(Cross-posted on The Life You Can Save, Intentional Insights, and LessWrong).


Effective Altruism does a terrific job of appealing to the head. There is no finer example than GiveWell’s meticulously researched and carefully detailed reports laying out the impact per dollar on giving to various charities. As a movement, we are at the cutting edge of what we can currently evaluate about the effectiveness of how we optimize QALYs, although of course much work remains to be done.


However, as seen in Tom Davidson’s recent piece, "EA's Image Problem," and my Making Effective Altruism More Emotionally Appealing,” we currently do not do a very good job of appealing to the heart. We tend to forget Peter Singer’s famous quote that Effective Altruism “combines both the heart and the head.” When we try to pitch the EA movement to non-EAs, we focus on the head, not the heart.


Now, I can really empathize with this perspective. I am much more analytically oriented than the baseline, and I find this to be the case for EAs in general. Yet if we want to expand the EA movement, we can't fall into typical mind fallacy and assume that what worked to convince us will convince others who are less analytical and more emotionally oriented thinkers.


Otherwise, we leave huge sums of money on the table that otherwise could have gone to effective charities. For this reason, I and several others have started a nonprofit organization, Intentional Insights, dedicated to spreading rational thinking and effective altruism to a wide audience using effective marketing techniques. Exploring the field of EA organizations, I saw that The Life You Can Save already has some efforts to reach out to a broad audience, through its Charity Impact Calculator and its Giving Games, and actively promoted its efforts.


I was excited when Jon Behar, the COO & Director of Philanthropy Education at TLYCS, reached out to me and suggested collaborating on promoting EA to a broad audience using contemporary marketing methods that appeal to the heart. In a way, this is not surprising, as Peter Singer’s drowning child problem is essentially an effort to appeal to people’s hearts in a classroom setting. Using marketing methods that aim to reach a broad audience is a natural evolution of this insight.

Jon and I problem-solved how to spread Effective Altruism effectively, and came up with the idea of a catchphrase that we thought would appeal to people’s emotions well: “Be a Superdonor!” This catchphrase conveys in a short burst crucial information about Effective Altruism, namely that one can have the most powerful impact of one’s donations through giving to the charities that optimize QALYs for the most.


More importantly, it appeals to the heart well. Superdonor conveys the feeling of power – you can be super in your donations! Superdonor conveys an especially strong degree of generosity. Superdonor conveys a feeling of superiority, as in better than other donors. In other words, even if you donate less, if you donate more effectively, you can still be better than other donors by donating more effectively. This appeals to the “Keeping Up With the Joneses” effect, a powerful force in guiding our spending.


Just as importantly, “Be a Superdonor!” is easily shareable on social media, a vital component of modern marketing in the form of social proof. People get to show their pride and increase their social status by posting on their Facebook or Twitter how they are a Superdonor. This makes their friends curious about what it means to be a Superdonor, since that is an appealing and emotionally resonant phrase. Their friends check out their links, and get to find out about Effective Altruism. Of course, it is important that the link go to a very clear and emotionally exciting description of how one can be a Superdonor through donating.


Likewise, people should get credit for being a Superdonor through getting others to donate through sharing about it on social media, through talking about it to friends, through getting their friends to go to their local EA groups. Thus, we get the power of social affiliation, a crucial aspect of motivation, working on behalf of Effective Altruism. A particularly effective strategy for social affiliation here might be to combine “Be A Superdonor” with Giving Games, both the in-person version that TLYCS runs now and perhaps a web app version that helps create a virtual community setting conducive to social affiliation.


Now, some EAs might be concerned that the EA movement would lose its focus on the head through these efforts. I think that is a valid concern, and we need to be aware of the dangers here. We still need to put energy into the excellent efforts of GiveWell and other effective charity evaluators. We still need to be concerned with existential risk, even if it does not present us in the best light to external audiences.


