Do effective altruists need stories?

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What does it mean to live an ethical life?

Peter Singer, a bioethics professor at Princeton, says it’s doing the most good you can in your lifetime, an approach to giving called effective altruism. It’s a movement many millennials have embraced, not to mention data-driven pragmatists.

Effective altruism employs both empathy and reason. In an interview on the TED Radio Hour, Singer said:

[I]t combines both the heart and the head. The heart, of course, you felt. You felt the empathy for the child [exposed to malaria], but it’s really important to use the head as well to make sure that what you do is effective and well-directed.

High-impact giving

For effective altruists, this may mean choosing a high-paying job so they can give away more money to charity.

It also may mean opting out of giving to organizations that cause a “warm glow,” like the Make-a-Wish Foundation, and instead supporting those that make a measurable impact to, say, reduce global poverty.

It’s about maximizing your dollar and tracking your return on (charitable) investment. Perhaps not surprisingly, effective altruism is often called “generosity for nerds.”

The changing landscape of giving

In a recent episode of the radio show A1, David Callahan, author of The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age, discussed the charitable preferences of wealthy philanthropists like Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Michael Bloomberg.

They may have diverse interests—eradicating disease, making scientific breakthroughs, advancing education—but they all want to make a huge impact, Callahan said.

A lot of these donors aren’t interested in “charity” as we think of it traditionally. They don’t want to just write a check to a museum or a hospital or a university. They really want to make big, systemic changes in how society operates to try to tackle problems in some way that leads to lasting solutions.

Deciding to give: does story matter?

Whether it’s a multi-billionaire like Mark Zuckerberg or someone with a much more modest income, effective altruism is powered by big-picture thinking. It’s an emphasis on the many and not the one.

So what does that mean for marketers at charitable organizations?

Conventional wisdom says that story is more important than stats. We’re more compelled to give when we can identify a victim—one person, not a village.

We make sense of the numbers through the lens of a story, because numbers, it turns out, are hard to make sense of on their own.

But it’s possible that effective altruists need something different to help them decide. One recipient’s story may not be the way to connect with a generosity nerd—someone who value outcomes above all else.

If you know your audience, then you know what kind of videos you should be creating. Talk to your donors about what motivates them. Look at your metrics to see what’s working, segmenting your audience if possible.

It may sound strange, but those who are hyper-intentional about their charitable giving may need numbers more than narratives.

Photo via Flickr.


Going to the NCTech4Good Conference on June 6 in Durham? Come say hello! We’ll be presenting on one of our favorite topics: how a smart video strategy can increase your donor base.

Open Eye Creative is a small video production company with a huge vision: to use the power of story to strengthen and propel organizations that are changing the world. Read more.