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GiveWell and the Concept of Effective Altruism

We continue to focus on the growth of data-driven philanthropy in our latest Wine Grants podcast with GiveWell and Open Philanthropy (Open Phil) Program Director Alexander Berger. Much like Ryan Derfler, Berger is part of a burgeoning movement among philanthropists to ensure that money is well-spent on the most effective programs. Both GiveWell and Open Phil dig deep – very deep – into the process of diagnosing the severity of various social problems and the effectiveness of proposed solutions, from determining the lives saved from distribution of malaria bed-nets to weighing the quality of life effects of incarceration. For more details on how GiveWell and Open Philanthropy are revolutionizing giving, we recommend reading this excellent in-depth profile from Vox.

Both GiveWell and Open Phil are at the vanguard of a movement called “effective altruism.” Effective altruism is basically a catchier term for data-driven giving, and it is organized around the following question:

What donations will have the greatest effect on improving the lives of those in need?

GiveWell’s research has uncovered several best practice examples, such as donating cash directly to the poor in Uganda; evidence shows that the recipients of this cash handout spend the money on essential goods.

Given the above example, one could correctly assume that effective altruism prioritizes solutions that have pragmatic, research-proven effects on improving health and quality of life. This raises a larger question regarding the concept of effective altruism and what it doesn’t prioritize; namely, giving to arts and culture organizations. Since these avenues generally do not save lives or provide measurable effects on quality of life. It’s proponents will point to the benefits of quantified metrics and being able to measure your impact. Critiques will say it ignores the human component of work that is literally called humanitarian work. Ultimately, there are pros and cons to the philosophy of data-driven philanthropy that we’ll continue to explore. One thing for sure is that new approaches are welcome at this time.


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