This is an introduction/hub article for a sequence of articles on Charity Organizations and EA.
In this series of articles, I will try as best as I can to summarize what, in my experience, are the low-hanging fruits for EA to pick from these organizations, and simultaneously where might be opportunities for EA to impact these organizations, and create change. I highly invite comments, especially from those who had experiences with organizations I did not, to contribute to our collective learning.
TLDR: International Charity Organizations have powerful leverage on several fronts (local knowledge, membership, funding...) that we can easily reach out to; this is severely underutilized as a strategy. Reaching out to them in the form of newsletters, speeches, or joining their ranks to participate from the inside are all low-cost/high-benefit interventions.
What are Charity Organizations
I have spent nearly a decade in the "Rotary Family", more specifically Rotaract, the youth club for those aged 18-30. Coming from a developing country, Rotary Foundation and Rotary, in general, are quite famous for their projects - although I have recently learned that this is not the case everywhere. Many attendees at EAGx Prague did not know of or even heard of Rotary, Lions, Freemasons (yes, those), Kiwanis, and others. There are more "corporate" charities that are more famous, such as the Red Cross and Red Crescent, PETA, as well as numerous local, religious, or simply humanitarian organizations in each country, each with its own degree of impact. There are also different international student organizations, such as AIESEC and IAESTE which gather a lot of the same talent that EA might want to attract among students.
I do not support all of the above-listed organizations, but you have to hand it to them - they might not do maximum good, but they are doing well. Some of these organizations are over a hundred years old, have millions of members, and have chapters in almost every country in the world. They are real shakers, especially in developing countries, where EA has the fewest percentage of members currently. They also possess sizable funds, brand recognition, and local knowledge (metis) that EA could gain from utilizing.
The case for intervention
I have explained the reach and importance of the above organizations, but why should EA concern itself with them, rather than helping directly? Allow me to make my case for a second-hand intervention.
Relative ease of intervention
Effective Altruism is arguably about two things: being effective, and being altruistic. Hot take, I am being facetious, sure, but I also think I am essentially right here. Every person that I have met from EA organizations wanted to do good (possessed values that pushed him towards it) and wanted to do so well (possessed a drive for effectiveness and a dislike of wastefulness).
I propose, based on my experience at least, that it is easier to teach someone altruistic to strive for effectiveness, than someone effective to strive for altruism. That is to say, taking someone from a charity background (values without effectiveness) to EA is a smaller inferential gap than taking someone from the corporate world (effectiveness without values) to EA. My experience is that when presenting EA to my past colleagues from charity work, these ineffective altruists easily grok (fully understand) the importance of it, at least at base levels. Perhaps longtermism, AI risk and more technical sides of EA would take longer to explain, but "help five kids instead of three for the same amount of money" and "conscious beings matter" and "human life is more important than profits" comes quite easily to someone with a charity background. Conversely, an MBB consultant might find the efficiency part second nature to him, but convincing him of altruism is a harder endeavor (shoutout to the EA Consultants Network for being the exception and contributing their expertise).
Leverage existing networks
So if convincing an individual charity person is easy, why should we focus on organizations, instead of going for charity people closer to us first, perhaps those more EA adjacent to begin with?
Well, as noted in the introduction, these organizations have millions of members, but they also happen to be conveniently organized. They are most commonly geographically divided, but they also have groups based on interests, vocation or other divisions. As a result, the Finnish EA might want to reach out to some of the 270 local Finnish and Estonian Rotary clubs and give speeches, while Animal Welfare EA in Mumbai might want to reach out to all these conveniently listed people who did Animal Welfare projects in their town. Where else can you find such groups of passionate people in one place, self-selected for doing good?
Furthermore, these organizations usually accept speakers (as they struggle to find interesting content to fill their meetings with) so giving speeches about your organization is a good way to gather support, change minds, and develop your own network in your town. For example, if you have an interesting project you are doing or experiences in the field, you can prepare a short speech about it (15-20 minutes) and offer nearby clubs to give the speech to their members. Make it useful but don't shy away from some self-promotion and you can find support from them. If you need tips on how you might do this, reach out!
