This post is a personal reflection that follows my journey to effective altruism, my experiences within it, the concerns I've developed along the way and my hopes for addressing them. It culminates in my views on funding constraints — the role we can all play in solving them and a key question I have for you all: What stops us? (Please let me know in the comments).
While this starts with a reflection on my personal journey, I suspect it might feel familiar, it might strike a chord, at times it might rhyme with yours.
I was about eight years old when I was first confronted with the tragic reality that an overwhelming number of children my age were suffering and dying from preventable diseases and unjust economic conditions.
It broke my heart.
I knew that I had done nothing to deserve my incredibly privileged position of being born healthy to a loving, stable, middle-income family in Australia (a country with one of the highest standards of living).
Throughout my early years, I took many opportunities to do what I could to right this wrong. In school, that meant participating in fundraisers and advocacy. As a young professional, that meant living frugally but still giving a relatively meagre amount to help others. When I got my first stable job, I decided it was time to give 10% to help others... But when I calculated that that would be $5,000, this commitment began to feel like a pretty big deal. I wasn't going to back down, but I wanted to be more confident that it'd actually result in something good. I felt a responsibility to donate wisely.
Some Googling quickly led me to discover Giving What We Can, GiveWell, and Julia Wise's blog Giving Gladly. From this first introduction to what would soon be known as the effective altruism (EA) community, I found the information I needed to help guide me, and the inspiration I needed to help me follow through.
I also took several opportunities to pursue a more impact-oriented career, and even tried getting involved in politics. These attempts had varying success, but that was okay: I had one constant opportunity to help others by giving.
Around this time, the EA community started expanding their lines of reasoning beyond effective giving advice to other areas like careers and advocacy. I was thrilled to see this. We all have an opportunity to use various resources to make a dent in the world's problems, and the same community that had made good progress on philanthropy seemed to me well-positioned to make progress on other fronts too.
By 2016, effective altruism was well and truly “a thing” and I discovered that there was an EA group and conference near me. So, I ventured out to actually meet some of these "effective altruism" people in person.
It hit me: I'd finally found "my people."
These were people who actually cared enough to put their money where their mouths were, to use the best tools they could find to make the biggest possible difference, and to advocate for others to join them. None of these things were easy, but these people really owned the stakes and did the work.
I admired the integrity and true altruism that I found. It motivated me to do better.
How I saw effective altruism change
As time went on, however, I noticed some changes that concerned me. The EA community’s expanded focus started to feel less like a "yes, and" message — supporting both effective giving and pursuing other effective paths to impact — and more like a "no, instead" message: giving began to feel a bit passé within the community.
Above: My response to the shift away from effective giving
It started slow, but the change became overwhelming:
- 2015: 80,000 Hours started to advocate to focus on talent gaps, not funding gaps.
- 2016: Giving What We Can (GWWC) was merged into the Centre for Effective Altruism (and the GWWC Chapters were shut down).
- 2017: GWWC experienced a significant drop in the growth rate of pledges (which then gets worse each year until 2020).
- 2019: When speaking with EAs who were engaged mainly by giving (like me at the time), conversations would often turn to how they were feeling out of place and unappreciated, that their donations sometimes felt like a drop in the bucket, or that they felt pressure to upend their lives to change careers to something that didn't feel like such a good fit. Around the same time, someone boasted to me at an EA conference, “I'm all into the effectiveness part, less so the altruism.”
- 2020: I joined GWWC and tried to advocate again for the role of effective giving within EA, but would regularly face resistance on the ground ("It's just not a priority for us"). I reviewed common introductory materials and templates, and I'd see that obvious opportunities to mention effective giving often weren't taken — and some had even been removed from earlier versions.
- 2021: Tech stocks and crypto were booming (EA-influenced funds were disproportionately invested in these sectors) and the term "funding overhang" started to be widely used (though later dissuaded from use) in ways that gave a misleading picture of the funding situation — often mistaken for or rephased as “not funding constrained” or even “overfunded”.
