If you're reading this, you probably dedicate at least some of your time and resources to helping others effectively --- with the goal of having a big impact on the world.
However, if you introduce even one other person to the effective altruism (EA) community, you could double your impact. In fact, the latest EA survey shows that word of mouth has been the most common avenue through which people first hear about EA and get involved with the community.
We can engage others through skillful, supportive conversations. That said, it can be hard to know how and when to talk to people about EA. On the one hand, some of us may be inhibited from mentioning it at all --- we may think that talking about our giving habits may come across as boastful or sanctimonious. On the other, some of us may be overly prescriptive --- we may have a strong urge to ensure that everyone around us is leading EA-aligned lives too.
You may have already had some conversations about EA and effective donations, and may have found that some approaches work, while others tend to be met with negative reactions. Indeed, there have been numerous blog posts and articles about how best to talk about these things. In this article, we draw on EA community members' experiences and expertise by amalgamating tips from previous posts, articles, and research papers, and add some thoughts of our own. We not only cover what to say, but also whom to have these conversations with and how to approach the subject.
It is important to remember that the immediate goal of conversations about EA and donating is not to convince the other person of your view. Of course, we want to expand the EA community. To do this successfully, however, we need to engage with people on their terms. Instead of trying to convince them that you’re right and (by extension) they’re wrong, think of the conversation as a way to learn about their perspectives and share your own. Engaging with them about their interests — as well as your own — in a genuine way is an important first step in sharing these ideas.
Research suggests that people are more likely to engage in a certain action (and repeatedly do so) when that action is autonomously motivated. People tend not to like being told what to do, and are more responsive when they feel they are acting on their own accord.
Saying something like "Hey, could we grab a coffee and talk about this new charity I came across recently? Their work seems really cool and I would love to share that with you and hear your thoughts," is more likely to be met with a favourable response than a statement like "I donate to this charity and you should too." The former not only conveys your excitement, but it also shows that you are open-minded and genuinely interested in learning about the other person's point of view.
Even if you have the best of intentions, it is important to remember that people may not react the way that you want them to. While most people care about helping others, their values and beliefs may be different from yours. And that is okay!
Regardless of their response, it is important to be non-judgemental and open, and not try to force your views onto them. Listen to them, even if they are saying something you don't agree with. You never know; they might even say something that changes your mind (and you can't expect someone to be open to changing their beliefs if you're not open to changing yours)!
Forming thoughts and opinions generally doesn't happen overnight, and people will need time and space to reflect on the ideas you raise with them. They are unlikely to have fully developed their views on EA during the first conversation (and even less likely, to have acted on these views). You may end up having several conversations with people about these topics (or you may just talk with them once, and they develop their ideas further on their own/with others). We include some suggestions for how to follow up the initial conversation under Section 7.
Discussions about values can sometimes be loaded. It's important to model the behaviour and use the language you'd like to see the other person use.
How you say something is at least as important as what you say. It's crucial to be polite and respectful in how you engage with people. This includes your tone and the words you choose.
Something that is often overlooked is what you do when you're not talking. Sometimes we might subconsciously show our disagreement with what the other person is saying by folding our arms or rolling our eyes when they are speaking. This shows that you're not open to hearing their perspective.
It is also important to watch for their non-verbal cues to know how far to take the conversation. If they have crossed arms, are looking around, looking at their watch, or show signs of nervousness, stop and ask if they want to keep talking about this. If they do not, it might be best to stop the conversation politely.
Many of us are guilty of not really listening to the other person, and simply waiting for them to stop talking so we say our piece. It's not our fault, talking about yourself is inherently rewarding! But the person you're engaging with will be able to tell if you're genuinely open to what they're saying, and that will affect how open they are to what you're saying.
Focus on the issue you are talking about (e.g., poverty or animal welfare) rather than the people who are responsible (e.g., millionaires who don't donate or people who eat meat). Similarly, talk about how much good a certain effective charity does, rather than saying that the charity the other person donates to is ineffective.
Once you're involved in the EA community, you're likely to learn a lot of interesting facts about charities, causes, and effectiveness. This information is great, but it might not be helpful for people who are new to the concepts. Research suggests that we are much more inclined to respond to stories and personal anecdotes than to facts.
Here are some other small tips for keeping the conversation simple:
Remember that EA does not have all the answers yet and what is "most effective" may change with time. We're simply trying to do what our research currently suggests is the best option --- that doesn't mean it's correct. Furthermore, if we present EA as rigid and inflexible, or imply that there is only one "right" way to practise EA, we might put people off and thus stunt the movement's growth (undermining our goals of doing the most good).
