Effective Altruism and Jewish Philanthropy

effective altruismBy Simone Friedman

In her “Philanthropy and the Social Economy: Blueprint 2016,” Lucy Bernholz lists Effective Altruism as a “buzz-topic” for 2016. Effective Altruism (EA), which is distinct from the more general concept of effective philanthropy, is the idea that one should use one’s charitable dollars to do the most good possible. While some in the Jewish communal world may see this interest as incompatible with traditional Jewish philanthropy, I see a lot of synergies and opportunities for the Jewish world to learn from – and harness the power of – the EA movement.

What is Effective Altruism?

Based on the utilitarian philosophy of Peter Singer and others, EA is a way of doing philanthropy in which one focuses on reducing the most suffering in the world, or said another way, saving the most lives. As a result, Effective Altruists place value judgments on different types of charitable endeavors. Donating $10,000 to a university endowment that already has millions or billions of dollars, for example, would be considered less “good” than donating $10,000 to an organization (such as Against Malaria) for insecticide-treated bednets, which an analysis by the research firm GiveWell has shown would save the lives of 3.5 children, at an estimated cost-per-life saved of $2,838. Effective Altruists also place a large emphasis on impact and transparency, so if there are two organizations that are both providing bednets to prevent malaria deaths, for example, Effective Altruists would argue that donations should be routed to the nonprofit organization that can demonstrate the clearest path to impact, starting from when money is donated and ending where impact is achieved.

Why the Jewish Communal World Should Not Ignore Effective Altruism

It is not a stretch to argue that giving to Jewish causes that help preserve Jewish identity, religion and culture would at first glance rank fairly low on the EA scale, and one would think that adherents of EA would not be interested in donating to Jewish causes. However, it would be a huge mistake for the Jewish communal world to ignore the growing interest in this movement, for several reasons:

  • EA can objectively be viewed as a Jewish idea, in the sense that it is the ultimate way to express the Jewish values of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world), Pikuach Nefesh (saving a human life), and Tzaar Baalei Chayyim (preventing unnecessary suffering of animals). The latter is applicable because many Effective Altruists look at the total amount of suffering in the world and want to reduce this total as much as possible, and they view helping the millions of animals who are confined in small crates and feedlots on factory farms as a cost effective way to do this.
  • The EA movement overall appeals to younger donors who view their charitable donations as investments (with the expectation of receiving a “return” in exchange for their donation in the form of a social good accomplished). This “investment” approach is different from the approach taken by some traditional, older donors who donate to charity because of feeling obligated to their peers or to their community, without concern for what outcomes are achieved with the money they donate. The outcomes these traditional donors are seeking are achieved in the act of giving itself. As a result, many Jewish organizations with older donor bases have been able to get away with a fundraising approach I would characterize as “give us money, don’t ask too many questions about where the money is going or what impact the money is having, and then 12 months later give us more money.” However, this traditional approach will not continue to work forever, and the more that Jewish organizations can show that the funds donated to them are yielding a return on investment, the more likely that they will be able to sustain themselves when older donors stop giving. EA offers a strategy for demonstrating exactly this kind of ROI.
  • The EA movement has captured the imagination of entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area, and counts as its adherents many young tech leaders with fortunes measuring in the billions, many of whom have Jewish heritage.

How Effective Altruism Can Transform Jewish Philanthropy

So if EA is a Jewish idea, how could it transform the world of Jewish philanthropy? I propose the following:

  1. Jewish communal institutions such as Federations could set up giving circles based on Effective Altruist principles, thereby increasing ties to the institutional Jewish community among a new group of philanthropists. This might be particularly worthwhile in regions of the country where EA already has a big following.
  2. Rabbis and other educators could use EA as a teaching tool to engage in larger discussions about ethics and values, thereby increasing engagement with Judaic texts and tradition.
  3. Jewish organizations that are promoting and teaching Effective Altruism could build a fundraising case, which could be presented to people interested in EA, for supporting these same EA promotion and education efforts. This would create a feedback loop in which EA in a Jewish context becomes a self-reinforcing means for encouraging and inspiring the involvement of new donors to the community.

Effective Altruism is an important trend that has the potential to inspire a new generation of Jewish philanthropists. The Jewish communal organizations who are the first to jump on the EA bandwagon have the potential for the greatest rewards.

Simone Friedman is Head of Philanthropy for Emanuel J Friedman (EJF) Philanthropies, which is the umbrella for the charitable giving of her family. EJF Philanthropies is based in Washington, D.C. The views expressed in this article are her own.