Book 380: Doing Good Better – William MacAskill

MacAskill, William - Doing Good BetterI’m torn on this one and not for any obvious reasons. I think MacAskill does an excellent job laying out the foundations of “effective altruism” and I think this is something fundraisers and nonprofits need to be aware of for the future. However, I feel like there wasn’t enough to convince me 100% that this is the best way to move forward, probably because I had questions about MacAskill’s own nonprofits and experience.

Let’s start with the good. MacAskill has created a solid evidence-based way of helping alleviate some of the world’s biggest problems. Learning what a Quality-Adjusted Life Year (QALY, pronounced kwalee) challenged my perception of how to rate a nonprofit, but more importantly raised questions about whether things should be comparable when you’re talking about life-saving research. The answer is yes, with a bunch of caveats.

The major caveat of the entire work is highlighted right in the middle,

“Though effective altruism aims to take a scientific approach to doing good, it’s not exactly physics: there is plenty of room for difference of opinion. This doesn’t, however, make thinking rigorously about which cause one chooses to focus on any less important.” (180)

And this may address my concerns about the book completely, as in I’m too much of an idealist versus practical when it comes to “doing good,” but I’m still waiting for the final pieces to fall into place.

MacAskill’s premise focuses on five questions and the book delves into each. He is an excellent writer and often times immediately answers objections you raise in your head, but not all of them. His focus is on making the most bang for your buck. The five questions,

  1. What does the charity do?
  2. How cost-effective is each program area?
  3. How robust is the evidence behind each program?
  4. How well is each program implemented?
  5. Does the charity need additional funds?

Get you to whether or not where you’re looking to donate, volunteer or work is the best place for you to invest your money, time or career. Overwhelmingly, solving the issue of global poverty seems to be the focus and MacAskill’s research and explanation showed this to me in a way I’ve never actually paid attention to before. He also put some of my own thoughts into better stated phrases than I ever could.

“Our response to natural disasters is one of the clearest cases of how, when it comes to charity, most people follow their gut and respond to new events rather than ongoing problems. When a disaster strikes, the emotional centers of our brain flair up: we think—emergency! We forget there is an emergency happening all the time, because we’ve grown accustomed to everyday emergencies like disease and poverty and oppression. Because disasters are new and dramatic events, they inspire deeper and more urgent emotions, causing our subconscious to mistakenly assess them as more important of worthy of attention.” (60)

It may sound heartless to say, don’t give your money to this disaster relief operation, but when there are bigger problems out there it only makes sense! And MacAskill really demonstrates the bigger issues facing the the extreme poor.

I appreciated that MacAskill mentioned US based Charity Navigator, a nonprofit rating nonprofit and it’s various shortcomings, and how it has attempted to create standards, but that they’re really mostly subjective standards and doesn’t exactly add up to a comparable organization Give Well, which I discuss in my issues below.

And to finish here are my hang ups. These may all just be because I’m too lazy to do more research or that I’ve worked in various nonprofits I feel do excellent work, but they stood out to me more-and-more as I moved through the book.

I started to have trouble with the book because of his writing, not the style or grammar or anything. Perhaps this is my own personal bias, but it just felt a bit “holier than though” on a few occasions specifically when he wrote about the nonprofits he founded, his worldly experiences and his time at Oxford and Cambridge.

Out of all of these it was the three nonprofits he founded or is heavily involved in that raised the most concern: 80,000 HoursGiving What We Can and The Center for Effective Altruism. All three organizations appear to do great work and are incredibly transparent about what they do, how they do it and who they do it for. However, they seem to feed and refer back to each other in a cyclical cycle at first glance. Add in that I found it incredibly interesting that Giving What We Can did not make an appearance on Give Well as either a considered charity OR a top charity and I was like whoa wait a minute.

Give Well is yet another nonprofit organization which looks at evidenced-backed, thoroughly vetted and underfunded charities and says which are the most effective. MacAskill relies heavily upon Give Well for much of his data. Perhaps this is my misunderstanding of the Give Well criteria, and perhaps Giving What We Can is incredibly well funded so didn’t appear on the lists but it just stood out to me as odd it wasn’t even considered. I did a bit of digging and honestly it was too convoluted to even try and figure out. Giving What We Can is one of the primary donation sites of GiveWell to get to the top funded charities, but honestly it wasn’t worth digging too much into at this point. I just found the heavily circular references too convoluted and lost interest.

One thing MacAskill only alluded to, and perhaps this is solely a US problem, is the sheer number of nonprofits. I would have loved for him to go into a more depth about this and it’s affect on many of these issues, but this would’ve taken away from the impetus the book has. The point of a nonprofit is to help solve a problem and then disband. An excellent example of this is Freedom to Marry (NYT Link), which once the US achieved marriage equality announced it would cease it’s work. How are his two nonprofits not solely adding to the industrial machine that is the nonprofit world? I don’t know and I don’t have an answer. Would it not have made more sense for 80,000 hours to have been a corporation? Again I don’t know and that may be discussed on the websites, but I didn’t delve that deep into them.

Gotham Books, generously provided a copy of Doing Good Better in return for my honest opinion and I received no compensation for it.

Recommendation: Even with all the hang ups I have, I would recommend this book. I don’t think MacAskill will have as big an effect as he could until his writing becomes a bit more relaxed and less academic. Overall, I found the book incredibly enlightening, well researched and well written. I can really appreciate the thought process put behind the effective altruism movement and will keep an eye on it to see where it goes.

Opening Line: “Until 1989, Trevor Field was a typical middle-aged South African man who had lived a fairly normal life.”

Closing Line: “Each of us has the potential to have an enormous positive impact. I hope this book has both inspired you to do so and given you the tools you need to get there.” (Not whited out as this is a book of nonfiction.)

Additional Quotes from Doing Good Better
“Most people want to make a difference in their lives and, if you’re reading this book, you’re probably no exception. As Trevor Field’s story illustrates, however, good intentions can all too easily lead to bad outcomes. The challenge for us is this: How can we ensure that, when we try to help others, we do so effectively as possible? How can we ensure that we avoid accidentally causing harm, and succeed in having the greatest positive impact we can?” (5)

“We very often fail to think as carefully about helping others as we could, mistakenly believing that applying data and rationality to a charitable endeavor robs the act of virtue. And that means we pass up opportunities to make a tremendous difference.” (10)

“Rather than just saving one life, we could save a life every working year of our lives. Donating to charity is not nearly as glamorous as kicking down the door of a burning building, but the benefits are just as great. Through the simple act of donating to the most effective charities, we have the power to save dozens of lives. That’s pretty amazing” (54)

“We don’t usually think of achievements in terms of what would have happened otherwise, but we should. What matters is not who does good but whether good is done; and the measure of how much good you achieve is the difference between what happens as a result of your actions and what would have happened anyway.” (69-70)

“We should certainly feel outrage and horror at the conditions sweatshop laborers toil under. The correct response, however, is not to give up sweatshop-produced goods in favor of domestically produced goods. The correct response is to try to end the extreme poverty that makes sweatshops desirable places to work in the first place.” (132)

“We’ve seen that, in general, changing your consumption habits is not a very effective way to make a difference compared to the alternatives (though, we’ve also seen how the law of expected value demonstrates that it’s a good idea t change your behavior in certain cases). Whether our concern is the global poor, climate change, or animal welfare, we’ve seen that the decision about how much and where to donate is much greater, in terms of impact, than the decisions about what products to buy.” (143-2)

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5 thoughts on “Book 380: Doing Good Better – William MacAskill

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