by Jonathan Leighton

Achieving concrete impact is an essential aspect of ethics and the goal of any organization aiming to help others. And it makes intuitive and rational sense that, for any given amount of time, money and effort available, we should try to have as much impact as possible. Although our specific goals might differ, what we ultimately care about is improving wellbeing and, more fundamentally, reducing suffering.

With the increased emphasis in recent years on metrics, there is pressure on NGOs to demonstrate tangible impact in order to ensure continued funding from informed donors. The growing effective altruism (EA) movement that has captured the interest of many young, intelligent activists, spurred on by the efforts of renowned ethics philosopher Peter Singer, has further emphasized the principle of metrics in an effort to identify the best giving opportunities. GiveWell, founded by a pair of former Wall Street investors, carries out systematic and rigorous evaluations of many NGOs to identify those that have the strongest evidence of effectiveness. When this approach is applied to saving lives, it specifically considers anything under $5,000 donated per life saved to be excellent cost-effectiveness, and anything over $50,000 to be excessive in comparison. Its top recommendations, which include the Against Malaria Foundation and the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, are also adopted by other EA organizations such as Giving What We Can. Animal Charity Evaluators similarly uses methodical evaluations to identify the most effective organizations sparing animals from intense suffering in factory farms.

How should the EA movement be viewed by the average NGO? Do the valuable efforts of countless NGOs working in many different areas risk being downplayed in yet another competition where winner takes all? What lessons can be learned? I’d like to offer a few reflections here.

The EA movement can be understood as a means to generate and channel new funds in ways where they can have the best marginal impact. As long as children are suffering and dying from malaria or parasitic worms that can be prevented or treated at relatively low cost, these are arguably some of the best places to direct new donations. This is simply a question of immediate prioritization in a global system of artificial scarcity, where only a fraction of the world’s wealth is currently used to meet the most urgent needs.

Although most NGOs cannot expect to compete for the very top EA recommendations, they can still follow the EA approach and adopt some of the practices of the top-rated organizations, including decision-making tied more closely to calculated impact, a high degree of transparency and a willingness to be self-critical. They may sometimes find it justified to shift the focus of some of their activities to improve expected impact. The EA movement emphasizes that administrative costs and overhead as a percentage of budget are not necessarily relevant in determining overall effectiveness, although excessive management salaries obviously raise questions of credibility.

If metrics become more precise and their use expands, the efforts of effective NGOs will pay off as they stand out in the rankings and more funds are channelled towards them. And if some NGOs are shown to be highly ineffective compared to others doing similar work, this is hardly a bad thing.

Of course, not all potentially useful interventions have immediate demonstrable impact, as GiveWell itself acknowledges. For example, some interventions may be aimed at a higher level, such as changing government policies or social attitudes through advocacy; the measurable impact may be longer-term; the interventions may be innovative but risky and still at an experimental stage; or it may simply be very difficult to obtain the data needed to draw solid conclusions about impact. In these cases, the quality and openness of the team must play an even greater role in attracting funding. The evaluation criteria and approach used by Top 500 NGOs provide an enlarged perspective in identifying effective, transparent NGOs that are using innovation to improve lives and, more broadly, helping to maintain compassionate infrastructures in the world.

Our aspiration should not be to reduce funding to just a handful of effective organizations, but rather, to promote a shift in the global system towards prioritizing the reduction of suffering, where large sums of money are not wasted while altruistic organizations are squeezed to compete for limited resources. The EA movement can be seen in this light as a wakeup call to use our global resources in a more compassionate way. NGOs should embrace this philosophy and cooperate more closely with one another in the pursuit of political and economic change that aligns our decision-making structures and use of resources with the things that really matter.

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Jonathan Leighton, PhD, is a writer, speaker and changemaker. His book The Battle for Compassion: Ethics in an Apathetic Universe (New York: Algora Publishing, 2011) provides a sweeping perspective on ethics, what matters and our future as a species. He recently produced a short film based on this book. Jonathan is on the Advisory Board of the Giordano Bruno Foundation Switzerland and is a regular speaker on ethics. He is currently working on strategies to help design more compassionate systems for our planet. More information at www.jonathanleighton.org