When Kevin Ulug moved out of his one-bedroom apartment in Ottawa and into a small room in a house with three roommates, he felt good about it. “It just seemed like the right thing to do.”
Ulug, 32, wanted to increase his regular donations to charity but to do that, something had to give. After taking a hard look at his budgeting spreadsheets and undecorated apartment, he decided that downsizing was a feasible option.
“I thought that it was something I could do to help the causes that I care about,” Ulug says.
Ulug, who works as a software developer, now donates more than 25 per cent of his annual income to charity. Last year, that amounted to about $37,000. For context, the average Canadian gives less than 2 per cent of their earnings away.
Ulug donates his bonuses, the money he gets back at tax-time from his giving, and any other excess funds that flow into his account. He doesn’t do this to impress or win praise among his peers, in fact, he doesn’t talk about it much. He does this because he knows — for a fact — that his money is saving lives.
Ulug is part of a small-but-growing global movement that uses reason and data to figure out the best way to do good in the world. It’s called effective altruism.
As the name suggests, there are two parts to the movement: the head and the heart. Effective altruists take a wholly rational, scientific approach to ridding the world of unnecessary suffering. They don’t set out to do some amount of good; they want to make the biggest positive impact they can.
To achieve this feat, they crunch numbers to figure out which charities are the most cost-effective at saving lives. GiveWell, the main charity evaluator effective altruists use, estimates that through a US$4,500 (about C$5,700) donation to the Malaria Consortium, you can save one life. Since a dollar goes further in developing countries, effective altruists tend to support causes that improve the lives of people living in far-off lands.
But that doesn’t faze effective altruists. To them, all human — and non-human — creatures are worth helping and a lot more of us should be contributing. In 2019, the average Canadian family earned $62,900 — far from what would constitute wealth in this country. But globally, that income would put you in the richest 1.5 per cent of the world.
Australian moral philosopher Peter Singer, one of the founders of the effective altruism movement, argues that if you spend money on things you don’t need — cars, luxury clothes, or vacations — you’re in a position to donate a sizable portion of your earnings to charities that aid people living in extreme poverty.
“If you’re going to live an ethical life, it’s not enough just to follow the ‘thou shalt not cheat, steal, maim, kill.’ But then, if we have enough, we have to share some of that with people who have so little,” Singer said in his 2013 viral TED Talk.
Prior to 2015, the year before he moved out of his apartment, Ulug had never consistently donated to charity. But after reading Singer’s book, The Life You Can Save, he became convinced it was the right thing to do.
“The thing that really got across to me from Singer’s book was that whether or not we help others and whether we do so effectively is a really high stakes decision,” Ulug says. “There are literally lives riding on the line.”
In The Life You Can Save, Singer presents readers with a thought experiment: On your way to work, you pass a shallow pond. You’re surprised to see a small child splashing in the pond. As you get closer, you notice the child is struggling to keep their head above water. If you don’t intervene, the child will likely drown. Wading in is safe, but you’ll ruin your new shoes and clothes and be late for work. What should you do?
Predictably, most people will save the child, Singer writes, because a pair of shoes does not hold the same importance as a child’s life. “Then, he says, you’re in a similar relationship to the global poor, as you were to that young child,” explains Anthony Skelton, a moral philosophy professor at Western University.
Ulug started out by giving a few hundred dollars to charities that give out bed nets to prevent the spread of malaria. Now he donates tens of thousands of dollars each year to organizations that try to prepare for catastrophic events like extreme famine. He also supports the movement by donating directly to effective altruism organizations.
As recently as 2008, there were no “effective altruism organizations.” The movement today is still in its infancy, brought to life by two graduate students at the University of Oxford: William MacAskill and Toby Ord. The two men took Singer’s philosophical theories about morality and ethics and ventured out of their ivory towers into the real world. MacAskill and Ord began researching the cost-effectiveness of charities that fight poverty in the developing world and discovered that some charities are 10 to 100 times more effective than others.
Both MacAskill and Ord pledged to live on only what they needed to survive (roughly $34,000 in MacAskill’s case and $30,500 for Ord) and donate the rest. That’s the origin story for Giving What We Can, the first organization the pair founded in 2009. It encourages people to donate at least 10 per cent of their income every year to effective charities for their entire working life.
Today, there’s a vast network of effective altruism nonprofits in the U.S., U.K., Australia, and Canada. MacAskill and Ord went on to found the Oxford-based Centre for Effective Altruism in 2011 which acts as a global hub for the growing movement. It’s estimated every year, effective altruists give about US$420 million to effective charities. The main Facebook page has more than 20,000 members, and there are countless community groups. Effective altruism, or EA as it’s known by supporters, attracts everyone from university students to billionaires to professional athletes.
In Canada, the main effective altruism-aligned organization, Vancouver-based RC Forward, has between 2,000 and 5,000 donors each year. In 2020, donors gave $2.7 million through RC Forward, which connects donors with high-impact charities. Baxter Bullock, the organization’s founder, started it in 2017 after quitting his job as a high school math teacher. Bullock’s childhood friend had posted an article about EA on Facebook and after reading it, he immediately became hooked.
