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.
- 1. Have the Right Mindset
- 2. Be Mindful of Behaviour and Language
- 3. Know Your Audience
- 4. When to Have the Conversation
- 5. What to Say
- 6. How to Deal with Objections
- 7. Follow Up
- 8. Use Storytelling
- References and Resources
- Use conversations as tools to (a) talk about something you're interested in and (b) learn about someone else's perspective, rather than going in with an agenda to change someone's mind.
- People in your life will love to hear about what excites you. Sharing your personal story and passions are likely the most important for these conversations.
- People do not like being told what to do or made to feel like they are doing something wrong.
- Start from a point of agreement.
- Be open-minded, empathetic, and nonjudgemental in these conversations.
- People may not agree with you or react the way you want them to, and that is okay.
- Be flexible about what you say and how you say it, depending on who you are saying it to. The same narrative around effective altruism and donating effectively may not work for everyone.
- Use straightforward language. Aim to make the ideas as accessible as possible. While it is tempting to open with controversial or unorthodox ideas (e.g., existential risks or AI alignment), introducing someone to EA through ideas that are straightforward and likely to be commonly held (e.g., helping more people is better than helping fewer people) may be useful.
- There are some objections people have to helping effectively. The most common may be that they want to donate to causes that are emotionally meaningful. Validating their viewpoint before explaining your own can help you respond in such situations.
- Follow up with the other person after the initial conversation. Sharing resources is one good way of doing so.
The goal of the conversation is to learn from others’ perspectives and share your own (not to tell people that they’re wrong).
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:
- Avoid acronyms and jargon. For instance, you could say, "charities that aim to do as much good as possible tend to prioritise…" instead of "EA orgs prioritise…". Even the meaning of the phrase "effective altruism" might not be instantly clear. It might be better not to mention this phrase at all in the beginning!
- "I" statements can also be helpful. They do not rely on assumptions about the other person's beliefs, and they don't imply that EA is the only right way to do things.
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:
- It's important to help others.
- Impartiality is better than prejudice (alternatively, people are of equal moral value or everyone is equally deserving of happiness).
- Helping more is better than helping less.
- As our resources are limited, we should prioritise how we use them.
- We should prioritise projects using evidence and reason.
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:
- I've been wondering about this a fair bit, and I think that our agreement with these statements may have implications for how we act. What do you think?
- I care so much about these ideas, but as I mentioned earlier while describing my own journey, it can be so hard knowing how to go about implementing them. What are your thoughts?
- I hear about so many problems and injustices in the world through the news or see people post about them on social media. And I feel compelled to do something. Do you ever feel that way too?
- I've been reading that some charities do a lot more with their money than other charities, and there are even ways to evaluate different charities. It really changed the way I think about my own donations. Have you thought much about which charities you donate to? Why did you choose them?
Here are some key points about effective altruism that may help you describe what it is:
- The effective altruism movement is designed to answer the question: "How can we do the most good with the resources available?"
- There is a lot of research and information available that can help us answer this question.
- Some of the research can help us figure out which kinds of causes are most pressing to focus on.
- Some of the research pertains to which charities can help the most and how.
The potential answers to "how to do the most good" are based on evidence and reasoning from researchers and organisations all around the world.
To determine how to best use our resources, EAs often consider three key questions:
(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?)
- Members of the EA community are always updating their focus areas based on the best available evidence. For example, right now a lot of EAs focus on providing bed nets for malaria, as malaria kills as many as half a million people every year. But new research has just produced a vaccine that might be able to prevent people from getting malaria. If a vaccine was successfully produced and disseminated, treating malaria might not affect as many people and bed net distribution may no longer be a top cause area.
- In terms of which causes to mention during a conversation, it is likely easier and more compelling to talk about cause areas that are more widely understood and cared about. For instance, you could talk about global poverty and animal welfare, rather than detailing those that are less well-understood (e.g., AI safety or existential risks).
- That said, make sure to mention a wide range of issues in passing (unless you know this person you are talking to cares about one focus, like global poverty or animal welfare). There are a few good reasons for this:
- There is a higher chance that you will find a cause that the person feels excited about (which may translate to excitement about EA generally).
- It can help combat the common misconception that EA focuses on a limited number of causes and that these are the only things we care about.