We think it's important to avoid making EA sound like a highly exclusive in-group. One of the core aims of the movement is to talk to more people about how we can help others more effectively (not necessarily in terms of expanding the community, but rather spreading ideas). So, we do not want to alienate people when we talk about this topic.
Relatedly, try to avoid statements such as "EAs think X" or "EAs do Y." We do not want to convey that there is only one way to be an effective altruist; we are constantly trying to identify the best ways to help people, and new opinions and perspectives are key.
It's also important to make the EA community accessible. People will be much less likely to engage if the requirements to be involved are very stringent. For example, some people might care about alleviating global poverty, but not about AI safety. Others may want to start donating to effective charities, but they may not be comfortable donating 10% of their income straight away. So, avoid statements that include "should" and "have to."
Talking to someone about helping others effectively may be more fruitful if their viewpoints and values are somewhat aligned with EA ideas already, rather than someone who doesn't care about these things, or even is opposed to them. The more similar their views are to those commonly held by the EA community, the more successful the conversation is likely to be.
You can also do this with people who are open-minded, even if their views about giving and altruism aren't necessarily aligned with EA.
You could test the waters to figure this out, perhaps by mentioning your own donating habits and seeing how the person responds (or one of the statements under Section 5: Reflecting on how to do the most good). If they seem interested in hearing more, then this is likely a good person to continue the conversation with. If they reject the idea right off the bat, or seem uninterested, it might be best to let it go.
Historically, most of the EA community has been from relatively high-income, Western countries. This has led to the narrative that donating to lower-income countries is more impactful, and that people far away are just as deserving of attention and resources. While true, and helpful for individuals from high-income countries, the same narrative is likely not as appropriate when speaking to someone who is not from a high-income, Western country.
The EA community is becoming more diverse. We now have EA groups in several non-Western countries, including Colombia, Japan, Kenya, India, and Singapore. In addition, there are many community members from these countries who have relocated to Western countries.
You may have individuals from such backgrounds in your social circles. If you talk to them about EA, it's important to be mindful that their background is different to that of the traditional EA community member. It is very likely that people from India, for instance, are well aware of the presence of poverty as well as the purchasing power of the rupee compared to the U.S. dollar. Talking about how "a dollar can go further in India" or "it's best to donate to individuals in far off nations" is unlikely to be helpful here. Instead, you could mention how there are differences in the effectiveness of charities that aim to solve the same issue.
Put simply, the context of the person you are talking to is important. We need to be flexible about what we say and how we say it, depending on whom we are saying it to.
In addition to thinking about what to say and whom to say it to, it's also important to think about when to say it. When you're engaging with the people whom you'd like to reach, look for openings to bring up EA ideas. For example, if someone asks you what you've been up to, you could mention a recent EA book or podcast that you read or listened to, or share a surprising fact that you learned.
Alternatively, you could try just being upfront and asking someone to grab a pizza to talk about a new charity that you've come across, especially if you frame the conversation about hearing their thoughts on the charity, too (see Section 1) --- it's how one of the authors of this article was introduced to EA!
If you are part of a regular reading group, such as a book club or a university reading group, you could suggest an EA-related book or research article (though keep in mind it can be easier to talk to people about these ideas in a one-on-one setting). Here are some of our recommended books, articles, videos, and podcasts.
You could also join a conversation that is already about a relevant topic --- such as donations, volunteering, or helping others. This may be especially useful if someone asks you for your opinion on one of these topics (it's still crucial that you don't use a prescriptive tone, but are open-minded and simply talking about things you care about).
There is a lot you could say about helping people effectively. We break this section down into (i) sharing your personal story; (ii) reflecting on how to do the most good; (iii) making the concept of EA accessible; (iv) sharing examples of EA ideas; and (v) setting boundaries.
We think the best way to talk to someone about helping effectively is to share your own journey. People are genuinely interested to learn more about others. And your passion for helping others --- and the way in which you do so --- may be contagious! We recommend practising telling your story (or that of others who inspire you) beforehand (see Section 8 for some tips on what to include in your story).
Talking about your own experiences may also give the other person a chance to reflect on the things they value, and how they put these values into action in their everyday lives. Such reflection can be deepened using the explicit prompts from the next section.
