Oct 22, 2014
If the Effective Altruism movement increases in size (particularly with the release of books by Peter Singer and Will MacAskill) it will become very important to make sure that enthusiasm for effective altruism translates into impact. It might be easier to do that if there were a standard, concrete action everyone in the movement tended to take. One promising such action is donating 10% of our salaries (and committing to doing so). Currently, many people who identify as effective altruists join Giving What We Can. However, Giving What We Can’s pledge is currently somewhat restrictive in cause areas it covers. Broadening Giving What We Can’s pledge would be one way to bring together effective altruists and thereby increase the chance of enthusiasm for effective altruism translating into concrete actions and long-term commitment.
To work out if this plan is realistic, we need to know how many people actually would join Giving What We Can based on this change to the pledge. So bear in mind as you read this – if you aren’t yet a member of Giving What We Can, would you join if this change was made? Do you know others who would?
The proposed pledge is: I recognise that I can use part of my income to do a significant amount of good. Since I can live well enough on a smaller income, I pledge that for the rest of my life or until the day I retire, I shall give at least ten percent of what I earn to whichever organisations can most effectively use it to improve the lives of others, now and in the years to come. I make this pledge freely, openly, and sincerely.
This differs from the current pledge (the full text of which is below) in two ways: it takes out ‘in the developing world’ from the first sentence, and replaces ‘to help people in the developing world’ with ‘to improve the lives of others’ in the second sentence. Importantly, it continues to use the phrase ‘organisations which can most effectively use it...’. This is significant because most people think that the charity they donate to is effective, but to fulfil the pledge, they need to believe the far stronger claim that it is the most effective.
This pledge gets to the heart of what we care about: that we should help people out of extreme poverty because we care about suffering and about making others better off, and because we are in a position to be able to help those in extreme poverty so much at so little cost to ourselves. We understand ‘improving the lives of others’ to include organisations seeking to improve the welfare of animals. If Giving What We Can adopted the new pledge, it would mean that someone joining who believed that a particular organisation helped others even more than the most effective organisation improving the lives of those in developing countries would be fulfilling the pledge by donating to that organisation.
Even if this change to the pledge were made, we plan to continue to focus on alleviating extreme poverty. Our mission, vision, values and branding would remain the same. We would continue to evaluate only global poverty charities (broadly construed as now, including for example climate change charities). We think that we can do more good by continuing to focus in this way – it is our comparative advantage and it provides a concrete and motivating focus. There would be some changes to the website: for example to explain what the new pledge encompassed. We would likely have a page along on what causes other than poverty members might be interested in (for example, this might say a little about animal suffering and point interested people to ACE).
Hopefully you’ve now got a sense of our thoughts. So – if you aren’t yet a member of Giving What We Can, would a change like this prompt you to join? Do you know others you think would be prompted by it? Do you have any comments or suggestions on the wording of the new pledge? What do you think about the idea of our changing the pledge? We’d love to hear from you, so please let us know your thoughts, whether by commenting below or writing to us privately!
The current pledge:
I recognise that I can use part of my income to do a significant amount of good in the developing world. Since I can live well enough on a smaller income, I pledge that for the rest of my life or until the day I retire, I shall give at least ten percent of what I earn to whichever organisations can most effectively use it to help people in developing countries, now and in the years to come. I make this pledge freely, openly, and sincerely.
If you’re interested in more of our thinking about this question, below is the more detailed document we previously sent to members for comments:
What’s the change?
We’re considering changing the pledge to: I recognise that I can use part of my income to do a significant amount of good. Since I can live well enough on a smaller income, I pledge that for the rest of my life or until the day I retire, I shall give at least ten percent of what I earn to whichever organisations can most effectively use it to improve the lives of others, now and in the years to come. I make this pledge freely, openly, and sincerely.
This differs from the current pledge in two ways: it takes out ‘in the developing world’ from the first sentence, and replaces ‘to help people in the developing world’ with ‘to improve the lives of others’ in the second sentence.
What would the change imply?
This broadens the pledge from only being about helping people in the developing world to being about those we can most effectively help whether inside or outside the developing world. It does not mean that people in rich countries would be likely to be fulfilling the pledge if they give to local charities, since we can typically do far more good for those in extreme poverty (which is why GWWC focuses on the charities it does). It does mean that people who think that the most effective way to prevent suffering is to donate to charities which help animals – for example which try to eradicate factory farming – would be fulfilling the pledge by donating to those organisations.
The change is not likely to make a difference to people who think that the best way to help others is to ensure that the future will go well, since the pledge already explicitly includes people who will live in the future, as well as those alive now. (We already have members who believe, for example, that we should be trying to avert catastrophes in the future, and that that is the best way to help humanity, including those in the developing world.)
Giving What We Can’s focus would not change. Our mission and vision would remain the same, the website would continue to be oriented towards poverty, and the events we put on would continue to be about extreme poverty. We would continue to evaluate only global poverty charities (broadly construed, as it currently is, including (for example) climate change charities). This is somewhat similar to the fact that currently some people think that the biggest risk facing those in poverty is from biological terrorism, and those people might join GWWC and fulfil the pledge by donating to organisations that aim to fight bio-terrorism, but we do not evaluate charities of that kind.
We would have an explanation of the fact that the pledge included charities other than ones directed towards extreme poverty on the FAQs page. We would likely have a page on the website along the lines of ‘Beyond poverty’. It would say something like: ‘You might think that the most effective organisations are those working outside of the area of extreme poverty. If you think, for example, that the most effective organisations are those which work to prevent animals from suffering, we encourage you to check out Animal Charity Evaluators...’
Why would we make the change?
