Effective Altruism at TEDxDenisonU

Recently, my university had a TEDx event, and I was one of the people that got to give a talk:

My goal of the talk was to present the idea that effectiveness in charity choice matters, with particular care to highlight the research of GiveWell and the work of The Schistosomiasis Control Initiative.

Here are my notes on how the talk went:

What Went Well

This video represents my current best guess on how to pitch effective altruism to a general audience. I spent a lot of time thinking about how to go about it.

  • I made it short. Just seven minutes.

  • I never mentioned the words “effective altruism”. I think using and explaining the term tends to confuse more than inspire.

  • I mentioned only one topic (charity choice in giving), with one EA org (GiveWell), one example (SCI), and one call to action (look at GiveWell’s research). This keeps it as simple as possible.

  • I orginally thought of mentioning more things (like Giving What We Can’s pledge), but chose not to, as this would make things more confusing.

  • I tried to humanize the idea as much as possible. I attempted to make my dilemma of charity choice relatable to the typical donor.

  • I specifically acknowledged that people give for non-EA reasons, and tried to frame my approach as a source of excitement, not a moral obligation.

  • I mentioned “two quarters” in addition to “fifty cents” to employ the “disrupt and reframe” persuasion technique.

  • The talk was a really fun opportunity. I broadened my horizons and met some cool people.

What Could Have Gone Better

  • The technical recording of the video isn’t that great. There’s a weird black screen for the first couple of seconds, and the video lingers on my slides a little bit more than they should.

  • Despite rehersing for a really long time, I still felt nervous when presenting and messed up a tiny bit in two sections. Overall, I think the performance was good given that I’m not the best at public speaking.

  • The title of the talk could have used some more thought to make it punchier, so that people would be more willing to click on it when they see it on social media.

  • It probably would have been better to use images of Africans in my slides, but I did not have such pictures readily available and I was nervous about TEDx’s feelings of copyright.

  • The talk probably could have been even shorter.

  • I used the statistic that connects SCI with “fifty cents” and the Fred Hollows Foundation with “$40”. I know both these statistics are potentially misleading. I understand that SCI does not save a life for fifty cents – their cost per treatment is actually now about $1 and cost per life saved higher than that. I did choose SCI knowing full well that it would “sound better” than other high impact orgs, specifically because of the “fifty cents” statistic. I couldn’t go down the “actually, things are more expensive than you expect, but still a good route” deal in a short tal but, in retrospect, it would have been more honest to stick to $1.

Impact

  • The talk was given to an audience of about 200. Since being posted online – and before I promoted it online – it’s received an additional 50 views.

  • Overall, my talk seems to have been very positively received. I did not receive any negative comments or feel like anyone was distant from my talk, despite talking along side other non-profits that my message could have been seen as harmful towards.

  • Several people (as in ~6) specifically mentioned something positive to me, like saying that I had a really important message. Another small handful (as in ~3) mentioned to me that they were definitely planning on checking out GiveWell.

Transcript

[Slide 1: Blank]

One day, I was walking with my friends. It was cold out, so I was wearing my winter jacket. As I was walking, I was fidgeting and checking my pockets. And then came my surprise – in one of my pockets, I found a twenty dollar bill that I never knew I had.

I showed it to my friends and we thought about what to do with it. Maybe we should go out to lunch? We weren’t sure. Then one of my friends mentioned that, since I never knew I had the twenty, I never would miss it. I should donate it to whoever needs it most.

I thought this was an excellent idea. I wanted to donate my twenty to whoever needed it most. But who was that? I’ve heard of many different non-profit organizations and lots of different people in need. Who needed my twenty dollar bill the most?

I thought this was a strange notion – how am I supposed to compare charities? Many people around me donate to “charity” …in general. They never would specify which charity or why. Giving was a personal choice.


My friends all had different ideas – the local food bank, other non-profits, even our own university. We definitely have no shortage of charities competing for us. We’re all bombarded by charity advertisements in our mailboxes and our emails. Our universities have all asked us to make a Senior Gift. We’ve all changed the channel when that sad commercial with the puppies comes around – you know which one I’m talking about.


I don’t have much money as a college student, so I want to make my money count. I want my $20 to go far. Where can my money get the most impact?

My story started when I heard that giving should start at home. I thought that was smart. The needs here are important and I know organizations are helping. But then I saw just how much further my money goes when spent in the developing world.

[Slide 2: Choice]

For example, imagine I gave you this choice:

Option A: Spend $40K and restore the eyesight of one blind person. Option B: Spend $40K and restore the eyesight of one thousand blind people.

Hopefully the choice is obvious – we’d all go for Option B. You spend the same $40K in either scenario, but in Option B, 999 more people get their sight. Option B is literally one thousand times better.

…But this scenario – choosing between these two options – It’s all contrived, right?

[Slide 3: Blank]

Not so fast.

In America, it’s often impossible to cure blindness. However, we can go to Guide Dogs of America, a top non-profit that works on training guide dogs and providing them to blind people free of charge.

[Slide 4: Guide Dogs of America]

According to them, the cost of training a guide dog and matching it with a blind person is $42,000. Pay $42K and they train a dog, give it to a blind person, and that blind person can have a more normal life, able to get around.

