Review: Doing Good Better – How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference by William MacAskill

Do goodThis review first ran in the Nov. 23 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference

By William MacAskill

Gotham Books


You’ve worked hard to build a career, a company and a good life for your family.

You’re now looking to share your wealth.

Maybe you want to make a difference here in Hamilton, where one in four kids live in poverty and some of our priority neighbourhoods have health outcomes that more closely mirror Bangladesh than Brooklyn.

Or maybe you want to help out the 1.2 billion people beyond our borders who earn less than $1.50 a day.

There’s no shortage of problems to solve and worthy organizations to support. So what should you do?

Look past the news headlines and celebrity endorsements, says William MacAskill, author of Doing Good Better, an associate professor at the University of Cambridge, co-founder of two non-profits and an advocate for effective altruism.

“I believe that by combining the heart and the head – by applying data and reason to altruistic acts – we can turn our good intentions into astonishingly good outcomes,” says MacAskill.

In the absence of data and reason, our best intentions can lead to bad outcomes that waste money and hurt the people we’re trying to help. “When it comes to helping others, being unreflective often means being ineffective. 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.”

MacAskill calls PlayPump a cautionary tale. Villages in Africa were given merry-go-rounds that doubled as water pumps. Every spin of the merry-go-round pumped water out of a well and into a storage tank. Kids now had somewhere to play and the grown-ups were spared from walking miles or waiting hours for clean water. PlayPump won a World Bank Development Marketplace Award plus money and endorsements from notables including the Case Foundation, the One Foundation, Laura Bush, Bill Clinton and Jay-Z.

But then came the reports from organizations like UNICEF. PlayPump needed constant force to spin which left kids exhausted. Some were falling off and breaking limbs while others had to be paid to play on the merry-go-round. Sometimes it was left to the adults to spin the PlayPump. To meet the daily water needs of a typical village, PlayPump had to be spinning 27 hours a day. And when the $14,000 pumps broke, there was no easy fix.

“No one had asked the local communities if they wanted a PlayPump in the first place,” says MacAskill.  With less effort at a lower cost, a hand pump that doesn’t grab headlines, awards and endorsements can provide five times as much water as PlayPump.

“One difference between investing in a company and donating to a charity is that the charity world often lacks appropriate feedback mechanisms. Invest in a bad company and you lose money but give money to a bad charity and you probably won’t hear about its failings.”

MacAskill encourages us to get answers to five questions before taking out our chequebooks and credit cards:

  • How many people will benefit and by how much?
  • Is this the most effective thing you can do?
  • Is this area neglected?
  • What would have happened otherwise?
  • What are the chances of success and how good would success be?

And what if you’re looking to do good and make a difference with your career? Signing up to work or volunteer with a nonprofit is one option.  It’s not one that MacAskill often recommends to freshly minted grads, given that you can gain more skills and credentials with for-profit companies that have the resources to invest in your career development.

“Instead of trying to make an immediate impact, you can invest in yourself while continuing to learn about which causes are most important, preparing yourself to make a bigger difference in the future.”

It’s worth remembering that anyone in Hamilton earning $28,000 a year is richer than 95 per cent of the world’s population. If you earn only $11,000, you’re among the world’s richest 15 per cent. So donating even a small amount of money can lead to an outsized contribution in developing countries.

“Rather than trying to maximize the direct impact you have with your job, instead try to increase your earnings so you can donate more, improving people’s lives through your giving rather than your day-to-day work. If we’re serious about doing good, earning to give is a path we should consider.”

Start a habit of regular giving today, says MacAskill. “Sign up to make a regular donation, even if its’ just $10 per month. This is the easiest and most tangible way of having a massive immediate positive impact.” Just do your homework first and invest wisely.

Published by

Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

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