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Open Philanthropy (OP) occupies a unique position and has an opportunity to lead the giving community on placing the agency of beneficiaries as a central concern or cause of intervention. Reciprocal discourse, described within this cause exploration as an intervention or intervention impact multiplier, can not only help philanthropists and givers recognize the agency of beneficiaries better, but also help them be more effective in their giving by addressing various agency-specific causes of diminishing returns. In the following exploration, I attempt to hold as fast as possible to the suggested shallow investigation format, presenting first an outline of the problem that needs addressed, followed by a discussion of its importance, neglectedness and tractability. Because of the theoretical nature of this proposition, these discussion areas deviate a bit from what I understand to be standard approach to cause explorations. Please be forewarned. This exploration ends with some thoughts on uncertainty. 


Because of our dominant self-interested discourse, when people use the term reciprocity in relief and intervention settings, the assumption is that reciprocity is a demand for payment for services rendered - which is viewed as wildly unethical within relief and development work and rightly so. But if we step out of the constricting and dualistic paradigms of the self-interested system and observe the cases pointed to in this exploration piece - you’ll notice that reciprocity isn’t actually about asking for anything in return for something. In the context of philanthropy and causes, it's about providing the opportunity and space for every actor, including and especially beneficiaries, to participate in the work of relief and intervention, for everyone to be able to help and for everyone to have agency - which is, arguably, human nature. In a reciprocal system, you don’t owe anyone anything, you practice the maximization of benefit without doing harm - to and for anyone in an exchange[1].

I’ve written a critique of EA  that goes into further detail about my position on discourse [systems] change and how I believe altruism and EA fit, necessarily, within that perspective. If you’re unfamiliar with the history of altruism [strong reciprocity] in economic theory, I tried my hardest to be concise and useful in this referenced critique. In the very least, I hope it's a decent explainer for the position I take in this cause exploration. For that hopefully constructive critique, this cause exploration is a practical example of the potential of discourse [systems] change to a reciprocal system from a self-interested system. I hope this cause exploration is understood independently as that is my intention. Please let me know, actually!


What is the problem?

In a critique of effective altruism (EA) posted alongside this cause exploration, I argue that in order for EA to actually be as effective as it should be, it needs to directly challenge the prevailing discourse of self-interest that permeates our systems, systems of exchange in particular - including the systems of giving. Altruism, sometimes called strong reciprocity, is both antithesis to self-interested ways of being and an antidote to those ways of being, at the same time. EA as a project is limited by the reductionist constrictions of the self-interested system, but also by its conscientious choice to persist within the system as is. Put another way, my argument is that EA can and will be much more effective by controlling the discourse of its project and that this act of agency is in fact, systems change. This change can and will have a very practical, positive impact on not only the EA project, but very specifically, the effectiveness of its interventions as well as the potential for leading a radical shift in the practice of philanthropy. 

The problem addressed by this cause exploration is discourse: the ways in which discourse impacts how philanthropists give and the ways in which discourse impacts how funded organizations provide benefit to beneficiaries. The prevailing discourse is limiting, but new, more reciprocal ways of approaching the benefactor > beneficiary relationship are demonstrating that these limitations can be overcome. When they are overcome, the effectiveness of interventions is dramatically scaled - not just for material outcomes, but for greater, overall wellbeing as well. 

Smart philanthropists have known for a while now that in the act of giving, they can end up taking. Sometimes, they end up taking more than they give as what they take is far more valuable and important in the long run and to wellbeing than immediate material concerns. Oftentimes, ways of giving can take agency away from people, a process that has been found to reduce the effectiveness of philanthropic interventions by limiting the reach and depth of the intervention. A common philanthropic expectation is that, in many interventions, giving will help people to the point where they can help themselves - which in and of itself is a very self-oriented perspective and passes significant assumption-based judgment in the process. Judgment, in a benefactor > beneficiary relationship can diminish agency of the beneficiary which in turn, can arrest the impact multiplying effect any intervention might expect. People, whether aware of it or not, are disempowered by judgment. It has a demonstrable psychological impact on their belief in themselves, which can translate into limitations on what they believe they can do for themselves and therefore, what they actually do for themselves. Reframing systems of giving from a more reciprocal view can greatly reduce this diminished agency and in the process, greatly improve the effectiveness of interventions. 