- 2022: The Future Fund is announced, and grantmaking at Open Philanthropy scales up. The community expresses concerns about "free-spending EA" attracting "grifters" or "vultures" because it at times starts to feel like EA is more of a place where people come to get money, not a place where people come to give money. Will MacAskill responded by arguing for judicious ambition in light of recently increased funding (starting with "Well, things have gotten weird, haven't they?").
I fully acknowledge that a lot of changes were good, rational, and necessary. For example, an increase in funding really did mean that it was relatively more important to figure out how to scalably and effectively deploy it than it was to stockpile more funds, and it was relatively more impactful for middle-to-high earners to move into direct work if the right opportunity arose.
Several voices in the community expressed concern about certain attitudes towards funding or had visions differing from what they saw as mainstream EA. To mention a few:
- Jack Lewars made a case for promoting effective giving within EA groups.
- Michael Townsend made a case for the value of small donations from a longtermist perspective.
- Joey Savoie argued for more nuance around discussing funding gaps.
- At GWWC, we were making a case for why we still believe in promoting effective giving in 2022.
- Personally, I started to be more explicitly vocal about my concerns, arguing for more of a "big tent" effective altruism that represents many paths to impact, and I was frustrated enough by the "overfunded" meme that I wrote a poem about it for a bit of catharsis.
Amidst these evolving discussions and emerging dissenting voices, I was personally observing, experiencing, and grappling with aspects of our community's developing culture around funding that seemed unsettling to me:
- It seemed like funding was being treated less as a personal and collective responsibility, and more as the job of a few ultra-high-net-worth individuals.
- Despite our achievements, people often talked as if funding was a solved problem, even though the funds we had at our disposal were dwarfed by philanthropy at large and the problems we were tackling were still severely underfunded (it pains me that still each day ~15,000 children die from preventable disease).
- It felt as if personal contributions to funding were undervalued, even when they were impactful and often among the most effective things people could do.
- I perceived an overconfidence in the community's funding growth (counting chickens before the eggs hatch), even though we were relying heavily on a small number of large donors with unpredictable assets.
- It seemed that the problems inherent in an undiverse funding ecosystem weren't sufficiently recognised, addressed, nor seen as a collective problem to solve.
- I felt that comments and policies about time-money trade-offs were becoming less reasonable and also tone-deaf; it seemed to me as if money was being taken for granted, which felt disheartening.
- I observed the second-order effects of personal giving (such as it being a costly signal to demonstrate prosocial values like altruism, or a way people stay engaged with the community and ideas) often being downplayed, despite them arguably playing a major role in the community's initial success.
- It felt like giving money was increasingly seen as a zero-sum game against giving time, without a clear explanation as to why they couldn't both coexist meaningfully for most people.
Then late 2022 rolled around:
- Effective altruism-inspired giving was being discussed in the mediasphere as a "billionaires thing" (a far cry from the earlier stories of Julia & Jeff or Toby & Will giving a significant amount of a more typical income)...
- Financial markets dropped (particularly tech and crypto)...
- A recession hit…
- FTX exploded…
Not only were we raising far fewer funds than we would have been in a world where the culture around funding was different, but a whole lot of funding (projected and actual) evaporated pretty much overnight, and a lot of the pipeline dried up.
Where are we now?
Now it's mid-2023: the funding bar is much higher than a year ago, and we're seeing more high-impact projects miss out on funding left, right, and centre.
Frankly, I've felt like we collectively scored an "own goal" by sidelining effective giving. And to be a bit vulnerable too: emotionally, I've found it viscerally painful. Sometimes when I let my mind wander to think of the impact this loss of funding has on those who could have been helped it brings tears to my eyes and wrenches my stomach.
But, all that being said, I'm (cautiously) optimistic.
I believe we can turn the ship around. In the last few months I’ve seen glimmers of hope as more people and organisations are starting to shift back to a world where effective giving is back in the picture more broadly.
I think we’re still far away from where we need to be though. My vision of the path forward is one where our community is taking both personal and collective responsibility for funding — a culture where funding isn't "somebody else's problem" but "everybody's problem." Or, even better: "everybody's opportunity."