Giving What We Can is about ending extreme poverty, but it is also part of the effective altruism movement, which is about helping others as effectively as possible and making doing so a serious part of one’s life. This idea has had some exposure so far (for example through GiveWell and the wide exposure of Peter Singer’s TED talk). Over the coming year, two books on Effective Altruism are going to be published by William MacAskill and Peter Singer, which have a chance of making effective altruism more mainstream than it has been in the past. This brings with it increased risk of the term getting watered down, such that it does not change people’s behaviour. Therefore, it seems sensible to have a clear action associated with effective altruism which is considered the minimum standard for people to do: donate 10% of their income to the most effective charities. The way we can really persuade others that this is the right thing to do, and encourage them to join us, is for a large number of us to stand together. At the moment the separation between organisations focusing on different cause areas seem to imply that you should make a commitment to helping one to the exclusion of the others. That seems antithetical to effective altruism: it seems better to avoid such fragmentation by having one clear commitment which unites us.
Issues we would need to work out:
- How the old and the new pledge would interact. One possibility would be for both pledges to exist in parallel, although new members encouraged to take the new pledge. Another possibility would be to simply replace the existing pledge for new people joining. In either case, we would give existing members a choice of whether to change to the new pledge or not.
- How we made clear that Giving What We Can is focussed on poverty alleviation, but supports those who believe there are more effective ways of helping others. This is likely to be through the pages mentioned earlier.
- The precise wording of the new pledge. In particular, one option we would consider is adding on to the first sentence something along the lines of ‘...and that there is a large evidence base suggesting that some organisations are orders of magnitude more effective than others.’ This might help to ensure that people took a global rather than local focus when deciding which charities to donate to.
Alternatives we considered:
- There being a cause-neutral pledge which brings together people donating to different effective causes, but hosted by a different organisation. In particular, we discussed this in the context of Effective Altruism Outreach. This seems like it could be a worse option for a couple of reasons:
o Giving What We Can has an infrastructure built up for people to take a pledge and join a community, including My Giving dashboards, a CRM, member newsletters etc. It would be a huge understanding to replicate this for a second organisation.
o Giving What We Can is an established community with a large number of members, which has existed for a number of years and endeavoured to build up solidity and credibility. That seems likely to help both in encouraging people to join the community and in ensuring people take the commitment seriously and change their actions accordingly.
o Having a number of different pledges is likely to lead to a fractured community. In addition, someone might initially feel that the most effective way of helping living creatures is to fight extreme poverty and later change their mind to thinking that the most effective way is to prevent factory farming. It seems like if they still intend to donate at least 10% of their income to the most effective charities, it would be better to support them in that than to say that they have leave GWWC and join a different community instead (unlike, for example, if someone decides they no longer want to rely on evidence to pick effective charities, or no longer wants to donate as much as 10% of their income).
- Giving What We Can having multiple pledges – the current one and a cause neutral one – and allowing people to take whichever they would prefer. This seems to be a worse option to us because it would be confusing for people, particularly as the two seem so similar. This confusion could be reduced by having the cause neutral pledge be harder to find on the website, so that people only get to it if they are looking for it. But a large part of the point of the pledge is in order for people to stand up and be counted – to publicly declare that they believe we are in the fortunate position that we can afford to donate at least 10% of our income to help others, and that we should think carefully about where we donate to. Therefore, a pledge that was deliberately difficult to find would seem to diminish a large part of the impact. We have in the past tried having multiple pledges – we used to have a ‘Give More Tomorrow’ pledge, because we had had requests from people for being able to commit to donating when they had a pay rise, or got their first job. Although the psychological literature seems to provide additional evidence that future pledges are effective, GMT did not catch on at all. It seemed merely to cause confusion. We would therefore be unwilling to institute two ongoing pledges again.
Potential concerns we have:
- Current members being against the change. That might be due to them disagreeing with the current pledge, or due to being unhappy about the idea of the Giving What We Can pledge changing. In order to try to work out to what extent our members will feel this way and whether there are ways to prevent or ameliorate it, we will be talking to them as much as possible throughout the decision process.
- New members thinking that their pledge would be fulfilled by donating to a charity in their local area, rather than considering charities on a global scale. We think that the website as a whole, and our recommended charities in particular, will make clear that this isn’t the case. We also try to talk to people both before and after they become members. Therefore, we have multiple opportunities to make sure that people fully understand the pledge.
- That the broader idea of ‘helping others as much as possible’ is not as appealing as specifically helping people in extreme poverty. We are less worried about this than we used to be, because we had assumed that the idea of ‘effective altruism’ would be entirely unappealing to people, and that has turned out not to be the case (given, for example, Singer’s TED talk). In addition, the extent to which people find the ideas compelling and plausible does not depend just on what the core idea is, but also on what ideas are presented first and context. Right now, all of our members care about helping those in the developing world as effectively as possible, and the fact that some people think that the best way to do that is to ensure that the far future goes well does not seem off-putting to those who think that only current people matter.
- Confusion over the fact that Giving What We Can is focused on preventing extreme poverty, but that its members also donate to other causes. It is difficult to know how much confusion this might cause. So far we have not had a problem with people finding it strange that one could think that the best way to help those in the developing world was to work to avoid e.g. biohazards, even though Giving What We Can does not deal with charities of that kind. It does not seem particularly surprising that Giving What We Can would need to have a focus area for its research, and for the talks it gave, even if some of its members cared about and donated to a broader range of organisations than those in that focus area.
After much thought about the various considerations at play, the Giving What We Can staff and the trustees are all inclined to think that changing the pledge as above is the best course of action. It wouldn’t involve a change in the focus of what Giving What We Can works on, or its research. But we’re really excited about possibility it provides for bringing together people who all want to help the world as effectively as possible and are willing to donate a significant portion of their income to doing so. We hope that this change would ensure that as the effective altruist movement grows it continues to inspire real change in people’s actions towards helping others as much as we can.