This is an immediate problem for much of philanthropy that is likely limiting impact in a number of causes. It's also an illustration of the importance of discourse in philanthropic work and a demonstration of how much of an impact changing discourse [systems] can and does have on the effectiveness of altruistic interventions. With this in mind, this cause exploration will deviate slightly from typical examples in that it will focus on varied causes and the potential of this specific intervention or type of intervention to drive greater effectiveness. This exploration is about both a new cause area (improving beneficiary agency) as well as a new funding strategy (discourse change) that will also present new potentials for how best to further explore both. 

Who is already working on it?

Concern for beneficiary agency in philanthropic work isn’t exactly a new concern, but it is a pretty new cause in its own right as is discourse change as an intervention. Funding in this area is largely cause-adjacent or indirect through empowerment programs and similar efforts. For example, as a subsection of empowerment programming, financial empowerment for women through microfinance is and has been a multi-billion dollar effort since the late 20th century. Forms of empowerment, however, tend to have very narrow definitions and are almost always measured in systemically expectant outcomes as some variation of greater material market participation. Greater market participation for extremely impoverished beneficiaries is, of course, a valid measure of intervention success, but it is just one measure and speaks little to other issues such as near-term wellbeing and future wellbeing. Someone now buying food at a market instead of collecting it from free distribution programs isn’t necessarily materially better off, for example. In the case of microfinance, this outcome tells us little to nothing about that person's sense of wellbeing nor does it tell us anything about their level of indebtedness - a common issue with microfinance interventions. 

Discourse [systems] change as an intervention - specifically introducing reciprocal systems of exchange to interventions as an impact multiplier - is at what I would call the emerging and/or experimental level. So is examining the causes of diminishing returns, especially when those causes of diminishing returns are secondary to a primary intervention. I provide examples that I feel exemplify these considerations in the Importance & Tractability sections of this cause exploration. 

What could a new philanthropist do?

A new philanthropist in this cause area could first fund further experimentation to determine a) how changes in discourse and its narratives in varied interventions improves outcomes and/or impact, then b) apply what was learned from this interventions more broadly, specifically to existing, understood causes, for even more effective giving, and c) identify new causes where a similar systems [discourse] change approach is either being implemented or could be implemented for greater impact/effect. 

Importantly, a new philanthropist in this cause area could demonstrate to other philanthropists how discourse change through reciprocal narrative and opportunities can help maximize impact and effectiveness. As an EA oriented funder, OP is already demonstrating this behavior, so it’s a natural fit and OP is well positioned to lead here. 


Diminishing returns or the assumption thereof is a problem facing a lot, if not all of philanthropic work. Additionally, consideration of this modeling concept is a fundamental determinant for a lot, if not all of EA interventions and recommendations for intervention, which could sometimes leave problems with really good initial return unsolved after a point of lesser value or left for future intervention when time-related constraints change, allowing for a resumption of good return on the targeted intervention. Unsolved problems, which deferred interventions are a part of, are a huge issue for global philanthropy; very few modern philanthropic interventions have culminated in what anyone would deem complete success. Most interventions that started in any of our lifetimes are ongoing. So, not only are diminishing returns problematic for philanthropic efforts, but so are the consequences of action on what diminishing returns modeling tells us - assuming, of course, solving problems is important. 

Causes of diminishing returns can be many things, but experimental evidence indicates that in at least some interventions, loss of beneficiary agency is key. Experimental evidence also indicates that at least one approach to mitigating the diminishing returns brought about by a loss of beneficiary agency is, in fact, the introduction of reciprocal systems through reciprocal narrative and opportunity. I don’t know of any particular effort to measure what is being lost by not addressing the causes of diminishing returns in philanthropy, so quantifying the importance of this issue is broadly arbitrary. Anecdotally, we know it's big, at least in the greater EA project, because of the importance placed marginal impact. In a way, it’s universal to all and varied causes with primary or singular modes of intervention, therefore suffering from a lack of comparability, rendering it immeasurable in a quantitative sense. Causes are different. Similarly, discourse change as an intervention or intervention improvement is new enough that it is largely unmeasured. Part of the cause opportunity here is, in fact, measuring the potential of this type of intervention within comparable, more standard cause interventions in order to demonstrate its efficacy. So, in this section, instead of macro numbers illustrating the importance of this problem, I’ve tried to pull the most indicative portions from two recent studies looking at reciprocity first as an impact multiplier and then, as necessary to agency. The first one has direct experimental evidence and the second with ethnographic and observational evidence, both pointing to the potential of managing beyond the initial intervention to improve intervention outcomes while giving specific examples of how it's being done or could be done in the field. The first, quite relevant to OP’s current work, examines the introduction of reciprocal narratives into a direct cash payment intervention in Kenya. 

