You Could be the Warren Buffett of Social Investing

by egastfriend2nd Jun 20157 comments



I wrote an article for the Harvard Business School newspaper that introduces the concept of EA philanthropy using parallels to business/finance concepts.  I think that writing articles for school newspapers that cater to the school's audience is a great activity that any EA student group can do, as it helps with not only spreading the idea but also as a beacon that draws in people who were already sympathetic to the idea to get more involved in your group.

Article link:

Bill Barlow, a student at Harvard Law School, wrote an article about earning-to-give for their school newspaper, which got us connected and led to us working together on a Harvard grad student EA group.  Article link: Want to Save the World? Do BigLaw!

Have other student groups done similar things?

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Here's an EA forum post on the second (Harvard Law) article:

Although well-intentioned, I think the Harvard Law article is dangerous. The legal community is potentially pretty low-hanging fruit for EA recruitment: it contains a lot of people who make a lot of money and who generally make misguided but well-intentioned charitable decisions, both regarding how to donate their money and how to use their talents.

Changing the culture of this community will be complicated, however. Early missteps could be extremely costly to the extent they give the community the wrong initial perception of EA-style thinking. In short, the stakes are high, and although I commend those who want to try to make inroads into the community, I suggest treading cautiously.

Eric, I really like the article you wrote. It's to the point while still being clever and enjoyable to read. I think that sort of writing represents the EA community in the best light. What has been the response within the HBS community? How is your student group going?

I think Bill has the same goal, but maybe the execution didn't work out as well. I am not as familiar with the law culture as I am the business culture, but it seems like there was a bit more "down talking" in his article, intended or not, and that may have ruffled some feathers. I'm not sure that is an entirely bad thing, as there is some part of the EA message that is inherently challenging to many people. There is certainly a way to present it -- as you did in your first article -- that presents the reader with an opportunity to change the world rather than an indictment of their shortcomings.

Edit to add: I think Owen Cotton-Barratt's paper recently posted on this forum ( makes a very relevant point:

Increasing awareness of the movement is important, but increasing positive inclination is at least comparably important. Therefore we should generally: o prefer advocacy to publicity;

o strive to take acts which are seen as good by societal standards as well as for the movement;

o avoid hostility or needless controversy.

I agree with his sentiments, and I think it is very important for young movements such as EA to present ideas in as positive a light as possible, which is very easy for EA to do considering that our goal is to essentially do as much good as possible.

Thanks Zack. The grad student group I co-founded, Harvard University Effective Altruism, is going well. We have a leadership team in place for next year that covers the Law School, Business School, School of Public Health, and School of Arts & Sciences. Our events with Cass Sunstein and Derek Parfit each drew over 100 people.

Interestingly, my article did generate some interest outside of HBS, as a number of people emailed me about it, but it didn't provoke any discussion within HBS. I think it's because my article wasn't controversial enough; if I had to do it again, I would have pushed harder.

Hi Eric, thanks for writing these and pointing us to them. I think this is a great idea. I just posted these on our business society and law society Facebook page to test the waters and see what response we'd get from a similar input. Out of interest, what has the response been that you've gotten so far?

[-][anonymous]6y 1

I would guess that the first article would have had a quite positive response. It was well written, and a pleasure to read.

But I fear the second article has not had as positive a response, for two reasons:

  1. It appears to be dismissive and cynical of its own target audience - and from the very first sentence: "For people systematically chosen for being able to root out and analyze the rationality of arguments, lawyers are pitifully bad at being reasonable." It goes on to do things such as dismiss the positive impact of believed-to-be-ethical jobs as 'the warm fuzzies', without justification.

  2. It doesn't address what its target audience believes to be the biggest factor in determining an ethical job; the direct impact of the job; the millions of dollars which the big corporation sues from the more deserving; the dozens of individuals the public lawyer works to help.

Writing these articles can do a great amount of good, and is to be commended. But to maximise this good, we should be meticulous about catering to the needs of our audience.

Adding on to this question, there are a lot of negative comments on the second article - do you think that represents a vocal minority, or a majority, and why?

It would be interesting to try this at Berkeley as well, although we'd probably have a different target audience depending on where the article gets published.

As everyone who has posted so far has mentioned Bill's article in the Harvard Law Record, I just wanted to respond in this one comment.

His article is definitely fiery, and probably overstates the case for earning-to-give. When Bill and I gave a presentation at the law school last semester, we included advice on how public interest/government lawyers can maximize impact by choosing high-priority causes and gaining leverage by changing policy.

There are a few comments on his article that were positive. I think people who already wanted to go into BigLaw were more receptive to it than those who already wanted to go into public interest/government.

Bill and the other members of HLS EA have accomplished a lot over the past semester -- they've gotten around 40 people to sign the 2L Pledge ( ), over 5% of the 2L class. It's a pledge to donate 1% of summer internship earnings to highly effective charities, which they hope to grow and turn into a post-graduation pledge next year.