Is Effective Altruism Set to Grow?

AliceIn June 2014, I attended the Centre for Effective Altruism (CEA) Weekend Away at Atlantic College in Wales. This event brought together people from across the world interested in effective altruism, a movement of people aiming to do as much good as possible with their time and resources.

Effective altruists take an evidence-based approach to finding the most effective ways of having a positive impact on the world, for example, through evaluating charitable causes to find those that are most promising ones, through to choosing a career based on how much good can be achieved.

During the weekend, there were talks from some of the key charitable organisations involved in effective altruism, including Giving What We Can (global poverty charities evaluator) and 80,000 Hours (ethical careers advice service). Talks included:

–        A careers panel featuring five effective altruists who have chosen their careers with a view to doing as much good as possible. Three of the speakers were involved in “earning to give” (professional philanthropy).

This seemed to be a popular choice amongst people that I met, alongside research (for example Jess Whittlestone, who is interested in how people make decisions in an altruistic context) and working directly for effective altruist organisations.

People working in the wider non-profit sector were underrepresented, however 80,000 Hours co-founder Benjamin Todd emphasised the importance of diversity and of effective altruists trying out lots of different career routes as a way of improving our knowledge about the different options available.


Careers panel from left to right: Alexander Gordon-Brown, quantitative finance at Jane Street; Seb Farquar, Consultant at McKinsey; Marek Duda, previously investment banking in Mexico, now works at CEA; Jess Whittlestone, Behavioural Science PhD student, Warwick, moderated by Benjamin Todd, co-founder, 80,000 Hours. Also on the panel was Haydn Belfield, working in politics. Photo: Anna Travinskaya.

–        A debate about giving now versus giving later, exploring ideas including waiting for better information about cause prioritisation before giving, setting up a Donor Advised Fund, the signalling value of donating now and achieving an ideal mix of people donating now or saving to donate.

–        A talk about CEA’s Outreach and Global Priorities Project. Will MacAskill spoke about the book that he is writing about effective altruism, to be published in summer 2015 by Guardian Faber in the UK and Penguin in the US. It is expected that this book will lead to a spike in interest in effective altruism and preparations are underway to ensure that this interest translates into involvement, including the development of a new website and media campaign. Dr Owen Cotton-Barrett spoke about his research into how to make comparisons between cause areas as part of the Global Priorities Project.

–        Other events included talks on why aid works, mitigating global risks, climate change research, goal-setting strategies and an ethical careers workshop. There were also some great parties and outdoor activities.

My impressions

Effective altruism is growing fast and is set to become better known and more mainstream in 2015. I met people who had travelled from across the UK, the US, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Norway, and as the movement becomes increasingly international and grows in size, I hope to see it become more diverse and attract people from a greater variety of backgrounds.

There is a fantastic sense of community, with people keen to support each other to achieve collective goals. The people that I met were highly ambitious, dedicated and high achieving – this could have been intimidating, but everyone was very friendly, keen to discuss ideas and open to the idea of being wrong, or of finding a better approach.

I’d be interested in your views about whether this movement has a future and what more can be done. Contact me as part of the comments section below.

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