Therefore, as part of the Superdonor efforts, we should develop compassionate strategies to educate emotionally-oriented newcomers about more esoteric aspects of Effective Altruism. For example, EA groups can have people who are specifically assigned as mentors for new members, who can help guide for their intellectual and emotional development alike. At the same time, we need to accept that some of those emotionally-oriented thinkers will not be interested in doing so.


This is quite fine, as long as we remember our goal of making the strongest impact on the world by optimizing QALYs through not leaving huge sums of money on the table. Consider the kind of benefit you can bring to the EA movement if you can channel the giving of emotionally-oriented thinkers toward effective charities. Moreover, think of the positive network effect of them getting their friends to donate to effective charities. Think of whether you can make a much bigger difference in doing the most good per energy of effort by focusing more of your own volunteering and giving on EA outreach in comparison to other EA-related activities. This is what inspired my own activities at Intentional Insights, and the recent shifts of the TLYCS toward effective outreach.


What are your thoughts about reaching out to more emotionally-oriented thinkers using these and other modern marketing strategies? If you support doing so, what do you think you can do personally to promote Effective Altruism effectively? Would love to hear your thoughts about it in comments below, and happy to talk to anyone who wants to engage with the Intentional Insights project: my email is gleb@intentionalinsights.org.


EDIT: Some really interesting discussion of this post are on the LessWrong crosspost, check it out here.


P.S. This article is part of the EA Marketing Resource Bank project lead by Intentional Insights and the Local Effective Altruism Network, with support from The Life You Can Save.

Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 10:42 AM

I'll go ahead and present a short counterpoint. My counterpoint can also be read as a critique of the EA movement in general.

I think EA already has too much of a heart focus and not enough of a head focus. The aid of yesteryear was often good intentions gone awry: it undercut local producers or went to corrupt government leaders and sometimes exacerbated the problems it was trying to solve. Although EA may have solved these specific problems, I'm not convinced it has solved the more general problem of the road to hell often being paved with good intentions.

To solve this broader problem, one could get better at predicting things, e.g. by reading the recent Superforecasting book. The fact that the EA community has shown only a little interest in the book suggests to me that we do not have enough of a head focus and our road likely leads to hell just like many others.

Superforecasting recommends "[pursuing] relentlessly every bone of contention in order to prevent errors arising from too superficial an analysis of the issues", devil's advocacy, and constant disagreements. This kind of culture is not for everyone, and that's fine. But by recruiting people who are only interested in EA when it's pitched in a heart-friendly way, we risk weakening our already-weak forecasting culture. We are already emphasizing self-sacrifice and movement growth too much at the expensive of productive disagreements and effective analysis, in my view.

Effective altruists are very keen on Superforecasters. The project behind the book was funded by Jason Matheny (who's mentioned in the book), who attended EAG:SF. We also mentioned the Good Judgement Project on the 80k blog almost two years ago. https://80000hours.org/2014/01/which-cause-is-most-effective-300/

I agree with your key point though that this could be a tough tradeoff.

Thanks for sharing your perspective. I really like Superforecasting myself, and actually as part of the Intentional Insights project, one of our members conveys a popularized version of this strategy to a broad audience in this blog.

However, I am concerned that following the path of excessive analysis before acting may fall prey to information bias, namely seeking too much information before acting. As the Lean Startup methodology approach suggests, we should experiment and learn from evidence, and then go on to do better, not simply sit and debate. And Superforecasting itself emphasizes that the only way to get better at forecasting is to learn from previous forecasts and then go on to do better in the future.

For example, the whole point of this emotionally-oriented approach is to do better than we did before in reaching more people and helping them become more effective donors.

I'm definitely in favor of doing experiments, learning by doing, etc. But no amount of these is going to save you from working towards the wrong goal (unless you're doing experiments to try to figure out if the goal is one that's good to work towards, which doesn't sound quite like what you're proposing here, although I guess your post could be interpreted this way).

The best counterargument I can think of to my position:

EA must either grow or die. Suppose the idea that one should donate a significant fraction of one's income makes many people uncomfortable, and their natural response is to find some rationalization for why EA is bad. Then in the absence of attaining influence to counteract this, EA's image will decline continuously as people broadcast these rationalizations.

