William Schambra on the coming showdown between effective altruism and ‘philanthrolocalism’


Caroline Hartnell

Caroline Hartnell

Caroline Hartnell

It might seem that some of the tendencies in philanthropy that the Hudson Institute’s William Schambra most dislikes are in retreat. In late March the Hewlett Foundation announced its decision to phase out its Nonprofit Marketplace Initiative, an eight-year, $20-million effort to finance work by Charity Navigator, GiveWell, GuideStar and other groups that provide in-depth information about non-profits’ performance. The assumption underpinning the Initiative was that there is a demand from donors for more such information, but the evidence suggests that only 3 per cent of donors give based on the relative performance of charities.

Meanwhile, the summer issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review contains an article by John Kania, Mark Kramer and Patty Russell urging funders wanting to solve complex problems to ‘move beyond today’s rigid and predictive model of strategy’ – the one they themselves advocated so widely – to ‘a more nuanced view of emergent strategy’. Some among the group of ‘philanthropy’s most important thinkers and doers’ invited to comment on the article appear to doubt whether strategic philanthropy is even up to dealing with problems that are merely complicated, or even simple, and others suggest that emergent strategic philanthropy might amount to no more than common sense and good judgement – great qualities, but perhaps not enough to warrant a grand new ‘theory’. Click here to read Schambra’s own comments>

But Schambra sees new threats on the horizon, notably from ‘effective altruism’, which he memorably describes as ‘strategic philanthropy on steroids’. This he sees as potentially at loggerheads with the approach he favours, which he calls ‘philanthrolocalism’ (what are we doing to the English language?):

‘A showdown is coming for those of us who argue that charitable giving should attend first to our own community. We face the challenge of a new movement called “effective altruism” – a radical utilitarian approach to giving that might best be described as “strategic philanthropy on steroids.” In this view, localism is not just a suboptimal way of giving. It is in fact a morally questionable diversion of resources away from those who might benefit most from them.’

While I can see the attractions of effective altruism – the idea that no life is worth more than another and that donors have a moral obligation to use their money to do the most good and save the most lives – the danger that emerges from Schambra’s article is that we will lose our moral compass. He quotes Peter Singer, guru of effective altruism, writing chillingly on infanticide:

‘When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed.’

Timothy Ogden, reviewing Eric Friedman’s Inventing Philanthropy in the March issue of Alliance, poses the issue tellingly:

‘Even I, who have been an active participant in efforts to improve the practice of philanthropy on these same lines, subconsciously recoil when Friedman points out the cost-effectiveness difference between funding guide dogs in the developed world and treating onchocerciasis, a major cause of blindness in the developing world. The first costs thousands of dollars, the latter just a few. While my rational side fully accepts this argument, I have a son who will lose his vision before he is 20 and will likely benefit greatly from having a guide dog. And so I inwardly quail at the thought of all those funds being redirected.’

There are undoubtedly many issues on which Schambra and I would disagree, but his article are always thought-provoking and worth reading. Click here to read the article in full>

Caroline Hartnell, is editor of Alliance magazine.

Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *