Effective Altruism at Ripples

Doing good is good. Doing good effectively is amazing.

Ever wonder why “Small Droplets. Big Waves.” is our slogan? Here’s why:

Small Droplets, Big Waves is our way of summarizing the idea of maximizing our positive impact on the world.  We want to make bigger ripples and make small droplets go further.  In short, we want to do the most good.  This is the basic underlying concept of Effective Altruism, according to Holly Morgan with the Centre for Effective Altruism. “Effective altruism is all about combining empathy, reason and evidence. By carefully considering what we value, and by working together to find the best ways of achieving that, we can each do an amazing amount of good.” Source

Our friend Jay Quigley recently gave an excellent presentation on Effective Altruism:

Effective Altruism at Ripples

You might say that the concepts and projects at Ripples are simultaneously “radical” effective altruism and not effectively altruistic enough.  This is because we’ve been going to extremes to implement lifestyle changes enabling us to be more effective, but we aren’t in complete agreement with each and every expression of Effective Altruism (EA).

What we find most compatible is the EA focus on doing the most good and being as effective as possible.  EA encourages a focus on research, science, and evidence of effectiveness in the non-profit sector, which is sorely needed and underfunded.  Ripples has always promoted cost-effectiveness in terms of the amount of good per dollar spent, trying to maximize the good that comes out of every little decision.  We’ve also been strong supporters of global collaboration, stressing the EA concept of impartiality – that a person in a developing country has equal value to a person in one’s own community.  Ripples’ services almost always encourage counterfactual reasoning, which is the idea that we must determine which course of action maximizes positive impact even if it’s not the most direct action – this is why you hear us talking about capacity building (indirect service) over direct service, even though capacity building is not a “sexy” cause. For this reason, we tend to agree with Effective Altruists who say that it might be considered morally wrong not to help people, or to help people in a very ineffective way (such as an organization misusing funds that could go to the poor instead).

However, there are a few things that aren’t as compatible with Ripples work.  The idea of cause prioritization is extremely useful if you are a donor seeking to find the most effective causes that enable your donation to save the greatest number of lives.  But because of the vast diversity of causes in our network, we find it more useful to suggest that every person working on every cause try to do so in the most effective way possible.  A cause that’s considered less cost-effective can actually support or promote a cause which is more cost-effective, such as hosting a fundraiser at a local vegetarian restaurant in order to both support local business and raise money for a highly effective charity like the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative.  Other ways Ripples offers a slight divergence from mainstream EA include:

  1. Number of Lives Saved is not something Ripples values exclusively above everything else in our work. We’re interested in supporting a wide variety of good, as effectively as possible, everywhere. This could be Number of Acres Protected or Number of Slaves Freed, for example.
  2. Cost Effectiveness is not something we believe to be the main determining factor in whether a cause should be supported. There are a great many problems, and some solutions to some problems will cost more than others, which doesn’t mean they deserve less support, but it does mean donors won’t get as much “bang for their buck” funding the more costly solutions.
  3. We don’t put aside popular causes that Effective Altruists might not endorse because of their popularity and guarantee to receive funding. For example, hunger kills more people every year than AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined, but very few hunger charities are endorsed by EA evaluators because of a variety of reasons including an inability to demonstrate effectiveness.  We’re interested in making hunger charities more effective instead.
  4. EA has been criticized as a movement only for those who are extremely wealthy. Our network consists of people living in US poverty, global poverty, and a few people who have great financial capital. Because of this, we focus less on earning to give – the concept of earning a high salary in order to give much of it to effective charities – and more on ways to be effective no matter where you are and what you do.
  5. While EA tends to focus on donors, Ripples focuses on empowering any individual (donor and recipient both) to make some ripples, even small ones, but preferably the biggest ones possible for them right now, today, regardless of their situation. We promote a peer-to-peer relationship of colleagues in which the supposedly helpless recipient may actually help the donor and be helped themselves. We try to foster intercultural understanding and connections through true global collaboration.

Lastly, we don’t think there is much need for cause prioritization itself because of an underlying principle behind our work: Global Interdependence of Non-Profit Causes.  There is no realistic isolation of one cause from all the rest; they all affect each other.  To alleviate poverty is to alleviate environmental problems and vice-versa – thus we don’t recommend people focus “on one cause” like “health” because polluted water clearly affects many causes.  We measure a solution’s effectiveness by how holistic it is and how well it addresses multiple issues at once.

Applying Effective Altruism to Ripples Work

Ripples applies EA to our work by asking questions like “How can we make the most effective training course for non-profit capacity builders?” and “How can we build the most effective earthbag educational center?” We ask ourselves how to make our educational materials more effective at supporting families trying to live sustainably, and we’re constantly making improvements to our website or planning our next steps to increase our impact.