The only solution is to grow and attain influence before we get killed, i.e. nudge journalism towards our values faster than journalists nudge us towards their values. (#1 journalist value: pageviews.)

I'd say the solution would be to persuade certain people, specifically ones more emotionally inclined than the current typical EA, to be more oriented toward our values. This is a much smaller ask :-)

Depending on the specification of the tactics you plan to use, I think this could be quite a bad idea.

When I first started working at Effective Altruism Outreach, my initial sense was that the best thing to do was spread the EA ideas as widely as possible. Over time, I began to wonder how exactly the EA community generates value. It now seems to me that what we do well is generate interesting intellectual content and that this content attracts a community of early adopters keen to use the ideas in the real world. It may be that these ideas are sufficiently well-developed that the only thing we need to do is spread them more, but I doubt it.

Spreading the ideas more widely has some probability of generating much more money for effective charities. But, it has a significant probability of causing the EA community to become a very different thing that it is now. It may cause EA to become a community focused on spreading itself and less focused on ensuring that we continue to develop ideas worth spreading. I think we will be faced with many situations where we can either build a better epistemic community or we can build a larger community. Choosing the larger community seems to misunderstand how EA generates value and misunderstands the long-term potential that this movement has.

My talk at EA Global: Melbourne touches on many of these ideas: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JKx0ithQdHQ

Cross-posted from the other post where you made a similar comment.

Thanks for pointing out the challenges here. I agree that there is a significant danger if we aim to change the EA community itself.

However, I'm not sure I see the danger of spreading EA ideas. What is dangerous about suggesting that people figure out their values and goals for giving, and then give in accord to their actual values and goals? What is the danger in highlighting thinking errors in giving, and encouraging people to avoid these thinking errors? What is dangerous about suggesting that people should research charities before giving? What is dangerous about suggesting that they attend to GiveWell as a valuable source of evaluating charities?

Happy to update my beliefs about that.

Also, there is a ton of research on this topic. For most "emotionally-driven donors" the evidence suggests that we cannot shift their donation decisions at all. http://www.hopeconsulting.us/moneyforgood

I see your point and definitely agree on the importance of not becoming a movement focused on its own growth. However, I think an equally important concern is that the movement should include a truly diverse array of viewpoints and values, which may include people who value emotion more highly. Also, emotionally-driven/logic-driven is a spectrum, and in my experience EAs tend to be on the extreme side of logic driven. So appealing to more emotionally-driven donors may really mean appealing to donors closer to the middle of that spectrum.

I really like that expression! I think it could be effective, but I think that testing might be helpful finding an effective conversion strategy. For instance, test out that expression vs other marketing methods to a group of college students and survey how many start donating more effectively. I think, also, an emotionally gripping "try not to cry" video could wins people hearts. It would cost money to produce, but could yield excellent returns.

Thanks for the feedback! Yup, it would be wise to test it. Good point about videos! I think imagery of various sorts would be a vital part of conveying the message.

A lovely write up, with more knowledge of charity and how it could be promoted. Also letting others to know how important this is. How people could be convinced and see how Effective Altruism effectively could be promoted on social media using different marketing strategies. with the knowledge and details i have acquired from this blog have now been able to know how to use the heart to do charity works and also becoming a super donor also encouraging others to do the same, as well in-oder to achieve sets objectives being an emotionally oriented thinker. I would love to be a part of the emotionally oriented thinkers and i believe that promoting our activities on meet up groups,face book groups with those individuals who are emotionally oriented thinkers but really don't know how they could perform this task and duties. This is really a lovely task to be involved in would love others to see this view and make their practices am sure this would help us and others to promote Effective Altruism effectively world wide.

Thank you!

This seems like a great idea. Making effective altruism open and welcoming to all sorts of people is definitely an important goal. One thing I've been considering (which I'm surprised I don't see more discussions of in the community) is doing different types of fundraising for AMF, through which I could have conversations with potential donors about effective giving. Seeing someone actively doing something for a specific cause, rather than just discussing philosophy and logistics, seems like something that would appeal to more emotionally-minded donors.

