We all want to contribute to causes we care about, but it can be difficult to know whether or not we're actually making a difference.

That concern is what a movement called Effective Altruism attempts to alleviate, by encouraging people to donate their resources in ways that will make the most impact.

“Effective Altruism is a social and intellectual movement that is trying to figure out how you can do the most good in the world given your limited time and resources,” Mark Toubman (C ’17) explained. “You may have the urge to help improve something, but you want to make sure it’s backed up with rigorous proof.”

Mark is the president of Giving What We Can, a student organization whose goal is "to build a Penn community committed to reducing poverty in the most effective ways," according to its Facebook page.

Penn Effective Altruism President Chris Painter (W, E ’18) emphasized the importance of “theory of action” versus “theory of change” in the process of deciding to donate to an organization.

A theory of action, Chris explained, involves taking action to demonstrate interest in solving a problem. A theory of change, on the other hand, means taking action based on what is likely to actually cause change.

Both Mark and Chris emphasized the concept of “neglectedness” in evaluating charity organizations

“You want your marginal dollar to go somewhere it can have an outsized impact,” Mark elaborated. “These organizations get huge fluxes of cash, and they aren’t always able to use that money effectively. Sometimes it spawns ineffective allocation of resources.”

That being said, it’s common for people to donate to charities that are more—as Mark described it—“sexy,” meaning they benefit issues with more media coverage or that hit closer to home. Mark was introduced to Effective Altruism under a “cause–neutral” perspective—to him, it’s more important to donate to charities that make the most difference, instead of the causes that he feels personally connected to.

“Effective Altruists maintain that it’s great to feel compelled to donate and be altruistic, but you should be attuned to effectiveness and impact and measurement,” he explained. “Otherwise, you’re allowing yourself to be misguided to…inefficient and wasteful things.”

Wharton Professor Deborah Small, who has conducted research on Effective Altruism, acknowledged these issues. Specifically, Small has studied what she calls the “Identifiable Victim Effect.” The Effective Altruism movement aims to provide accurate information and statistics to guide people’s donating decisions so that they can make the most impact, but according to Small’s research, numbers are not the most effective tool to persuade people to donate.

“If you want somebody to care about a cause…it’s way more effective present to them an identifiable victim, a specific individual,” she explained. “That’s way more effective than providing a lot of information in the form of statistics or quantitative information.”

The charities that experience the most success are the ones that “tug at people’s heartstrings,” according to Small.

“People think of charity as a matter of taste. Therefore, they will choose a charity that clearly is less effective because it’s something that they personally care about,” she added.

This is why international charities sometimes experience difficulty, explained Small— but these charities often have the most potential to be impactful.

“Because we live in a developed world country, we’re in a very unique position to help people in the developing world…by picking effective charities,” Mark explained.

Mark and Chris both also acknowledged that college students may feel as if it is difficult to make an impact with limited financial resources.

“The best thing you can do is use your time right now,” Mark said.

He also mentioned an organization started by Wharton MBAs called One For the World, which “asks students and alumni to donate 1% of their income to fight extreme poverty,” according to the organization’s Facebook page.

Chris, on the other hand, believes that students can consider their career choice as a way of positively impacting the world, encouraging students to ask themselves how they can make a difference depending on what career they choose. For example, students can use a high–income career as an opportunity to donate more money to impactive causes. 

So given such a complex issue, just which organizations can people donate to in order to ensure they're making a difference? Mark and Chris provided the names of charities they consider to be highly effective.  If you've never been quite sure where to start, take a look through the below and get inspired.


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