- If the individual does get invested in EA, they may feel caught off guard if attending EA events and most conversations are about things like AI.
Here are some ways to illustrate how acting in line with EA can make a difference:
- Give an example of how $100 donated to one charity can do X amount of good, while the same amount donated to a different charity can do Y amount of good.
- Explain that some interventions that seem very effective (e.g., donating books to children in low-income communities) don't accomplish as much as it seems (e.g., donating books doesn't actually improve school completion). On the flipside, interventions that may not immediately seem effective can actually accomplish a lot (e.g., research shows that providing sanitary products for girls can increase the likelihood of them attending school).
- Demonstrate the potential for impact via thought experiments like The Drowning Child (although use this sparingly and cautiously, as people can be turned off by obligation framing).
- Talk about how small actions can have important consequences, if chosen strategically. For instance, reducing your consumption of animal products decreases the overall supply:
(i) If you give up 1 egg, production falls by .91 eggs;
(ii) 1 gallon of milk → 0.56 gallons;
(iii) 1 pound of beef → 0.68 pounds;
(iv) 1 pound of pork → 0.74 pounds;
(v) 1 pound of chicken → 0.76 pounds.
- If the person you are talking to seems interested in hearing about how to actually engage in doing the most good, you could mention that one of the main — and easiest — ways to do so is through donations.
- Most people in high-income nations (such as the U.S., UK, Germany, and Australia) belong to the top 5% of the richest people in the world and have at least 10 times more than the median income in the world. Thus, it is not just millionaires who can help people. 
- Our donations can have huge benefits, if we donate to the right place. There are large differences in the effectiveness of their good deeds. Some examples (with more here) are:
- We can help someone with blindness gain their vision via cataract surgery for $1,000, while a single guide dog costs $50,000 . (The impact of some charities and interventions can be a hundred times greater than that of others.)
- Helping individuals in low- and middle-income countries compared to giving to nearby causes (over 90% of donations from the U.S. stay in the U.S.).
- Offer concrete examples of charities that are doing great work. GWWC's list of recommendations combines charities recommended by charity evaluators and grantmakers (e.g., GiveWell, Animal Charity Evaluators and EA Funds).
- You could also mention the important note that the best-known charities are likely not the most effective. Often, well-known charities are the biggest ones that have lots of programs. Typically, these charities aren't the most effective because even if some of their interventions are good, they also spend money on others that aren't.
- Knowing that donations are tax-deductible can increase an individual's donations, as these tax savings, in effect, reduce the cost of donations. So, when mentioning which effective charities to donate to, you could specify those that are tax-deductible in that person's country (and if there are none, you could mention things like donor-advised funds or fiscal sponsorship organisations that can help).
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.
- Talking about your own donating habits can be very helpful. Evidence suggests that increasing the publicity of donations can increase people's donations.
- You could tell them about Try Giving and The Pledge.
- With the Try Giving pledge, an individual can see how they feel donating at least 1% of their income to effective charities for a specified time.
- Once an individual has given the Try Giving pledge a go (or feel ready to take the leap directly), they can take The Pledge. Here, they pledge to donate 10% of their income to effective charities for the rest of their lives.
- The Pledges are not legally binding. Rather, the idea is to share our intention and make lasting public commitment to the cause. Making commitments that are known to others can help us stay motivated to keep them.
- GWWC currently has just over 8,454 members (both pledges), including prominent figures like Liv Boeree, Marcus Daniell, Rachel Glennerster, Sam Harris, Michael Kremer, Will MacAskill, Toby Ord, and Peter Singer.
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.
- Clarify that effective altruism does not mean that we need to give all our money away and live with the bare minimum. An individual who gets involved can choose to donate as much of their time or money as they think is right for them. It's good for people to try things out and set their own boundaries, as that gives them agency over the experience (see Section 1). This article by GWWC Executive Director Luke Freeman can help guide your decision about how much to donate.
- Relatedly, it is important to take care of ourselves as well as helping others. Doing so can help ensure that we can donate and help others for longer, and not get burnt-out by doing or giving too much. As GWWC Member Julia Wise said, "We don't need people making sacrifices that leave them drained and miserable. We need people who can walk cheerfully over the world, or at least do their damnedest."