As a high school teacher, Bullock had been heavily involved with community service programs, but he was never confident that what he was doing was having an impact. In effective altruism, he found answers. And while $2.7 million is a small fraction of the roughly $17 billion Canadians donate to charity every year, RC Forward filled a void for the effective altruism community. “We saw the niche there and saw the demand from Canadian donors and sort of went with it,” Bullock says.
But the movement isn’t just about donating money. Effective altruism asks you to reassess your values and the way you live your life. Not just how you spend money, but also your diet, the way you spend your time, and how you treat others. Some effective altruists have adopted a vegan diet, while others have switched their careers to have more money to give or more impact. In rare cases, they even donate a kidney.
For Tony Peluso, the decision to give away one of his organs wasn’t a difficult one. After reading Singer’s book, Peluso, 61, was sitting in his apartment in Ottawa thinking about all the ways he could possibly help people. “And I thought donating a kidney was kind of an easy one,” he says. “I thought, you know, ‘Oh yeah, I can do that.’”
Peluso started a kidney donor chain whereby his kidney would go to an unknown recipient, and then someone close to that person would give their kidney to someone else and so on, essentially paying it forward but with bodily organs. At the time Peluso was 58 and working at Statistics Canada. Effective altruism resonated with his background in math and economics, but also his values.
He weighed the risks (a three in 10,000 chance of dying on the operating table) and the benefits (two to six people living a happier, prolonged life) and decided the math worked out in his favour, so he went ahead with the transplant.
“I said, OK, they might be a Toronto Maple Leafs fan, but I’ll go through with it anyway,” Peluso jokes.
Peluso is now retired but continues to give any income he makes through occasional consulting gigs to effective charities. The scars on his abdomen serve as a reminder that at least a few people are living better lives because of him, but Peluso doesn’t think of it as a heroic act.
“It was something that I wanted to do, and I did it,” Peluso says very matter-of-factly. “You do things that are kind of consonant with how you identify yourself, right? So if you’re musical, you write a piece of music. So I did something that is consonant with how I think of myself.”
“If you really start onboarding notions of equality — and I mean the kind of simple, yet radical: what if everyone was actually equal? — you have to change your behaviour to help people,” says Darren McKee, a policy analyst living in Ottawa.
Effective altruism has reshaped his life. McKee, 42, donates 10 to 20 per cent of his income to the Against Malaria Foundation, left a career in academia for one in public policy, became the main community organizer for EA in Ottawa, and even hosts a podcast that promotes critical thinking and occasionally talks about effective altruism. Over the years, it’s even changed who he surrounds himself with.
“I’ve become more inclined to hang out with people with similar views,” he says. “If people think that there’s no room for discussion about whether a charity is effective, it’s harder to talk to them.”
He doesn’t buy luxury items because it seems “just wrong,” and he says he thinks a lot more about money than the average person.
In a way, McKee is a typical effective altruist: an analytical thinker with a big heart, drawn in by the movement’s rational bent and the certainty of positive outcomes. He started giving 10 years ago when he was in his early thirties. The movement is mostly made up millennials and a growing number of Gen Zers, with the median age of supporters today sitting at 27. That doesn’t surprise Kate Bahen, the managing director of Charity Intelligence Canada (Ci), which researches and rates Canadian charities based on how impactful and transparent they are.
On any given day, Bahen spends hours on the phone answering Canadians’ questions about where their dollars would be best spent. Younger generations are especially hungry for evidence that their donations are doing good, she says, and it’s disrupting the charity sector.
When deciding what charity to donate to, Daniel Mullins simply Googled “most effective charities.” Mullins, 29, is an indie game developer living in Vancouver. He had just sold his first game and had more money than he knew what to do with, so he figured he’d give some of it away to a worthy cause. His Google search led him down an effective altruism rabbit hole.
“It was a big decision,” Mullins says. “I wanted to do a lot of research about it and make sure I was able to feel confident that I had tried my best to get the best answer.”
After doing some digging, he decided to donate to the Against Malaria Foundation, GiveWell’s top recommended charity at the time. Today, six years later, Mullins continues to donate to the Foundation, only now, he’s added other charities into the mix, such as The Humane League, which advocates against factory farming. He donates 15 to 20 per cent of his income, depending on his earnings that year.
Mullins also became a vegetarian after being exposed to the ideas of effective altruism. While addressing global poverty and preventable deaths is still the movement’s prime concern, many effective altruists care deeply about animal welfare. It’s maybe not surprising given that Singer, whose ideas gave birth to the EA movement, also wrote the foundational text for the animal rights movement, Animal Liberation, in 1975.
Singer, who still teaches at Princeton University today, is a controversial figure in some circles. He has advocated for parents to have the right to end the lives of newborns with severe disabilities, a view that draws regular criticism from disability rights advocates. But among effective altruists, he’s revered.
The movement is not without its own critics. Some people are turned off by effective altruism’s purely rational approach to giving, which asks people to set aside their emotional connections to the causes they are giving to and instead give to charities that have proven track records.