Reciprocal narratives in direct cash payments

A team of Stanford academics led by Catherine Thomas ran a series of studies testing the impact of differing narratives attached to direct cash payment interventions. The experiments were effectively controlled,  only the narratives differed. In their own words, their studies abstracted:

In study 1, residents of low-income settlements in Nairobi, Kenya (N = 565) received cash-based aid accompanied by a randomly assigned narrative: the default deficit-focused “Poverty Alleviation” narrative, an “Individual Empowerment” narrative, or a “Community Empowerment” narrative. They then chose whether to spend time building business skills or watching leisure videos. Both empowerment narratives improved self-efficacy and anticipated social mobility, but only the “Community Empowerment” narrative significantly motivated recipients’ choice to build skills and reduced stigma. Given the diverse settings in which aid is delivered, how can organizations quickly identify effective narratives in a context? We asked recipients to predict which narrative would best motivate skill-building in their community. In study 2, this “local forecasting” methodology outperformed participant evaluations and experimental pilots in accurately ranking treatments…[2]

A third study tested messaging with donors. What’s most relevant to this cause exploration is the concept of “Community Empowerment” and how this narrative, a change in discourse, managed to illicit significant, measurable improvements in not only the perceived wellbeing of beneficiaries, but also their demonstrated motivation to act upon that improved wellbeing in a reciprocal fashion. From the study,

The two other narratives focused on empowerment, drawing on sociocultural understandings of agency. The Individual Empowerment Organization had the goal of “enabling individuals to pursue personal goals and become more financially independent.” This narrative promotes a Western ideal of independent agency, emphasizing recipients’ capacity for achieving self-direction, independence, and personal aspirations. The Community Empowerment Organization had the goal of “enabling people to support those they care about and help communities grow together.” This narrative highlights interdependent agency, emphasizing recipients’ capacity to contribute to their community, to help those they care about, and to advance collectively.[3]

The most impactful narrative was the narrative focused on forms of reciprocity. 

Implicit reciprocity in social services

Andrew Clarke and Cameron Parsell, researchers from the University of Queensland, concerned with the perpetuation of shame within social services provision in Australia and how that provision impacts outcomes for beneficiaries, conducted a large, ethnographic study and observation of interactions between provisioning volunteers and charity recipients. Among other strong insights about the impact on givers and receivers in social services, they recognized significant agency deterioration through the process of charity provision, compounded by subsequent need. Their previous, extensive work on poverty combined with this ethnographic and observational work has given them this argument:

…(1) the unidirectional mode of charity is premised on a view of recipients as vulnerable and needing the compassion of others; (2) the shame of charity impacts both the self and society; (3) transforming charity to enable reciprocity requires a recognition of recipients as equal; and (4) reciprocity represents a means to mitigate power imbalances inherit in passive charity and overcomes the personal and social dimensions of shame derived from the passive receipt of charity.[4]

Their ethnographic work did not test for or necessarily reveal explicitly reciprocal systems within the observed interactions and interviews, but they consistently revealed implicit forms of reciprocity that had significant impacts on beneficiary agency. For example, this interview:

Participant: No one likes asking for help. But these guys make it somewhat dignified.

Researcher: Could you explain in what way they do that? What makes it okay for you?

Participant: You saw what the other fella was like. He was respectful, he didn’t talk down to me. I didn’t make it hard for him either.

Researcher: Yeah. So it’s a bit you work together in that sense a little bit as well?

