Peter Singer: Why don’t we think more clearly about effective giving?

Illustration by Bart Browne

Illustration by Bart Browne

Effective Altruism

interview by Heather Shayne Blakeslee

Globally renowned ethicist Peter Singer wants you to ask yourself if you are a “warm glow” giver—someone who writes a check for a small amount of money because it makes you feel good, whether or not the gift is actually effective. In his recent book “The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically,” he asks hard questions about how we choose to give our money and time. If the same donation could save 10,000 individuals from being blind or facilitate 1,000 people seeing the art in a new museum wing, is there really a question about the ethical choice? If the same donation or action would save either the person in front of you or 10 people 10,000 miles away, what would you do? What if the person in front of you were your sister? It’s the stuff of “Philosophy 101” classrooms everywhere.

But even if we’re biased against starkly utilitarian choices and instinctively give close to home to causes with emotional appeal, Singer believes we can still do better. Even after we’ve chosen our cause, a mere 3 percent of us base our gifts on the relative efficacy of nonprofit groups that address our cause. Singer urges would-be philanthropists and advocates to do better: to reconsider our ethical framework and do our homework if we’re serious about doing the most good we can. 

Many people, especially here in the U.S., are ratcheting up their volunteering, and they’re giving in anticipation of Donald Trump’s administration. According to your book, most of us are going to make emotional rather than rational decisions when choosing to do those things. Is that biology? Is it psychology?
PS: I think it is biology, ultimately, that underlies a lot of the decisions we make, and of course it’s psychology, as well. Psychology is clearly influenced by biological factors—the factors that have led our ancestors to survive and reproduce… I think that’s pretty well accepted, even though of course we also think that culture makes a significant difference, as well. 

So, I think people are responding to this situation as they respond to other situations along those lines, on the basis of things like a sense of support for one’s tribe and social group—a kind of group ethic, I think, here is important. That’s perhaps leading people to focus as they typically do on their own immediate community rather than the wider world.

You cite a study from the nonprofit Freedom From Hunger in which they tested their own fundraising letters: An emotional appeal in which you were shown a picture and story about a person affected by their work increased donations for people who gave amounts under $100. But the addition of analytics—information that showed the effectiveness of the contribution—decreased the donations, essentially showing that giving people numbers was dampening the emotional response that engendered the original impulse to give. Does that surprise you?
PS: Well, it certainly disturbed me. I guess it did surprise me to some extent that it actually had a negative effect. If it said that putting in the figures has a zero effect on people’s giving, I wouldn’t have been that surprised.  

But that it actually has a negative impact on, not all givers, but on small givers—who are, in terms of numbers, the majority of givers, even if in terms of dollars they’re not giving the most: That is disturbing. Because that says something about human psychology—that the emotional response overpowers what ought to be the rational response. You would think that anybody would be concerned about whether their giving was effective.

In response to that irrationality, enter “effective altruism,” which is encouraging people to push past our emotional giving and/or advocacy work and use evidence and reason to work in the most effective ways to improve the world. But when the book came out, it really rattled some major players in philanthropic giving and fundraising. 
PS: There are a lot of people raising funds for charities that, by my view, really are not a high priority... People ought to be thinking twice about whether they ought to give to [them] at all—or certainly should not be making it a major part of their charitable donations. So, people who [are], for example, trying to raise money for galleries and museums were disturbed by the arguments to some extent. 

Also, people trying to raise money for local concerns were disturbed by the argument that you can get a lot better value for your dollars by giving to organizations that are helping people in developing countries, even though there might be relatively poor people and people who you feel have been wronged and oppressed in your community—and I’m sure that’s true of people in Philadelphia, as well.

Measuring a charity’s effectiveness by looking at its administrative costs compared with its programs’ expenditures or its overhead ratio is common. Why is it such an incomplete picture?
PS: That is the first thing people start thinking about when you say, “Is the donation effective?” It’s extremely incomplete and it can even be directly misleading. 

So, think of it this way: If an organization is trying to reduce its administrative costs, one thing it might do is get rid of some of its staff. If it gets rid of some of its staff, it has fewer people who can check that the grants that it’s making—let’s assume that it’s making program grants to different organizations in the field that are trying to do good things that it’s promoting—it now has fewer staff to vet the applications, and perhaps even more importantly, to follow up to see what is actually happening and whether the program grants have achieved the results desired. 

Maybe the organization can now say, “Hey, 90 percent of the money we received goes directly to our programs,” but perhaps only half of those programs have any positive effect at all. So, really, only 45 percent of every dollar you’re giving is doing any good, whereas if the organization had kept on its staff, it might, let’s say, be able to only send 80 percent of its funds programs, but because it had more staff, perhaps 90 percent of those programs would have been cost-effective. So, now you’re getting 72 cents on every dollar—you’re giving is doing some good—which is a lot better than 45 cents.

Can you talk a bit about “metacharities” and how they factor into evaluating a charity’s effectiveness? 
PS: This has been a really promising development in the field. We now have bodies that look very carefully at which charities are effective and go beyond looking at things like administrative expenses and principles about how their boards are run, and so on—and instead look really at what’s happening in the field. Is there independent research that is showing whether this program is really achieving something good, and at what cost?

I think it’s really important to use these organizations, and let’s name some of them: GiveWell was really the pioneer in this field; an organization that I founded, The Life You Can Save, has taken this up and is also promoting this with slightly broader standards than GiveWell. There are a number of organizations now which are trying to encourage people to think about cost-effectiveness and making recommendations.

Donating money is one strategy, career choice is another—80,000 Hours is a group you mention in the book that advises graduates with research on impactful careers. You quote its executive director advising would-be advocates to “target groups that you care about more than other people.” So, for instance, if animals are your thing, you might choose to help farm animals rather than shelter animals?  
PS: The strategies that some people will find unpopular and unattractive and the groups that people will find unpopular and unattractive are often neglected—and more worthy. The example you gave is an excellent one: The amount of funds that flow to dogs and cats in shelters is way out of proportion to the amount of animal suffering that dogs and cats constitute. Wayne Pacelle, who’s the head of the Humane Society of the United States, said something like 90 percent of all charitable dollars are going to a group of animals that probably only constitute about 1 percent of animal suffering; and certainly the most neglected are the farm animals.

What’s the simplest way you might describe “living ethically”? 
PS: The first thing that comes to people’s minds is not doing certain bad things: hurting people, cheating them, injuring them, killing them, whatever. And of course those things are important, but I want to balance that—especially for people who are reasonably comfortably off and have the opportunity to do a lot of good for others. I want to balance it with the idea that to live ethically in this world, where some people have so much and others have so little, does require you, if you’re one of the ones who has so much, to actually do things that are positively beneficial to others—to help others. That’s the requirement. So, to do good in the world, to do the most good you can, seems to me to be an important part of what it is to live ethically today.

Peter Singer is an ethicist, educator and author. His other books include “Animal Liberation” and “The Life You Can Save.”