We ain’t “got this”, but maybe we could. And if we did: the upside is huge.
What’s at stake?
- Raise everyone in the world above the international poverty line for that year with unconditional cash transfers
- Reduce the probability of a new global pandemic to near-zero
- Double R&D spending on clean energy
- Increase nonprofit spending on nuclear security 40 times over
- Multiply by 10 the work to ensure provably safe AI
- Fund a 15-year plan to end hunger and malnutrition
- Ensure everyone has access to clean water and sanitation, once and for all
- Give women control over their reproduction and reproductive health
- Eradicate tuberculosis, malaria and HIV, as well as the 20 “neglected tropical diseases” that affect the world’s poorest
- Fund a plan to halve, and plausibly end, industrial animal agriculture by 2050
Amazing. Inspiring. This is the kind of change we could make.
If we really get our act together and collectively own the problem (that we are funding constrained and that this results in inordinate amounts of unnecessary suffering and loss of potential flourishing) and collectively own the solutions (to put our money and actions where our mouths are by giving and raising funds from a diverse range of sources) then it seems plausible to me that that we can get much closer to this kind of world.
What can we do?
Each of us can play a role in this, because all of us have some combination of the following:
- Funds: We could give more or more effectively — now or in the future.
- Networks: We could advocate for effective giving and share high-impact giving opportunities to people we expect could be a good fit to fund them (i.e. things that fit their values and that they'd feel good about funding).
- Roles: We could find ways to advocate for effective giving in strategic ways through our roles within our workplaces or other social, community, or professional groups.
While the challenge before us is substantial, there are many practical steps that we can take to become part of the solution. Here are a handful of ideas, and I encourage you to consider other possibilities or explore the resources (e.g. GWWC’s Share Our Ideas page and Guide to Talking About Effective Altruism and Effective Giving):
- Give: There's immense power in giving, no matter how small the amount. Starting to give, even just a little bit, across a range of causes you care about, can not just have a meaningful direct impact and help solve funding constraints but it can also make you a more authentic and effective advocate for effective giving. It allows you to invite others to join you in something you are actively participating in, rather than asking them to do something you aren't.
- Fundraise: Actively participate in or even organise fundraising events within your university, city, workplace or professional group. This could be as simple as arranging a charity run (echoing back to earlier effective giving campaigns like Run to Better Days), fun games like a poker night where the proceeds go to an effective charity, or initiating a creative project that benefits a high-impact charity. This kind of fundraising often won’t stack up in the amount of funds raised immediately but it is a great form of advocacy (e.g. six years after this fundraiser I still get friends, family, and former colleagues coming to talk with me about donations that are larger than what was raised during the fundraiser).
- Introduce: Spend 30 minutes looking through your LinkedIn, Facebook, or other social networks. Write down the names of people who might be interested in funding a high-impact project that aligns with their values and that they'd feel good about supporting. Then, take the time to engage them in conversation, make an introduction (e.g. “I was thinking of our conversation about global inequality a while back and thought you might be interested in speaking with my friend Alice who’s been doing work on…”), or share a link or resource (“saw this and thought you’d be interested given [reason that’s personal to them]” is one of the easiest messages to write).
- Share: If you're actively practising effective giving, consider sharing your commitment with others. This could be your Giving What We Can pledge, your favourite articles about effective giving, or recent wins in the cause areas you support. Also, consider sharing your decision-making process by inviting friends or family over for a dinner discussion about your end-of-year donations. It's an excellent way to foster open conversations about effective giving and potentially inspire others to join in. If you’re hosting an event or sharing an article about an EA-related topic, why not also share how someone can help solve it right now by giving?
- Invite: Encourage engagement with effective giving by extending invitations to others. This might involve inviting friends to a local EA meetup focused on giving, organising a talk at your university, sharing what you’ve learned about giving at a “lunch and learn” in your workplace, or hosting an “effective giving 101” presentation (you could even just ask an effective giving organisation like Giving What We Can or One for the World to come give the talk for you). If you know of a funding constraint that might be relevant to your community you could try initiating something (e.g. “My friend Jude’s research on pandemic preparedness could be a game changer but it’s struggling to get support – did you want to join for a dinner where he’ll share what he’s working on and we can bounce some ideas around for him?”). By offering opportunities to learn and discuss, you can help cultivate a culture of effective giving in your communities.
