altruism is all about maximizing the impact of philanthropy. It supports the idea that one should give to the nonprofits that are able to statistically prove they are most effective. Further, that the most efficient method of supporting these nonprofits is often to make lots of money—at whatever—and then turn it over to the nonprofits.
At first pass, it felt weird to me. Upon closer inspection, I recognize it as one of those ideas that comes out of a room filled with people who are too similar to one another, with too little information, who have been behind a door for too long. EA discounts the way humans want to connect with each other, which is in the end the only reason I would give anything to a neighbor in need. I recruited the Beloved to help me put actual facts around my belief. (I will not be running for president since I have this tendency—the “get actual facts” part.)
From Otis: “For years, economic models assumed that people behaved in ways that would maximize their own financial well-being. The problem is, they don’t. People have idiosyncrasies that make them seem to do 'irrational' things when the unit of observation is the individual. But when we look beyond the well-being of the individual—to that of the group they identify with—we find that seemingly selfless economic tendencies make a lot of sense. The bottom line is that being altruistic feels good, it is baked into our DNA. Humans have evolved to find altruism rewarding because behaviors that contribute to the well-being of the group also tended to favor the individual.”
Effective altruism is a laudable concept. But as Dr. Jamil Zaki points out in "The Feel-Good School of Philanthropy," it runs counter to how we experience philanthropy as being meaningful—emotionally. A dispassionate strategy for distributing $45 billion is needed if you are a Mark Zuckerberg. For those of us with limited funds or time to donate (just about everybody else), becoming emotionally invested in a cause will result in the best outcome for the organization, and will be most fulfilling for the individual.
Katrina VanHuss is the CEO of Turnkey, a U.S.-based strategy and execution firm for nonprofit fundraising campaigns. Katrina has been instilling passion in volunteer fundraisers since 1989 when she founded the company. Turnkey’s clients include most of the top thirty U.S. peer-to-peer campaigns — Susan G. Komen, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the ALS Association, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, as well as some international organizations, like UNICEF.
Otis Fulton is a psychologist who joined Turnkey in 2013 as its consumer behavior expert. He works with clients to apply psychological principles to fundraising. He is a much-sought-after copywriter for nonprofit messaging. He has written campaigns for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, The March of Dimes, the USO and dozens of other organizations.
Now as a married couple, Katrina and Otis almost never stop talking about fundraising, volunteerism, and human decision-making – much to the chagrin of most dinner companions.
Katrina and Otis present regularly at clients’ national conferences, as well as at BBCon, NonProfit Pro P2P, Peer to Peer Forum, and others. They write a weekly column for NonProfit PRO and are the co-authors of the 2017 book, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising." They live in Richmond, Virginia, USA.