While the EA movement might suggest strictly earning to give (acquiring a large salary in order to donate money to effective charities) even in a career that is morally ambiguous, Ripples would support earning to give as well as many other ways to funnel more money to effective charities.

How to donate money without taking the nearest high-salary job available:

  1. Take a high-salary job that is least harmful, donate money to most effective charity
  2. Upcycle trash into beautiful art pieces and sell them on Etsy
  3. Have a fundraiser(s)
  4. Donate part of your inheritance
  5. Donate your Christmas and Birthday money, or have a birthday party to raise money
  6. Sell your house and donate a percentage of the sale price to an effective charity
  7. Become a social entrepreneur or a green entrepreneur and create job(s) that help the world
  8. Sell your collection of valuable video games or antiques
  9. Sell your old car and start bicycling and taking free public transit (Fayetteville)

If you think some of these ideas sound bogus and no one would do them, well, we’ve actually done most of these things at Ripples!  Which is why I suggested we might be slightly radical in our lifestyle approach, but hopefully inspirational too.

Environmentalism within Effective Altruism

Peter Singer, one of the most prominent moral philosophers supporting EA, has this to say about sustainable living: “I think the most important thing you can do now is to reduce your greenhouse gas footprint, one of the things that I’ve been doing for more than 30 years, not primarily because of its environmental impact that I do is not to eat meat and meat production is one of the major causes of greenhouse gas emissions. Any governmental panel on climate change, the nation’s body that puts out the big reports, its chair has said, ‘We have to ask people to eat less meat.’ Animal livestock produces more greenhouse gases each year than transportation so this is a big thing. As far as transport is concerned, I try to drive less, I try to use public transport or walk, I think those things are important.” Source

For more information and to get involved directly with the Effective Altruism movement, consider joining their Facebook group of over 2,000 members, or visit the following websites.  But as you explore, please don’t be put off by ideas you disagree with which might try to represent the movement as a whole.  Someone may tell you your ideas or charity efforts are irrelevant to effective altruism, but there are few efforts in the world which can’t benefit from being more effective than they are today.

If someone gives you a definition of Effective Altruism that sounds totally different than what you had in mind or what you read elsewhere, remember: movements are huge.  Who gets to define the Effective Altruism movement?  It certainly isn’t me.  Nor is it any one person on Facebook.  We can influence a movement, but we can’t define it by ourselves.  We can interpret the literature, but only for ourselves, not someone else.  The job of defining a movement is for the collective of founders, well-known leaders, authors and those who self-identify as Effective Altruists.  There will always be a person or organization who gives the movement a new twist.  Hopefully, Ripples can offer a new example of effective altruism “for the masses”.

For more information, visit:

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Gladys Tiffany

It’s really encouraging to hear that there is a body of folks who embrace altruism even in the face of the Ayn Rand culture that our current leaders seem to be embracing. Opening up space for altruism is a very sweet gift toward shifting the culture.

Amanda Bancroft

Thanks Gladys! I agree, effective altruism provides much hope for those wanting to do good in a way that’s been proven effective, saving more lives and making bigger ripples.

Brad Volz

Nice Amanda, I must admit I didn’t know about this movement. I’m glad to learn more. You might also want to connect with the local Compassion Fayetteville group. I’ve just started helping them and I believe environmental overlaps with human compassion.

Amanda Bancroft

Thanks Brad! I’m still laughing over your blog’s Kid President video, loved it! Yes I’ve been supporting Compassion Fayetteville for awhile, they’re a great group and the Mayor declared February “compassion month”!

Brad Volz

Thanks Amanda. I love Kid President and am glad that you enjoyed him and are tapped into the Compassion group. I’ve started getting more involved including some writing for them.

Jay Quigley
Amanda Bancroft

Thanks Jay! Yes this video is fantastic and I encourage everyone to check it out; it’s brief and highly informative.

Ozzie Gooen

I definitely agree that Effective Altruism, as a movement, has historically focussed more on ‘earning to give’ than doing good directly. I think it’s definitely lacking in knowledge or study of how to do good in indirect ways (what you call ripples, and some others call ‘flow-through effects’). I’m excited to see what you find in this area. I want to make a clarification about point 3 on your ‘slight divergence’ list. If the cause ‘make hunger charities more effective’ itself was ‘effective’, then it could totally do well within everyone in Effective Altruism. Improving other causes has been talked… Read more »

Amanda Bancroft

Thanks Ozzie! Your insights here are spot-on. Our goal with engaging organizations is secondarily to make ineffective charities an endangered species, but primarily to change the world’s approach to non-profit work by encouraging a shift towards viewing capacity and effectiveness as not only extremely necessary but also totally accessible no matter where they’re at (geographically and developmentally). We’re slightly doubtful, based on the past 5 years of experimentation, that it is possible to change the majority of organizations, and yet we hope it will be possible with a more research-backed method. I’ve theorized that employing psychologists in capacity building work… Read more »

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