Yup, this makes sense. Here are some resources on this topic, just in case you're not aware of them.

"Be a Superdonor" sounds like one is being encouraged to rack up a high score or become a superhero. That's okay. And maybe it sublty would help people think about effectiveness. But it doesn't put focus on the individuals people are helping. Any old local charity could ask us to be the same.

By contrast, what about "Be a Mega-Lifesaver"? This makes effective altruism out to be about the thrilling task of literally saving lives and life-years. That's why I'm an EA. One problem is that this phrase is slightly more cumbersome.

Hm, that's an interesting variant. Let's ponder this a bit more.

"Superdonor" is specifically about helping people be effective in their donations, whatever the cause.

"Mega-Lifesaver" is specifically about helping save lives. That seems a bit more limiting in terms of focusing on only one outcome. It might not capture people who care about animal welfare, environmental issues, etc. What do you think?

I agree, and had actually thought about that.

(Just to reiterate, the point of my suggestion for an improved slogan was to motivate more by appealing more to recipients' needs than to donors' sense of being a hero.)

It would be nice to have a slogan that could capture all types of causes. Let's keep thinking...

If we cannot find such a slogan, something about lifesaving or difference-making may be a good proxy.

After all, preventing there from being more farmed animals in the future is in a sense 'saving' lives, at least in the roundabout sense that preventing awful lives is 'saving' individuals from experiencing a life of so much suffering that the life isn't worth living. More straightforwardly, preventing the extinction of intelligent species 'saves' the opportunity for many, many future intelligent beings to live.

Admittedly, some people may be more motivated by 'be a superdonor' than 'be a mega-lifesaver'. Different strokes can be expected to motivate different folks.

Yup, let's keep brainstorming, some good ideas here!

Also, we can do some experimenting. We can try out "Superdonor," "Mega-Lifesaver," etc. and see how people respond. Could be a good experiment.

This is such an epic cause! I will be a super donor and I will spread this all over the social media!

Excellent, thank you!

Thanks for putting so much thought into this!

I like the superdonor expression, it reminds me of a strategy from Cialdini's "Influence" where you give people an identity to become rather than just an action to do.

I have some (somewhat speculative) thoughts on which fruits hang the lowest. EA outreach has been markedly successful so far, mostly because EA has discovered some ideas that are VERY appealing to the head. If we want to be as successful for emotionally-oriented people I suppose we'd have to spread ideas in a way that's VERY emotionally appealing. At the same time, we'd be competing with the strategies used by other charities which are already putting large efforts into crafting emotionally appealing messages. Do we have any evidence that our marketing could beat that of typical fundraisers and by how much? Our head-focused outreach so far has been much more successful than a typical fundraising strategy, with e.g. GWWC getting some impressive ratios. It's a very neglected area after all. That sets the bar pretty high.

I'm not saying that bar can't be met of course. We could utilize some of the best of both worlds and our own techniques: Effectiveness still somewhat appeals to less analytical types and a commitment device like the pledge along with the GWWC community is a pretty nice fundraising strategy.

An alternative strategy could be to capitalize on the success of our current strategy first and then become really influential so that we can change norms. We'd be picking the low-hanging fruit (at least if you believe it's the most low-hanging) first. In the start-up world, it's often advised to first focus on on being very appealing to a narrow market. Once we have e.g. influential authority figures on board and frequent media attention (and exhausted the lowest-hanging fruit), it may become easier to reach emotionally focused people.

At our current speed of growth, getting to that level should only take 2-4 years.

Which order looks better?

My thought is that we have huge low-hanging fruit to pick in reaching out to people who are somewhat more emotionally-oriented than the typical EA person, so reaching farther on the analytical/emotional spectrum.

The Lean Startup approach suggests experimenting and seeing what works. I think we as EAs need to experiment with a more emotionally-oriented approach and see if it works. Then, we can make a judgment based on evidence :-)