Blog post

Becoming an Effective Altruist

3 min read
22 Jun 2015

I have always wanted to make a difference; I think most people do.

As a young teenager, I remember giving away all my Christmas money after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. I understood that I didn’t actually need that money, and there were other people who needed it desperately. As I grew older, I began to realise that this desperate need doesn’t go away just because the news cameras have moved on, or is only present in the wake of a disaster. Extreme poverty is an everyday fact of life for thousands of people, a fact not deemed newsworthy only because of its constant, ongoing nature.

Perhaps because of this, by and large we accept poverty as an insurmountable problem. Sometimes we raise funds or donate money, but most of the time it is something we’d rather forget about, powerless to do much about it. We worry about government corruption and charities working ineffectively. In a way, I think this helps relieve us of a sense of responsibility – if there’s nothing we can do, we needn’t do anything.

Throughout my studies, I continued to try my best to make a difference. I attended protests and did sponsored runs in fancy dress. I baked cakes, rattled tins and raised thousands of pounds organising charity gigs for local bands. All this was deeply rewarding and definitely enriched my life, boosting my CV and my wellbeing.

It was fun. I chose my charities because I liked the sound of their work. I organised events now and again, when a cause or idea took my fancy. I hoped for the best, but I also doubted myself. Was this really making a difference? Was it really helping? I didn’t want to ever stop caring, but neither did I want to be a hopeless idealist.

I had to up my game.

Faced with a huge problem and no idea how to solve it, we either end up apathetic or cynical, or try our best without much impact. But here’s the thing – while poverty remains a huge problem, we are getting better and better at finding the best ways to solve it.

Through much googling and steering by likeminded friends, I found Effective Altruism. Suddenly my hopes and doubts weren’t fighting against one another, but working together. By critically examining how charities spent their money, I could choose to give to only the most effective.

Our evidence about the best methods for tackling poverty is constantly growing. While the News doesn’t dwell on everyday extreme poverty, nor does it focus on our gradual successes in fighting it. You perhaps wouldn’t know it, but over the last twenty years, the number of people living in extreme poverty has halved.

So I decided that I needed to give to the most effective charities – you can find these via Giving What We Can, and the detailed evidence for why they are the most effective from GiveWell. I also decided I needed to give consistently, and hold myself accountable for doing what I’d always wanted – to make a difference, and to continue to make a difference throughout my life.

After a period of underemployment, I now have a full time job. I don’t earn a lot (I’m working as a teaching assistant), but I earn more than enough to get by, and enough after that to give away to the people who aren’t able to say that yet. After giving away 10% of my salary, I’m still earning more than 99% of people in the world (you can see where you fit in with Giving What We Can’s calculator).

Now I know I am making a difference – most people could do the same.