Doing Good Better: What is Effective Altruism?

Beth Anderson blog post EA

We all want to make the world a better place. Whether that is by campaigning for safer streets in our local community, donating money to charity for projects abroad or bringing a couple of tote bags to our weekly shop. There are so many ways to change the world and make a positive impact. But how can we best improve the world? Honorary On Purpose Fellow Beth Anderson has been asking herself that exact question. For part one of this two part series she explores Effective Altruism, a movement seeking to “do good better”. This first post focuses simply on the theory of Effective Altruism, while her next post will look more critically at how helpful (or not) Effective Altruism’s ideas are to people seeking to change the world for the better.

What is Effective Altruism?

There’s an overwhelming amount of suffering in the world. You want to help but where to start? Effective altruism has a few ideas on this. But what is effective altruism? This is a short, neutral post explaining my understanding. The simple version is:

Effective altruism (EA) is both an area of research and a social movement. EA seeks to find the best ways of doing good and put them into practice.

The lightest version of EA says that defining “the best ways of doing good” is for the EA community to debate and disagree on. Anyone who wants to do the most good they can is invited to participate in the conversation and call themselves an effective altruist or “EA”.

Of course there is more to EA than this one sentence definition. I’ve structured this post around some key questions — why does effective altruism exist; when did it start and who is involved; what does it do; and how does it do it. 

Effective altruism can be controversial, and I have my own doubts about it, but for now I simply want to establish what it is. I’m a university-educated white woman in my mid 20s who began exploring EA six months ago while looking for ways to make the world better. I’ve worked for various charities and social enterprises in the UK for around 8 years. While I’ve tried to make this as objective and accurate as possible, this is my interpretation of the movement and nothing more. 

Why does EA exist?

EA exists because there is an overwhelming amount of suffering in the world.

There are a lot of people who want to reduce suffering, however, tragically, we have limited resources with which to do this — limited time, money and skills.

Most people would agree that helping ten people is better than helping one. This is assuming of course that you’re helping each to the same degree, and that all else is equal.

But few people realise each time we give our money or time to a “good cause” we are likely making choices about whether we help ten people or one [1]. Even if we do realise it, an individual is unlikely to know which choice will be the one that helps the most people.

EA exists because the most effective charities help vastly more people than the average charity. They work out where our money and time goes furthest. EA exists so that we can help the most people to the greatest extent possible.

When, where and who?

Effective altruism was formed when several communities around the world came together. The term was coined in Oxford in 2011 and nowadays EA is being applied by tens of thousands of people in more than 70 countries. Anyone can join from anywhere. At the moment, the US, UK, Germany, Australia and Canada have particularly large communities [2] and there is a very high proportion of young, white, highly educated men in EA [3].

What does EA do?

There are two strands:

Research effective altruism researches the best ways of doing good. That includes both what problems are causing the biggest suffering as well as what charities and interventions are most effective.

Implementation — once research has suggested what the best ways of helping the most people might be, EA helps put those things into practice. This might be giving money to those cause areas, supporting new organisations, or training people in the necessary skills.

In practice, there are multiple effective altruism organisations, for example:

Effective Ventures is the umbrella organisation for many of these — a federation of organisations working to have a large positive impact on the world.

How does it do it?

EA values finding the truth about how we do the most good, and as such is ready to change its views whenever there is new evidence. Its conclusions and methods will continually change, however there are a few foundational judgements on which it bases its approach. Here are some:

  • “Doing good” is broadly understood to mean enabling more living beings to live happy and healthy lives.
  • It is both possible and necessary to compare different causes, charities and interventions in order to prioritise where to focus our efforts.
  • When making comparisons, we should value everyone equally, no matter where and when they live [4].
  • Data and evidence are crucial to making comparisons.

There are various core frameworks used for comparisons. For example, for evaluating cause areas you can rate how big, solvable and neglected the area is [5]:

  • Big — if a problem is big it’s likely you’ll be able to help more people.
  • Solvable — there’s little point in working on something that’s impossible to solve.
  • Neglected — if something has only a few people working on it, there’s a good chance one extra person or pound will make a bigger difference than if an area is already flooded with people or money.

When comparing interventions, another tool calculates the number of healthy years of life a given intervention generates [6].

In brief, EA’s methods are to use data to calculate how much a given option will help people, compare it against other options, and choose the one that helps the most people to the greatest degree, no matter who those people are.

So what?

Millions of people are trying to have a positive impact on the world, and have been doing so for a long time. In the UK alone there are over 480,000 non-profits. The first charity is thought to have started in 1136.

More recently, there are thousands of EAs also on the scene: people thinking carefully about the most effective ways of doing good, and putting that into practice. More and more people are joining them, but they still only represent a tiny fraction of people in the social impact space.

Are you someone who is working to have a positive impact on the world? What do you think of effective altruism?

I’m writing this from the Centre for Enabling EA Learning and Research, and am excited by what I’m learning here. But I also think there are opportunities to improve the effective altruism movement. In my next post I'll consider how helpful EA’s approach is: If you’re looking to improve the world, what can EA offer? What are its downsides and limitations? Please do share your thoughts and I’ll try to incorporate some into my next post.


[1] In fact, the differences are often far greater than this. A deworming programme could give an extra year of healthy life for roughly $28-$70 (according to charity evaluator GiveWell). In comparison, new cancer drugs are generally recommended in Australia if their cost per year of healthy life saved is around $45,000-$75,000 — a factor of almost 1,000. 

[2] In a 2020 EA survey, 69% of respondents lived in these 5 countries, although only 166 people answered that question:

[3] In a 2020 EA survey with 2,166 responses, the median age of respondents was 27, 76% were white, 71% were male. In a 2019 EA survey, more than 45% had a postgraduate degree (this question was removed in 2020 to make space for other questions).

[4] “No matter[…]when they live” — the “when” here refers to the fact that many, but not all, EAs believe it is a priority to reduce existential risks and prevent future generations from suffering

[5] This is often referred to as the importance, tractability, neglectedness framework or ITN. More information here.

[6] Quality-adjusted life years (QALYs) measure both the quality and quantity of life lived and is used in economic evaluation