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I love bandwagons. It appears the objective of making a difference in the world is not just well, making a difference in someone’s life, now it’s about making the greatest difference.

That’s right. Pah to those one-on-one coaching sessions with a kid trying to learn a sport or mentoring an impoverished wheelchair user trying to find a job, or sponsoring the school fees of an ethnic minority girl. Fi to all those afternoons you’ve spent helping the desperately sick or lonely in a hospital or your monthly debit to an environmental group. You’re not making a difference — not an iota — because it’s not the greatest difference. It’s just a little difference.


Likely you haven’t asked what the expected utility gained is, per dollar spent, multiplied by the probability that something will be achieved. You’ve clearly not included human or time resources, let alone weighed factors like tractability, scale and x-risk . Uhm, you’re just not an effective altruist.


Making an Impact


William MacAskill, a philosophy lecturer at Oxford, and author of Doing Good Better: Effective Altruism and a Radical New Way to Make a Difference, says we need empirical research — and lots of it — in order to know where to plunk down our charitable donation (or time) in order to make a real impact. Otherwise it’s just wasted effort and money.


MacAskill is no slouch in the philanthropy sector. He founded two nonprofits — 80,000 Hours and Giving What We Can — and has publicly pledged to give away most of his income over his lifetime. Our philosopher has an economist’s heart by advocating for marginal value, utilitarianism and (er, some) ‘systemic change’ by supporting policy reform for international trade and immigration.


This makes MacAskill a rising star in the charity sector as he says (borrowing a 40-year-old argument) that we have an ethical obligation to ensure that our donations are used in the most effective way possible. Donate to your kid’s drama class or buy malaria nets? Well, MacAskill wants to know where the impact is. How many people did you actually save? But solely number-crunching prerequisites along the lines of bang-for-your-buck development fail to link things like social relations, the undemocratic nature inherent in giving and political access to the resources being handed out.


Without MacAskill’s measured criticism of capitalism and global inequality, what fails to be acknowledged are the structural oppressions of poverty, gender inequality, environmental degradation and corruption, and the institutions that prefer to keep it that way. We are merely maintaining capital’s status quo.


Micro vs. Macro


I agree you have to do your non-profit homework beforehand, but I don’t think complex mathematical formulas are always required for helping people and yes, making a difference.


This column could be considered a few things, but maudlin it’s not. However, I like a good parable as much as the next person. I’ll paraphrase: A girl walks along a beach picking up sand-stranded starfish and throwing them back into the tide. An old woman approaches and asks, “Do you really think you’re making any difference?” The girl picks up yet another starfish and as she throws it back into the sea says, “Well, it makes a difference to this one!”


And my money’s on that kid growing up and eventually determining — and possibly preventing — the systemic reasons why the starfish were all washing up on the beach in the first place.



 is the CEO of KOTO, a non-profit social enterprise and vocational training programme for at-risk youth

Dana McNairn

For the last ten years Dana McNairn has worked for NGOs on the frontline of human rights and gender-based violence, as well as INGOs such as the Canadian Red Cross and Habitat for Humanity. She is the CEO of KOTO, an award-winning nonprofit social enterprise and vocational training programme for at-risk and disadvantaged youth in Vietnam.

Website: danamcnairn.com

1 comment

  • Comment Link Boris Boris Jan 11, 2016

    Thank you for sharing your perspective, though I am puzzled at the conclusion. No one is denying that you can make a difference in people's lives though ineffective means. The claim Effective Altruism makes is that it's better to do more good then less, when you have the option. Without sharing specific numbers, you deny your readers the stark picture: $0.50 given to a cost-effective charity cures a child of painful and often-debilitating parasitic worms for at least a year. $5 donation to an ineffective charity barely provides a single meal to a homeless person. So you can feed a homeless guy for 1 meal, or cure 10 children of a painful disease. The choice seems clear to me.

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