- In addition, not everything we do has to be in line with EA. Our behaviours can be motivated by different reasons. While we donate to effective charities because we want to improve the world, it is also totally fine to treat ourselves to dinner because we want to increase our personal satisfaction.
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.
- Stay calm, do not get defensive, and do not raise your voice. Make sure to continue behaving in line with what we highlighted in Sections 1 and 2.
- E.g., "It's really hard to think about charities from a neutral perspective, we all have charities and causes that we already care about."
Step 2: Recognise the grain of truth.
- Chances are, there is some truth or logic at the base of their objection. It's best to acknowledge this truth, rather than dismissing it or brushing it aside.
- E.g., "Most people have first-hand experience of loss, and because we're empathetic creatures, it's likely that we want to donate to organizations related to this loss."
Step 3: Explain your viewpoint.
- If you do disagree with them, explain why. This offers an opportunity to reflect on your own views and possibly even update them or understand them better.
- E.g., "When I thought deeply about my experience of loss, I realised that what mattered to me was that someone I love was suffering, rather than why they were suffering. I realised I cared about preventing such suffering in general, and preventing it for as many people as I could."
Step 4: Check for a shared understanding.
- Once you have explained your side, it is important to check whether your viewpoint has come across the way you intended it to. In addition, this is a good opportunity to see what they think about your logic. This can not only help reduce any feelings of discontent, but it can also help bring out other objections they may have.
- E.g., "What do you think about this?"
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:
- Offer to send them a book or blog post that is relevant to your discussion
- The Life You Can Save has free downloadable pdfs of their book as well as a free audiobook with celebrity narration.
- Invite them to a Giving What We Can event, or one hosted by your local effective altruism group.
- Involve them in your own donation decisions by inviting them to help you decide where to give your pledge this year.
- Make a donation in their name to a charity that seems aligned with their interests and values (but you should only do this if it's someone you know quite well).
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:
- How did you come across effective giving, effective altruism, or Giving What We Can?
- What led you to start giving?
- What other ways do you try to affect positive change (e.g., volunteering, direct work, or advocacy)?
- What motivates you to keep giving?
- What causes are you excited about?
- Why is impact so important to you?
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
- Try Giving and The Pledge
- Best Charities to Donate to in 2021
- Recommended Videos, Books, Podcasts, and Essays
- Key Facts and Resources
- Events and Meetups
- Frequently Asked Questions
- Myths and Misconceptions About Charity
- Share Your Effective Giving Story
- List of GWWC Members
- Prominent GWWC Members
- Members' Experiences (Alexandra Berlina; Micahel Aird; Catherine Thomas; Heather McLaughlin)
EA Community resources
Common questions and objections
- Frequently Asked Questions and Commons Objections — Centre for Effective Altruism
- Responding to Objections — EA Hub
- Frequently Asked Questions — EA Hub
- New EA Members by Region and Year — Centre for Effective Altruism
- Directory of Local EA Groups — EA Hub
Charity recommendations and funds
- GiveWell's Top Charities — GiveWell
- Animal Charity Evaluators' Charity Reviews — Animal Charity Evaluators
- Open Philanthropy's Grants Database — Open Philanthropy
- Effective Altruism Funds — Centre for Effective Altruism
- The Life You Can Save: Free Book/Audiobook — The Life You Can Save
- Altruism Icebreakers — The Life You Can Save
We list all resources we drew upon at the end of the article. ↩︎
We should note that the tips in this article are generally suitable regardless of the demographic you’re speaking to. However, there are some points that we think require contextual consideration (especially in Section 5. We mark these with * and include footnotes). ↩︎
If you are giving examples, be careful to talk about individuals in a certain country, rather than the country itself. For instance, “there are many people in India who are not as lucky as we are, and who we can help with a small proportion of our resources,” rather than “Indians are not as lucky as we are…” ↩︎
If you are talking to someone who is not from a Western country, perhaps phrase this as “if you earn more than the equivalent of 11,000 USD, you belong to the top 15% of the richest people in the world! And if you earn more than the equivalent of 28,000 USD, you belong to the top 5% of the richest people in the world!” ↩︎
Avoid this statement when talking to someone who is not from a relatively high-income, Western country. ↩︎