Others criticize the movement’s focus on improving individual lives, arguing that it ignores the broader structural problems that produce the conditions charities are responding to. The obsession with measuring outcomes can also result in social justice causes or public policy advocacy being left out simply because their impact is much more difficult to measure.
“A fundamental concern is that we’ll go from thinking we can do a lot of good by donating to high impact charities, to thinking that donating to charity is the way to do good,” says Devin Penner, a political science professor at Trent University who also researches philanthropy in Canada.
“Doing good through private donations shouldn’t take the place of having strong social policy.”
Singer refutes this criticism, saying there’s nothing in effective altruism that says you can’t advocate for big systemic changes. “It’s just that when people stand up and say, ‘Well, what we need is to overthrow the capitalist system.’ And you say great, but how are you going to do that? And they don’t have a clue. … Then effective altruists say, ‘Well, you know, I’d rather help specific individuals, where I know that I can make a difference.’”
There’s actually a method for how effective altruists decide where to focus their efforts. It’s called the ITN framework, which stands for importance, tractability, and neglectedness. “They want to know, is there a neglected issue where they can produce a lot of good? And one where we think if we do take concrete steps, we can really change it,” says Skelton, the moral philosophy professor.
A new focus has gained popularity among some EA members in recent years: longtermism, which, simply put, means improving humanity’s long-term prospects at survival. At its core is the reasoning that future lives are just as valuable as lives on earth today, so we ought to try to help them too. It’s put climate change on the movement’s radar, but also topics such as artificial intelligence, the nuclear threat, and biosecurity.
It’s a polarizing development that’s causing a rift in the movement. “On the one side, you have ‘heart people’ who are interested in animals and the global poor. And then you have the ‘head people.’ They’re interested in AI, and nuclear war,” says Keven Bisson, an effective altruist living in Montreal. “AI people don’t talk to global poverty people.”
Bisson, 35, is doing his PhD at McGill University on effective altruism and longtermism. After learning about EA two years ago, he left his job as a social worker in Quebec City with aspirations to eventually work with MacAskill at the Global Priorities Institute at Oxford University. Though, he’s more of a “heart person.” He runs a non-profit that covers the transfer fees for new immigrants sending money back home and puts about 50 per cent of his earnings into it.
Singer also worries the movement’s new focus on the long-term future is distracting people from the suffering happening today. While he agrees “we should be trying to prevent the risk that our species becomes extinct,” he doesn’t want it to dominate the movement.
“I think that people here and now are tremendously important, and we can be much more confident that we’re making the right kind of difference with proven methods of reducing their suffering,” Singer told Global News in an interview.
But for Rishika Bose, the threat of artificial intelligence is very real for her generation. Bose is a third-year university student at the University of British Columbia where she studies cognitive systems. After completing her degree, she hopes to pursue a career in artificial intelligence risk.
“We already have software and algorithms that are really intelligent — intelligent enough to recognize things, write poetry, and create paintings,” she says.
“Twenty years ago, no one would have thought that was possible. If computers continue increasing their intelligence at the rate that they have, it’s very possible that they might reach, and possibly surpass, human-level intelligence within our lifetimes.”
Bose initially thought she might study physics because it’s a subject she enjoyed in school, but then she discovered the website 80,000 Hours (a name that refers to the number of hours you typically work in your life). It encourages students to choose high-impact careers, rather than following their passion.
MacAskill and another Oxford friend Benjamin Todd founded the charity in 2011. The site turned heads when it advocated for students to pursue high-paying finance jobs in order to earn a lot of money they could then donate. Today, the organization has shifted away from that thinking, and recommends young people who work in ethical fields are underserved.
When Bose read that AI safety is one of those fields, she was thrilled. At 15 years old, she had already been cultivating an interest in artificial intelligence, but she also wanted to make a difference in the world.
“I’ve always been brought up to try to help people and to prioritize trying to make the world a better place, at least in a small way,” she says.
“So when I found out about EA, … it just seemed to make so much sense.” Bose and a few friends are now launching an effective altruism club at UBC, and she’s already seen a lot of interest.
“We’re always told about all the problems in the world. We’re bombarded with news about it every day as teenagers through social media. This just feels like a way we can really take the problems head on and feel like we’re actually doing something,” she says.
Even now Ulug, the software developer, says sometimes when he looks back at his donation receipts, he’s surprised by how much money he’s given away. When I ask if he thinks he’ll ever stop giving, he says he doesn’t feel like he could even if he wanted to.
“It’s a big source of meaning for me now,” he says.
In a sense, effective altruism seems at odds with our culture today, which is more interested in the pursuit of individual happiness and success than in the search for meaning. The movement is, perhaps, a reaction to that; a way for each and every one of us to make the world a better place, one life at a time.
To read more about Peter Singer and The Life You Can Save, visit this site. To learn more about the movement, visit the Centre for Effective Altruism’s site. To give to high-impact charities in Canada, visit Charity Intelligence Canada’s site. To give to global high-impact cause areas visit RC Forward’s site.