Effective altruism: the movement that helps people give away their salary

Is there an ethical obligation for us to give away extra money if we have less than we need? In the ‘effective altruism’ movement, people donate a portion of their income, using data to guide their choices

Seren Kell made a surprising commitment in 2017 that surprised her family. The main picture shows Seren Kell, a science and technology manager, pledging to give 10% of her income to charities for her entire career. 

Kell did so via Giving What We Can(GWWC), an organization that assists people to make the best possible impact on charity donations. Individuals are encouraged to give away at most 10% of their income. 

Doing so “can have so much impact,” says Kell, who learned about GWWC and so-called ‘effective altruism’ (EA) – doing the most good that you can – at the University of Oxford. While still a student at Oxford, she made a similar pledge to donate 1% of her disposable income to charity. The habit has remained. “It’s something every relatively well-off person should be doing,” Kell believes. 

GWWC recommends that charities have been rigorously vetted and deemed to have the greatest impact in improving human and animal welfare.

Kell, who now lives in London and works for the Good Food Institute Europe, sends about two-thirds of her donation to organisations that tackle animal welfare and global poverty, and the rest to bodies that help to prevent global catastrophic risks. This is done through the EA Funds platform on the Centre for Effective Altruism, a UK-based and US-based charity that aims simplifying the process for donors. 

“I want to make sure a lot of my money is helping people who are suffering right now,” says Kell. “In parts of the global south, people still can’t get basic things; some are suffering from malaria. The money is going to organisations who can effectively help with that.” 

Effective altruism

Charities that address poverty are among the beneficiaries of the altruism movement. Ron Hansen

Toby Ord, an Oxford philosopher, co-founded GWWC in 2009. Toby Ord, an Oxford philosopher, was inspired by moral philosopher Peter Singer to donate a portion of his income to charitable causes. Singer distinguishes this kind of donating from “warm glow” givers, people who give based on instinct or emotion, without doing much research into whether their gift is likely to be effective. 

The organisation estimates that there are around 3,500 people who give regularly through its platform and says its membership is diverse: “from students to retirees and tradespeople to investment bankers”, notes a spokesperson. There is a skew towards middle to high incomes, younger people – its median member is roughly 30 years old – and higher education levels. 

GWWC reports that more than 600 people have signed a pledge since 2022’s start. 7,000 people worldwide have also pledged to give at minimum 10% over their lifetimes. 

I want to make sure that a lot of my money goes towards helping people in need right now.

Last year, Rishub Jain, a research engineer, committed to giving away five per cent of his salary, and his employer has matched that. DeepMind, an artificial intelligence company, introduced him to GWWC. “When I was introduced to the idea, I knew I would feel guilty for not doing it,” says Jain, who also lives in London. 

“I realised I was super-privileged and able to spend money on lots of nice things. That guilt is relieved when you spend a minimum amount. I felt I had a moral responsibility to do it.” 

Last year, Jain donated to EA’s Animal Welfare Fund: “It alleviates some of the guilt I have about my own consumption [of animal products]”. 

Effective altruism

Some donors place animal welfare as one of their top priorities. Image: Zoe Schaeffer

Arvind Raghavan, who is living in New York while he completes a graduate student master’s programme at Columbia University, says he “stumbled across” GWWC when he was researching more rigorous and effective ways to give to charity. “I wanted to find a sustainable rather than ad-hoc way of giving,” he says. 

Raghavan promised to give away 10% of his income in 2017 “I wanted to help with the humanitarian effort, as that was what resonated most, and evidence of the high impact of malaria prevention spoke to me. A net with insecticide treatment costs about $2, for example. [£1.48]It can be used to provide a family with malaria prevention during peak season. It’s one of the most cost- effective ways to reduce incidents of malaria.”

Raghavan, who gives currently away one per cent of his disposable income for 15 months while he’s studying, says the commitment applies one of the key principles of Buddhism.

“Buddhism teaches that mindfulness is only helpful in the end if we relate it to our ethical obligation to reduce the suffering of beings everywhere,” he says. “Giving regularly is a simple but powerful way to live the life of meaning that Zen Buddhism embodies.” 

Raghavan believes that it’s vastly more impactful to give away a portion of his salary to people who need it, rather than spending it on himself. “Once you see that, it makes no sense not to do it,” he says.

Main image: Helena Dolby