Most of these specific examples will help solve funding constraints with relatively low effort and don’t require you to “convert people to effective altruism”. Identifying with the community isn’t required for donors to fund high-impact funding opportunities, and identity often follows after behaviour change anyway.
Remember, big leaps often follow from small steps (or are made up of many of them). I'd love to hear your ideas and strategies for promoting effective giving and fostering a culture of generosity in our community.
Okay, so I’ve given you some ideas for specific actions you can take, but this clearly isn’t always easy. There are many blockers, otherwise we’d already be doing this much more.
So the question I have for you all is one I ask myself regularly: what stops us?
What stops us?
To help solve funding constraints and really scale up our impact, it’s critical to understand the problems we each face when playing our part, and to align on (and then act on) potential solutions.
I'll start with a few of my own:
- For my own giving: Uncertainty around finances. I estimate we'd give more if I sat down with my wife and a financial planner to hash out some of the details and feel more secure in our giving plans.
- For my network: I'm not confident we have the right tools and resources in place to inspire and support many people I know in their effective giving journeys – I think that most people encountering effective giving for the first time would get lost and feel dissatisfied. If I could send people to a super slick, globally relevant, worldview-diverse effective giving platform, with high-quality and well-justified giving opportunities conveyed with compelling communications and an easy and legible path to follow — to go from a newbie to an effective giver with a fully customised donation portfolio and lifetime giving plan — I'd be sharing it constantly. I'd be perpetually texting it to all of my family and friends (particularly former colleagues and people I know from my tech entrepreneurship days) at any relevant moment. We're working towards this at GWWC but know we have a long way to go, and your input is very welcome. All that being said, it’s somewhat of an excuse — I’m sure I could start with having more conversations, and then any stumbling blocks along the way are a good case study for how to improve the journey.
- In my role: I let my insecurities get in the way. When I feel that I’m not knowledgeable or charismatic enough I shy away from professional opportunities to advocate, particularly in higher-stakes contexts that could also be higher-impact. I’m working on this from a few different angles (e.g. learning, coaching, therapy, practice etc.) but probably need to “just do it” ✔ (so feel free to send opportunities my way and encourage me to accept).
These are just a few examples of what gets in my way and some things that could help me…
Now, over to you. What are your blockers, and what could help?
Please let me know in the comments. The more we know about the barriers, the more we can help to bring them down!
I just want to highlight a few things that I’m not saying in this post (that might otherwise be read into):
- I’m not saying that everyone in the EA community should be giving effectively and significantly to be considered part of the community.
- I’m not saying that giving is more important than other paths to impact (generally, or for specific people).
- I’m not looking to place blame or assume some difficult-to-foresee things should have been foreseen.
- I’m not saying that solving funding constraints should be done under any specific label (“effective altruism”, “effective giving”, GWWC, or any other specific organisation).
- I’m not claiming that funding sources won’t follow a heavy-tailed distribution.
- I’m not saying that everyone should or could be a “fundraiser” and am aware that there is a specialist skill set in fundraising, but we can all help in raising more funds.
- I’m not saying that it is good to have too high of a standard of frugality or donations.
I’m just sharing my experience and my view that we’re leaving a lot of impact on the table if we don’t take more shared responsibility for funding, and I’m seeking input as to how we can help solve for some of the blockers — whether as the effective giving and effective altruism communities, as individuals, or as the team at GWWC.
As well as seeking more ideas about what the blockers are, I’m also very open to critiques on my views and representations.
- Thanks to Sjir H, Grace A, Michael T, Jack L, Lorenzo B and Katy M for their input and feedback on earlier drafts of this post.
- Thanks to the many community members who've shared their experiences with me over the years, this post was largely inspired by your experiences and our conversations.
- Preview image photo by Katt Yukawa on Unsplash