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Effective altruism applies science to giving

By Lynn Sygiel, editor, Charitable Advisors

Diehard punk rock fans may know Peter Murphy as the former front man for the once-popular British goth band Bauhaus. Bauhaus broke up in the early 80s, but Murphy is currently back on stage with a 40th anniversary reunion tour.

Getting excited? Getting your ear plugs ready? Calm down. This story is not about that Peter Murphy. 

This Peter Murphy teaches philosophy at the University of Indianapolis. He’s a bit more genteel, but in many ways, beats a philanthropic drum as loud as his namesake rocker.

Murphy, who teaches a graduate course at U of I called “Poverty, Ethics and Effective Giving,” trumpets a philosophy known as “effective altruism,” or more simply EA.

As part of the class syllabus, students are introduced to the tenets of EA, and their final assignment is designed to apply what they’ve learned. Each year, Murphy secures funds from local donors, and as a group, students must reach a consensus about which organization or organizations will be the recipient of those funds.

“When they try to persuade one another that this is the organization we should give money to, they always set up rules. (One is) you have to give evidence, and the evidence that you give has to meet some kind of rigorous standards,” he said, which is an EA hallmark.

But for Murphy this isn’t just a course. Over the past 25 years, his philosophy students have studied Peter Singer and other scholars who have written about poverty ethics. Murphy was introduced to Singer’s 1972 paper “Fame, Affluence and Morality” as a college student, but his interest in the plight of the world’s poorest people was actually sparked earlier by his brother.

“When my brother went to college in the mid-1980s, he brought home a book that was quite popular at the time called “How the Other Half Dies: The real reasons for World Hunger” by Susan George. It was a best-selling book in the United States, and it was reporting on how roughly half the people in the world were dying of easily preventable causes,” said the Canadian-born Murphy.

Curiosity led him to continue to investigate EA, which has Singer’s ideas at its core. EA, a philosophy and social movement, started in 2011 at Britain’s Oxford University and uses evidence and reasoning to determine the most effective ways to benefit others. It differs from other philanthropic practices because of “its emphasis on quantitatively comparing charitable causes and interventions with the goal of maximizing certain human values.”

“I really see effective altruism as the convergence of people in philosophy who have been interested in ethics with social scientists who came in with randomized-controlled trials,” said Murphy. “The trials have brought out a lot of surprises at least in international giving. There are all sorts of things that have turned out to be absolutely ineffective that are very counter intuitive.”

Effective altruism has also provided a framework for Murphy and his wife, Dana Harrison, for personal donation decisions.

“When we met, we were almost kind of at extremes, and for both of us individually, our personal charitable giving was really important. When I first learned about effective altruism, it was really challenging, and I definitely had a defense response,” said Harrison, who, when she met her now husband, had just left her role as executive director of Dress for Success Indianapolis. He challenged her to think about her investments based on scientific data, not just emotion, in order to do the most good.

The couple encourages others to learn about EA’s framework when making charitable contributions, and they also think it’s important that Indiana’s nonprofits are aware of and keep track of the movement.

Cindy Collier couldn’t agree more.

For the past 15 years, she has been a consultant to corporations, government, foundations, nonprofits, and prior to that, worked for Health and Human Services at the national and state levels. She believes that the EA movement is helping to harness commitment, good work and people’s desire to make a difference.

“Instead of just trying hard, we’re going to succeed more often, and I think that’s the really wonderful aspect of the whole movement. It’s not just caring and trying, it’s taking the caring and the trying, and really making change,” said Collier. She has read “Doing Good Better” by William MacAskill, one of the co-founders of the EA movement, and has recommended it to friends.

“You want to feel good about helping people, but if the next year you come back and nothing has changed, that good doesn’t really feel so good when you haven’t really made a difference,” she said.

“We need to be more agile and try something different to get the results that we want whether it’s health, education, poverty reduction, no matter what the topic might be. If the needle’s not moving, we really need to think about investing in a different way to get different outcomes,” said Collier.

Harrison has often described the movement as “outcomes and evaluation on steroids.”

People who are EA followers believe in flexibility and open-mindedness, said Murphy, and are prepared to abandon a project if it isn’t working.

Local funders, too, have changed evaluations about programming to include data, but not yet to the level of executing randomized-controlled trials.

As a board member for Project Home Indy, Collier remembers the Women’s Fund asking for evidence that the group’s local model would work. As the first funder of a program for teen moms at risk of homelessness, it sent a due diligence committee to meet with staff.

“We have a lot of great foundations, and I have uniformly seen them ask those right questions, thinking about metrics. I have seen them ask what it’s going to be like after services, what’s the impact and what is being tracked. That really changes the culture,” she said.

Harrison thinks that at a minimum every nonprofit should research what models work before adding new programs in order to ascertain that its model hasn’t been disproven already in a dozen communities.

Which is why she was excited to recently learn about the work of the George and Frances Ball Foundation in Muncie. The foundation’s team just completed a study of 130 communities in the U.S. that have had cradle-to-career efforts. The team’s intention is to compare the components and identify what change happened. This is of special interest to Harrison as she serves as TeenWorks’ interim chief executive.

Daydreaming a bit, she wonders what could change if the foundation presents its findings to its nonprofit community and shares which models work and which don’t.

“How would nonprofit leaders react if the three things that worked they would never consider or the things that didn’t work were core to their programming? What is the impact of that and what is our readiness to hear those messages?”

Both Harrison and Collier believe applying EA’s model to areas like arts and culture would be difficult, and acknowledge that measuring poverty and education gains are easier than measuring enjoyment.

Small nonprofits don’t normally have researchers or statisticians on staff or empirically researched randomized-controlled trials.  However, they do see steps for nonprofits to take.

Collier has witnessed some funders asking: When we give you this money, what will be different?

“The nonprofit has got to be able to tell them, ‘Here’s what will change. Here’s the impact we can have.’  It’s thinking about the measurements and the expectations.’

“To me, the great part about this movement is not to make people cynical, but to make them more questioning,” said Collier, and she believes it will become a permanent way to determine what gets funded.

“When you are talking to donors, you are appealing to hearts or checkbooks to make an economic difference. But effective altruism is really about both. I think it’s a way to totally raise the bar about what we want to support.”

And while MIT and other social scientists are aware of EA, there has been limited application in the U.S. with most trials being done in developing countries.

One area, though, that Murphy and others have said is ripe for application is mass incarceration and sentencing. For people in prison or jail, it may be possible to lessen hardship in communities by cutting down the use of incarceration, and that is the leading conjecture of those in organizations that are based on EA principles.

“Do you get any additional deterrents by sending a person away for 10 years for cocaine rather than just 18 months or do they actually become a more hardened criminal if you send them away for 10 years? So, they’re trying to measure things like outcomes on families, employment rates and the economy in a local community. Oftentimes these young men if they can turn it around, they can be at their peak economic performance in terms of productivity and they can really be out there helping themselves and their communities thrive,” said Murphy.

He also believes there are good candidates in the community that meet EA’s principles and standards, making it a movement worth paying attention to.

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