Book Review: How to be Great at Doing Good; Part I - Why it Matters

Peter Singer's new book The Most Good You Can Do made a big splash in the Effective Altruism community. And for good reason; as one of the  most prominent and vocal proponents of Effective Altruism Singer holds huge sway in the community and draws large amounts of press to the movement. While this book is still on my reading list, from what I've heard it is also one of the first books that lays out what EA-s believe (as much as that can be summed up). John described it as an anthropological view of Effective Altruism.

But in all the hubbub, the book tour, the excitement, and the press coverage I think there was a fantastic little book that was lost in the clamor. I have been amazingly impressed with How to be Great at Doing Good as a primer for thinking about charity evaluation. The author, Nick Cooney, brings some good street cred to the work - getting praise from Singer, Holden Karnofsky, and Adam Grant, being the founder of one of the most effective animal charities out there, as well as already being the author of 2 other charity related books.

I'm breaking my summary and analysis of the book into two posts. This one is for the first half of the book (Chapters 1-5 for those of you following along at home).

What I love so much about this book is its accessibility and gentle framework for thinking about assessing charities, and a primer for EA ideas in general. Plus the writing is upbeat, friendly and approachable. Most EA writing is dense, academic, technical, and can come off as... well a bit cheeky at times. So this book immediately struck me as a great one to hand out like candy to anyone curious about gauging charities.

Cooney uses three basic premises to inform most of his discussion in the first few chapters (and beyond). Because these fundamental ideas permeate the entire book let's spell them out now and make future references simple.

  1. The purpose of charity work is to reduce suffering and increase well being
  2. Giving to charity, in any form, is a selfless act, and not something done for personal gratification (though it is a fringe benefit)
  3. Where we work, and where we donate, inform our sense of identity and self-esteem

While 1 & 2 are laid out clearly (and referenced often) the third is stated explicitly only once or twice, but is a pervasive undercurrent throughout the chapters. Indeed, it is this premise that makes the book more accessible; particularly to those of us that have spent our careers in the nonprofit world or donate large sums of money. While as premise 2 states, we don't do charity work for personal gratification it is a side effect of the work, and it becomes emeshed with our life satisfaction. Throughout the introductory chapters the author points out to his readers that we should view analysis of our work and our donations "not as threats, but as opportunities."

It is through premise 1 that Cooney encourages us to consider the bottom line, not the umbrella of a mission statement, but the true purpose and goal around reducing suffering, and increasing well being. It is through this that we are then able to compare charities and how effectively they complete their work. This emphasis on the 'bottom line' is rarely promoted in the charity world, but is something that is necessary to create real change.

Cooney makes the argument for bottom line thinking and comparisons with a compelling fact:

"The average American does about 20 hours of research & comparison-shopping before buying a new car. How many of us spend the same amount of time researching & comparison-shopping before choosing which charities to support? The fact is that our charity decisions are far weightier than our decision of whether to go with a Nissan Altima or a Toyota Corolla."

There are real lives (potentially many lives) that are saved or significantly impacted by our donations, so we should be taking these decisions very seriously and give them the weight and brain-space they deserve. So the success of charity matters, and we as volunteers, workers, or donors should care about it. Why? See premise 2.

We have the why of evaluation, now to address the how. It seems easy to find charities that meet the definition of charity (premise 1) but comparing vastly different goals can feel like an impossible task. Cooney points out that we actually do this all the time. Deciding whether to donate Greenpeace or the Tea Party is usually an easy decision for most people. It doesn't matter WHICH choice they make, only that it is usually clear to people which bottom line they prefer. It is with this same heuristic intrinsic knowledge of our values that we can put real numbers to comparing charities.

When faced with two charities that have different bottom lines ask yourself a simple question. How much outcome/bottom line would charity X have to provide to get your $100 donation vs the other charity? Put another way: suppose you have a desire to give to charity X, but before you do you are comparing them to charity Y. Charity Y currently achieves its bottom line 1 time for $100 and charity X currently achieves its bottom line 100 times for $100. Because you prefer X, you believe it does more good - in fact, you believe it does ten times as much good. So ask yourself: how many times would Y have to achieve its bottom line for $100 for you to prefer that charity? Suppose you decide that Y would actually have to provide 200 of their bottom line before you would consider donating to them over charity X. So actually you think X does 200 times as much good! That gives you an idea of how many times better you think one charity is compared to the other.

By asking yourself how many times Y would have to achieve it's bottom line before you would decide it is as efficient or more efficient than X, you can assign a numerical value of how efficient you believe one charity is vs another. Their bottom lines may be different, they may be saving animals, or hiring actors for the local theater group, or curing children of TB. The point is you can create a simple heuristic comparison that allows you to figure out what charities you consider better at achieving their bottom line, and how important that bottom line is.

Feeling uncomfortable with this? Cooney would gently refer you to premise 2.

Wait, wait, wait wait!

But I LIKE saving bunnies, I LOVE donating to the ballet, I get deep meaningful satisfaction out of volunteering at the food bank.

That is AWESOME! Don't stop doing those things. You don't have to stop giving to those places. Only re-consider calling them part of your charitable giving. Instead call volunteering what it is - a way to feel warm and fuzzy about yourself, a way to feel like you are participating in your community. Budget the ballet donation for what it is - entertainment. It just comes out of a different budget line. Why? Because the suffering you are reducing is your own (premise 1 & 2 double whammy). And that is a good thing! You shouldn't suffer! You should get your warm fuzzies (props to Elizabeth for the phrase I'm stealing); just don't expect to find them while you are changing the world.

So what holds us back from adjusting our spending and doing? Cooney lays out a few simple psychological barriers:

  1. Lack of exposure to the idea. We aren't encouraged to think critically about altruistic gestures
  2. We want to keep things the same. We are naturally adverse to change, in our own lives and habits as well as in organizations
  3. We have a natural preference to help those most similar and in closest proximity to ourselves. This means we can overlook potentially huge good we could do elsewhere
  4. It is just easier not to. It is challenging to think about comparing charities and frequently we turn to charity work to get away from bean counting
  5. The best and most effective thing isn't always glamorous, interesting, or emotionally gratifying


Luckily he also provides us with a few ways to overcome these barriers:

  1. Give yourself space to think. This is hard work, guys! Give yourself room to think, be wrong and reevaluate.
  2. You are allowed to be human! Of course you have emotional reactions, follow your intuition, and act on instinctual empathy. Though perhaps this is done best in other areas of our life (premise 2 again).
  3. Remember the bottom line. Keep in mind that giving to one organization vs. another can ultimately mean saving 1 life when you could have saved 10. And lives are important.