In the developing world, people are often blind due to trachoma, which is a bacterial infection in the eye. Curing trachoma is a simple procedure.

[Slide 5: Guide Dogs + Fred Hollows]

All it takes to cure someone of blindness in the developing world is about $40 to the Fred Hollows Foundation.

For the same cost as it takes to train a guide dog, I could cure 1000 people from blindness.

Why is this the case? It’s not that the Guide Dogs of America is full of fraud. They don’t funnel money to for-profit fundraisers or waste expenses on overhead. It’s not even that the Fred Hollows Foundation is better run or more effective at doing their jobs than the Guide Dogs of America.

Rather, it’s that the Fred Hollows Foundation is working in the developing world where money can go further. The United States already eliminated trachoma in 1960, so it’s no longer a problem here. Causes of blindness in the US are much harder to treat, because so many of the easy cases have already been treated.


We can see the same difference when we look at poverty. Let’s look at the amount of “extreme poverty”, or how many people live on an income of less than $2 a day.

Surprisingly, there is extreme poverty in the US.

[Slide 6: Pie chart of US extreme poverty]

Once we take into account food stamps, subsidies, and tax credits, we find that 0.5% of Americans live in extreme poverty. This is bad, definitely.

[Slide 7: Pie Chart of US extreme poverty vs. Pie Chart of 3rd world extreme poverty]

But in the developing world, over 70% of people live in extreme poverty. And that’s even after you take into account the fact that things are cheaper there. Not to mention that people in the developing world don’t have access to things like food stamps, homeless shelters, or soup kitchens to stay afloat.

[Slide 8: Simple Fact]

This all led me to a simple fact. Money just goes so much further to help people in the developing world. I think of myself as a poor college student, but $20 barely gets me through my day. It isn’t even enough to fill up a gas tank.

In the developing world, things are different. When you’re in extreme poverty, $20 is enough for two weeks. In the developing world, having an additional $20 means you can buy food, invest in your home, pay school fees. An additional $20 can be the difference that empowers you to get yourself out of extreme poverty.

And this simple fact was a powerful fact that really resonated with me. Even with just $20, I could do so much for people in the developing world.

[Slide 9: Blank]

I certainly don’t mean to trivialize the very serious problems in the US. I wish I had enough money to cure blindness, poverty, and hunger both in the developing world and here in the United States. But, unfortunately, I don’t. Instead, my resources are limited.

[Slide 10: Choice]

Instead, it comes down to a choice.

Option A or Option B?

[Slide 11: Blank]

So what are we supposed to do if we don’t know how to make our money go the furthest? Certainly we can’t just work full-time investigating as many non-profits as we can to find the ones with the highest impact, right?

Luckily for us, there are already people working on just that. Holden Karnofsky and Elie Hassenfeld used to be employed full-time in the hedge fund industry. But then they decided they wanted to donate some of their salary. To their surprise, they found it very difficult to get high-quality information about charities. So they actually quit their jobs and created…

[Slide 12: GiveWell]

…GiveWell, a non-profit dedicated to finding outstanding giving opportunities and publishing their analysis to help donors decide where to give. Now, anyone can go to www.givewell.org and read their in-depth research about how to make a difference.

[Slide 13: Blank]

GiveWell has been spending years finding the organizations that are the best of the best of the best. The organizations they select are thoroughly vetted to make sure they’re what they do actually works. GiveWell reviews research, does interviews, performs site visits, add deeply investigates each charity they evaluate.

Organizations that GiveWell supports are proven, cost-effective, underfunded, and outstanding. And you don’t have to take their word for it – they publish pages and pages of reviews for anyone to consult.

That’s when I knew where I’d give my $20.

[Slide 14: SCI]

GiveWell recommends a few top organizations. My favorite is the Schitsosomiasis Control Initiative – a bit of a mouthful to say, I know. It’s not a sexy name and it’s not a flashy charity. Instead, it’s run by a bunch of academics at the Imperial College in London.

The Schitsosomiasis Control Initiative – or SCI – focuses on doing one simple thing: treat children in the developing world for parasitic worm infections. These are parasites that sit inside you and steal your nutrients as you eat them. Instead of feeding yourself, you feed these worms. SCI gets these worms out by giving children a simple tablet that costs only fifty cents to buy.

For two quarters, you can deworm a child. Deworming causes improved health and nutrition. Deworming also reduces the chance of dying early. Moreover, when children are treated, they regain energy and are able to attend school, improving education.

Deworming has so many benefits, but there’s not enough people funding it yet. Here’s a huge opportunity to make a difference.

[Slide 15: Option C]

So really, the choice is even better. I’m really excited to be able to make such a large difference.

My heart motivated me to give in the first place. But my head told me to think about it some, look at the research, and make an informed decision about where to give. Because of this research, I just gave my $20 to SCI.

Just think – the $20 in my pocket I didn’t even know I had was enough to remove worms from 40 kids.

[Slide 16: Blank]

I know donations are a very personal and emotional manner. Giving with your heart is great. But I ask you to consider taking a similar journey as I did – find out where your money can go furthest and think more about your impact.

Together, passion and evidence can make a powerful combination when it comes to your donations.

I urge you to visit www.givewell.org and consider combining your heard and your head.