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.
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.