Participant: Exactly. If you give people respect, you’re get respect back. Simple as that.[5]

What these distinct studies indicate is that discourse matters and narratives of reciprocal systems have measurable improvements on the effectiveness of interventions, the agency of beneficiaries or both. What these studies also demonstrate is that the traditional, discourse agnostic approach to at least these types of interventions is quite specifically limiting. Self-interested messaging furthers self-interested systems and patterns, which, to state the obvious in yet another way, is directly antithesis to the EA project and the concept of altruism in general. Discourse and its narratives matter and changing them is effective. 

These interventions, in a way, manage beyond initial or primary interventions. They ask, how can we improve interventions through beneficiary agency, discourse and reciprocal opportunity? The answer, to me at least, is clear, but a traditional examination of these causes and more traditional interventions like them with tools like diminishing returns modeling wouldn’t necessarily reveal these opportunities for increasing returns on investment.


As I mentioned in the summary section, beneficiary agency isn’t necessarily a new concern of philanthropy, but discourse change through reciprocal systems is a new approach to intervention. Part of the value in reciprocal systems as an intervention is that it addresses many of the problems or limitations of previous interventions targeting beneficiary agency. So, in a way, this cause is quite neglected in that previous interventions haven’t done what they’re supposed to have done or have been limited by a lack of depth, which I view as a systemic issue. 

Aspects of the agency problem are being addressed directly and indirectly by a very limited number of philanthropic funders, but generally from a funder > cause organization positioning, rather than a benefactor > beneficiary positioning. I think research into questions of agency and intervention discourse change impact is that novel. Research into reciprocal systems within interventions is definitely very new. Direct cash programs are a good example of a sort of proto-reciprocal approach that respects and acknowledges agency, but without the explicit narrative change, I’m reluctant to suggest it has as much impact as it can have - as the referenced Kenya studies have suggested. 


To be clear, this is not a proposition that engaging in discourse change and creating reciprocal opportunity is going to solve all the causes of the world. It is, however, a case that doing this will significantly contribute to the effectiveness of pretty much any cause currently constricted by sometimes shallow, although efficient models of assessment. From a narrative adjusting position, solving certain problems of discourse that normally result in diminishing returns, is incredibly solvable and with next to no relative cost. Words are free. Cost here is in the initial support of studying discourse changes in the field and through further research in order to determine the best modes of implementation, efficiency and effectiveness. As demonstrated in the direct cash program example, testing reciprocal narratives for their marginal improvement would appear to be, at least from this view, pretty easy to extend and support through ongoing OP interventions. 

Expanding this discourse [systems] change beyond intervention messaging, to more substantial, programmatic aspects of interventions is obviously going to be a bit more complicated, but again, even these are likely testable within efforts already supported by OP. Further study can help identify emergent systems of reciprocity. Here are two examples of emergent reciprocal or near-reciprocal systems that serve as decent examples of the possibilities within this approach to discourse. 

Reciprocity for refugees

Alexander Betts is an Oxford development academic who’s had a fair amount of on the ground experience working with refugees in camps across Africa. His work, which I would, at this moment, categorize as near-reciprocal, focuses on the empowerment of refugees within the situation of the refugee camp. Despite critique of international relief and development work going back to at least the 1990s, not a lot has changed in the way of providing for or encouraging agency with refugees. Betts’ current work is very explicit in, among other things, attempting to model and then encourage other states to adopt the approach Ghana has taken to allowing for the incorporation of refugee camp residents into the local economy. I call this approach near-reciprocal, rather than just an empowerment program (it is fundamentally market focused), because of Betts inspiration. All of his talks are worthwhile and practical examples of reciprocal thinking in our self-interested system, but pay close attention to the timestamped (3:48) example in the talk linked here:

Betts is explicitly inspired by emergent reciprocity- a refugee who is reclaiming agency, altruistically, in a situation in which most of us would feel hopeless. And as rational and right as Betts' argument is, this is an incredibly novel approach to relief work for refugees. With the right support, it's easy to imagine a system of not only self-empowerment emerging from Betts’ work, but also truly reciprocal systems. The refugee camp is the intervention as are the basic needs support systems within it. Betts’ is thinking beyond the intervention, looking not just to manage what's possible beyond the primary intervention, but viewing it as potential that can actually, one day, maybe even help solve the problem of refugee camp effective, indefinite internment. 