You could ask what the other person thinks of the following statements:
We think it's important to start from a point of agreement. Most people are likely to agree with some, if not all, of the above statements. If they do not agree, however, please remember to still be courteous, respectful, and non-judgmental. You could follow up with statements such as "I would love to know more about your thoughts on this." If the conversation seems to get out of hand (and is likely to turn into an argument), politely ask to end the conversation about this topic, or give them an easy out. You could also ask to pause and pick it up another day.
If they do agree, try using one of these conversation prompts to learn more about where they stand, and to get them more engaged:
Here are some key points about effective altruism that may help you describe what it is:
(i) What is the scale of the issue? (How widespread is this problem? Does it affect one person or one thousand? If the issue was solved, how much better off would the world be?)
(ii) How tractable (or "solvable") is the issue? (How feasible would it be to solve the problem, or to make progress towards a solution?)
(iii) How neglected (or "in need") is the issue? (How many people are working on this issue? How well-funded is it? If we add one more person or organisation who works on this, can they make a difference?)
Here are some ways to illustrate how acting in line with EA can make a difference:
If you are a member of Giving What We Can, talk about that (also see some of our member stories in Section 8)! You can mention what GWWC is, and how you have found donating a proportion of your income.
Although the most accessible way to engage with EA is likely through donations, some people might also be interested in using EA ideas to guide their careers. If you are speaking with someone who is nearing the end of their degree, or contemplating a career change, it might be worthwhile mentioning that different career paths can be more or less impactful in a similar way to charities.
80,000 hours is an organisation that offers advice (and careers coaching) to help people identify some of the most effective careers. They list many potentially impactful careers, like biorisk and government policy. We recommend getting familiar with this post about impactful careers before you chat with people, or even recommending that they check out 80,000 hours themselves.
Sometimes, people may feel as though EA should (or does) dictate every aspect of their lives and every decision they make. While we think that having impact is one of the most important things to us, we also think that being involved in EA doesn't have to be boundless. In your conversations about EA, you may also find it helpful to mention the following.
It is possible (even likely) that you may be met with objections --- either about the premise of EA in general, or certain implications of those premises. We should always be mindful of responding meaningfully to the person's objections, but here are some general steps that might be helpful. We also include an example of how to respond to a common objection of someone wanting to donate to a cause that is of personal significance to them.
Step 1: Start with empathy.
Step 2: Recognise the grain of truth.
Step 3: Explain your viewpoint.
Step 4: Check for a shared understanding.
There are other resources you can read to learn more about specific objections people may have and how to respond to those, a list of myths about effective altruism and donating, as well as some FAQs.
Here are a few things you can do to follow up with a person about a conversation regarding effective altruism and donating:
We are inherently social creatures. Your motivations and your story are what people are most interested in hearing (really, research backs this up!), and what will be most likely to motivate them to change their beliefs or actions. Prior to having conversations with people about helping others effectively, you may find it helpful to practice telling your story and reading those of others.
It's important to practice telling your story before engaging a person in this conversation.
When you practice, you could consider questions like:
A great start is to put pen to paper and write your GWWC member story. We can share this on our GWWC blog and social media and tag you in it. That way, your friends and family can see you being featured by us and that's a great start.
If you do not want to share your own story, you can tell one about your friend's journey (with their permission!) or of someone who inspired you. You can also use one of GWWC's member stories. We highlight some of these below.
It may also be useful to read about other people's stories and experiences, to get a wider sense of what draws people to donating effectively. Here are some snippets of select stories from members of GWWC (you can read more here):
"Don't be shy about spreading the word. I sign off with 'I donate 20% of my income to effective charity' --- and I've recently learned that one of my clients took the pledge, too."
"I generally try to share my story, my reasons for giving, and my reasons for trying to be effective in my giving. I think that might work better than directly trying to convince people of what they should do."
"I find that framing giving in terms of financial freedom, basically the way that Milton Friedman did, is surprisingly effective at increasing conservative support for universal basic income. That framing also reduces stigmatizing narratives. You would think that maybe it would increase stigmatizing narratives because it is all about this neoliberal, individualistic approach, but it actually makes conservatives see recipients of UBI as more hardworking, more competent, more moral --- all these good, humanizing things. I think that when you can bring people's overarching ideas and values into the act of giving and situate giving as a means to realize their values, that can be an effective way to engage them. We need to recognise that different cultures, different groups have different values."
"Having leaflets and support information on hand; telling positive stories that show THERE IS HOPE."
Acknowledgements: We would like to thank Dr. Michael Noetel, Emily Grundy, Ari Kagan, and the GWWC Team for their insightful feedback on this article.
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Giving What We Can resources
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Common questions and objections
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