Talking about the Giving What We Can Pledge

byhbesceli2y3rd Jan 20179 comments


Giving What We Can estimate a pledge as being worth approximately $73,000 in donations to effective charities, and so getting people to take the pledge who wouldn’t have taken it otherwise seems like a highly valuable activity.

This year's GWWC pledge campaign started on Tuesday 29th November and will finish on the 10th of January. Since the campaign started 212 people have taken the pledge, with 171 people taking the pledge in December, the highest number of any month by 42 pledges - see the GWWC dashboard for more details. The main aspects of the campaign have included: publicising the pledge through social media, largely through the campaign's facebook event; writing articles and blog posts about the pledge; local groups publicising the pledge and putting on events; making a video about the pledge; and individual outreach to potentially interested individuals (although only some of the pledges taken during the campaign will be attributable to the campaign itself). A full review of the campaign is yet to be done, but one of the most promising activities appears to be personal outreach, specifically Giving What We Can members messaging their friends and starting conversations with them about the pledge.

According to a quick and informal survey of members of the Pledge Campaign Organisers Facebook Group, 13 people reported messaging their friends (out of 22 that responded) with 167 messages sent in total. Out of those contacted, 17 went on to take the pledge, 17 said they are planning on taking the pledge (but haven’t done it yet) and 41 said they would consider it, according to the reports of the people messaging.

If we ignore both the people who said they would pledge but haven’t yet, and those who are considering it, this gives us around 1 person taking the pledge for every 10 people contacted. Based on talking to people about their experience, contacting 10 people seems to take around 1.5 hours  (with most of this being time spent talking to a few people), leading to around 1 pledge (or $73k) per 1.5 hours spent.

This ratio shouldn’t be taken as a cost-effectiveness estimate of personal messaging. In particular, it doesn’t account for people that still would have taken the pledge without being messaged or still would have taken the pledge only later, and it seems likely that the people who reported their results would have had more success than either those who didn’t report or didn’t contact their friends. Furthermore, a significant amount of the value of people taking the pledge may be very difficult to quantify, for example the benefit of people getting more involved with effective altruism as a result, or the increased likelihood of the pledge becoming much more widespread and changing societal norms around giving.

I do think though that the figure helps give us a rough idea of just how effective messaging can be and it’s also consistent with other data on similar outreach. Giving What We Can previously messaged potentially interested people about the pledge around this time last year, and around 1 in 25 people messaged went on to take the pledge. Even if we assume that people in general will be 10x less effective than the members of the organisation group in messaging their friends, and also that only 1/10 people who took the pledge wouldn’t have done so otherwise, this would still be about 0.01 pledges or $630 per 1.5 hours spent.

If talking to our friends really is this effective, it seems like we should do it more. Many people find talking about the pledge difficult though, often because they worry that it will come across as preachy or self-congratulatory. Despite being worried about this beforehand, I’ve found messaging people about the pledge over the last few weeks to be surprisingly enjoyable. Most people responded to my messages, all the responses were positive, and the ensuing conversations brought me closer to many of the people I talked with. The feedback from others that have been talking to their friends has been similar, which leads me to suspect that the danger of appearing ‘preachy’ is more apparent than real.

On the other hand, there is a danger of overzealous outreach putting people off, though I think this can be avoided in the following ways:

  • Be slightly selective with who you talk to - spamming everyone you know will likely annoy people, and will also be less effective than considered, personal messages.

  • Be aware that some people simply won’t be interested in talking about the pledge, and if that’s the case, it’s better to leave it rather than try to persuade them to talk about it.

  • Be aware that the pledge will be more difficult or less appropriate for some people, for example those who have a smaller or irregular income.

  • Make sure to communicate that taking the pledge is an important decision and shouldn’t be taken lightly. Aim to provide as much information about the pledge which you think might affect their decision, and let them know if you think there are any plausible reasons why they shouldn’t take the pledge.

There’s more advice on how to talk about the pledge on Giving What We Can’s website. The strategy that I’ve found most useful in messaging friends is telling them what the pledge is and my experience with it, asking them if they’d be interested in hearing more, as well as using it as a chance to catch up with people in general. This seems to make it much easier to work out who is genuinely interested, and to not end up bothering the people that aren’t.

Overall, talking about the pledge is a promising way of having a large impact with a small time investment. For most people who have taken the pledge, I think spending a small amount of time contacting 5 or so friends about it would be incredibly valuable. Here’s the link for the Pledge Campaign facebook event and if you want to hear about other people’s experiences with talking about the pledge, join the Pledge Campaign Organisation Group.

Harri Besceli 

I’m currently interning at the Centre for Effective Altruism, and am helping coordinate the Pledge Campaign, though the views expressed here are my own.

Thanks to Alison Woodman, Larissa Hesketh-Rowe, Linchuan Zhang and Amy Labenz for comments, and thanks to Linchuan Zhang, Edward Higson, Alex Barry, Claudia Shi, Erwan Atcheson and many more volunteers for all the hard work on the campaign.