Emergent reciprocal systems among the poor

Joan Mazelis at Rutgers has been investigating emergent reciprocity in vulnerable populations for nearly two decades. One of her more insightful ethnographic investigations reveals that within certain chronically poor populations, populations you’d intuitively expect to have the least interest in helping others, reciprocal relationships are consistently emergent - and oftentimes explicitly developed. A recent work examines the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, a loose membership organization populated entirely by poor people who operate, with their group, on reciprocal obligation. 

While others have found non-kin ties arising from connections to neighborhood institutions, I found lasting social ties in a situation of dire poverty that might have [otherwise] enabled disposable ties...[6]

This deeper investigation by Mazelis reveals reciprocal ties, that in many ways out last times even kin ties. This is a potentially incredibly powerful force within impoverished communities, at or just beyond the initial impact of all sorts of basic needs interventions.

By requiring reciprocity, agencies could not only foster relationships, they could lessen their own burden and thereby be able to help more clients. They would mitigate clients’ reluctance to developing ties and chip away at individualism as well. By developing social capital they would serve a greater number of people by offsetting some of their costs. [7]

In addition to these directly cause intervention related examples of emergent reciprocity, reciprocal systems emerge everywhere, all the time, in a variety of forms. Entrepreneurial programs like endeavor explicitly encourage a pay it forward aspect to their programming, open source software is a burgeoning movement and phenomenon and even academia is beginning to view research as a reciprocal process[8]. And of course, there’s the EA movement and many, many other emergent aspects of reciprocity trying to break through a self-interested discourse. All of this serves to underline the argument that reciprocity is at least as important to understanding human nature as self-interest is assumed to be and that ignoring its potential in interventions is likely ineffective. 


  • Direct empirical evidence to support this case is currently limited. An opportunity, but also a challenge. It also means that making the case in a typical EA fashion is not exactly possible here.
  • This proposition really is a relatively new thing with all of the uncertainties that entails. I am confident that EA folks like new things and like to be challenged, and while I am confident that EA likes to further effectiveness (duh), I am less certain or understanding of how EA manages its own risk.
  • The case for reciprocal systems as a cause intervention is dependent on fundamental theoretical perspectives that challenge prevailing theoretical perspectives. I’m not shy about it; this is, in its own way, a suggestion that EA embrace systems change as I believe and feel comfortable claiming that I’ve made the indirect case EA already is systems change (waiting to happen).
  • Aside from the uncertainties pitching systems change to an EA crowd gives me, I think there is also uncertainty in the applicableness of this tweaking or managing approach to all causes. There are probably causes and interventions where OP is currently engaged, for instance, that finding aspects to effectively improve outcomes based on the causes of diminishing returns is not a realistic expectation.


  1. ^

    in an exchange’ is my addition to what I view to be the minimally utilitarian ethic of EA to expand that ethic beyond an understanding of just altruism to all forms of reciprocity. If you’re unfamiliar with the relationship between altruism and other forms of reciprocity in economics, a good, perhaps easily relatable approach would be the work of Ernst Fehr. See Fehr, E. (2000), Fairness and Retaliation: The Economics of Reciprocity, Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 14, No. 3 or Fehr, E., et. al. (2002), Strong reciprocity, human cooperation, and the enforcement of social norms, Human Nature 13.

  2. ^

    Thomas, Catherine, et. al. (2020), Toward a science of delivering aid with dignity: Experimental evidence and local forecasts from Kenya, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 117.

  3. ^


  4. ^

    Parsell, Cameron  and Clarke, Andrew (2022), Charity and Shame: Towards Reciprocity, Social Problems, Volume 69, Issue 2.

  5. ^


  6. ^

    Mazelis, Joan (2017), Surviving Poverty, creating sustainable ties among the poor, New York University Press.

  7. ^

    Mazelis, Joan (2017), Surviving Poverty, creating sustainable ties among the poor, New York University Press, p176.

  8. ^

     for example, see Tubaro, Paola (2021), Whose results are these anyway? Reciprocity and the ethics of “giving back” after social network research,
    Social Networks, Volume 67.

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