Leverage Local Knowledge (Metis)
Metis or local knowledge is something that is necessary to conduct Altruism effectively but something that is more and more difficult to obtain for large international projects. It is easy to say "child labor is bad" but if your solution leaves people poorer, women paid less and in danger, harms the poorest children, and moves the hazard from ball-sewing to brick making, perhaps you should have consulted the locals more and understood the problem better (source, especially pages 133-135) before allowing international organizations to celebrate their immense success from their offices in the USA.
How can EA avoid this problem as it lacks the scale to oversee projects in remote areas? Perhaps you have an idea about how to help Vietnamese farmers remove minefields profitably but don't know the situation on the ground (no pun intended) well enough - what do you do? I recommend partnering with existing charity organizations on the ground, utilizing their metis, and really listening to what they have to say. It is hard to overstate how much of a difference this can make. and while experienced EA organizations I am certain do this already, it bears repeating that we need not learn all the lessons ourselves but can leverage learning from those who came before us. There may be EA ideas that are afraid of missing the mark due to a lack of local knowledge - partnership is a good way to learn.
As I have noted above, each of these organizations possesses significant funds of their own. These funds are used for good causes, usually, but not efficiently. If through an intervention we can make an organization 1% more effective in giving, or donating to EA funds, this is a huge impact - Rotary Foundation alone has a billion-dollar+ fund that matches donations of members, and Rotary members usually consist of the upper classes in their regions. While Rotary ranks highly on Charity Navigator, particularly due to the extremely low overhead as it is run mainly by pure volunteers, the effectiveness has huge low-hanging fruit to be picked. I personally think that there are bigger benefits than funds though (as EA has funds too) so I will leave it at this, but I couldn't skip mentioning this aspect.
Large international organizations have developed branding already in place, while EA, as of yet, is fairly unfamiliar to anyone more than an arms-length distance. Organizing events between EA organizations and the Red Cross, for example, would leverage their branding to boost ours. Obviously, this is to be used carefully, as Freemasons come with a notoriously bad rep for example, but when used well, it can be used particularly well. Branding is essential, as that is how our memes spread, how we gain legitimacy and members. The rotary brand is so strong that they have a day dedicated to them in the United Nations! I would wager that there are worse ways to meet leaders of countries around the world than this.
I am currently exploring how to turn my knowledge into useful EA projects. The first step is putting my thoughts onto paper for others to use, but I would be interested in direct consulting to help EA organizations scale through working with charities (I have already spoken to Happier Lives Institute for example, and see promise there) as well as starting an EA project of outreach to charities on a global scale. If you have any ideas or questions, feel free to reach out to me here, or write a comment, I'll try to answer all of them timely.
List of articles I plan to write (Updated with links once written, and open to suggestions):
Learning what we can - Rotary and membership attraction and retention (why you need to delegate and use your members in order to keep and grow them)
Learning what we can - AIESEC and project-based membership (why an idle member is worse than no member at all)
Learning what we can - Lions Club and segmenting memberships (Why the Lions, Leos, and Cubs work together but meet separately)
Learning what we can - Freemasons and the value of prestige membership and anonymous giving (how gathering experts with mystique keeps the longest-running organization going)
Learning what we can - Red Cross/Crescent and the value of training the public (how first-aid training became a recruitment tool promoted by government and companies)
Teaching what we can - The issue of Fuzzies Vs. Utils in Charity Organizations (IMHO the biggest stopper of effective altruism is the desire for Fuzzies and the lack of Fuzzies that EA offers. Related to the Yudkovsky article that first introduced me to the problem)
Teaching what we can - Outreach to Charity Organizations and You (a 101 on how Charity organizations work and likely best ways to communicate with them)