Effective Altruism Helps Brands Compromise Their Purpose


It is relatively easy and inexpensive to save a life.

About $4,500 per life if you support the Malaria Foundation, and even more than a steal at $3,500 per life if you support the Helen Keller International supplementation program.

So, in principle, if we all gave as much as possible to the most profitable charities, we could do an awful lot of good. And in a time when the need to do good has never been greater, it’s an idea worth exploring.

This was the original philosophy behind Effective Altruism (EA) – a movement that began in the 2000s when Australian philosopher Toby Ord, who gives more than half of his personal income to charity, met William MacAskill , who lives on $31,000 a year while donating the rest of her earnings.

The EA movement has a strategy called “earning to give,” where individuals maximize their positive impact by pursuing lucrative careers in order to give as much as possible.

What would a business like this look like? We often think of profit as the opposite of the goal, but it’s an interesting reframing, especially as more companies embrace initiatives like One Percent for the Planet, aligning a increased revenue growth with increased real-world impact.

Regardless of how we choose to structure donations, there is no doubt that consumers are looking for companies to step up and help during this cost of living crisis. In fact, a recent study by Future found that 36% of consumers expect brands to actively “give something back” this Christmas by supporting those who need it most.

As corporate giving becomes increasingly important to consumers, effective altruism is a set of ideas that can be applied, using empirical evidence to help large corporations maximize the impact of the significant resources available. .

Selecting a problem to solve

In a recent interview with Time Magazine, MacAskill spoke of “moral vertigo” – the giddy realization that there are countless issues that need urgent attention. This relentless compromise can translate into a common behavior seen among brands where they try to be friends with everyone, all the time.

In contrast, EA’s philosophy is to accept this painful trade-off, be honest about the commitments you make and don’t make, and then intentionally invest in the areas you are committed to.

While other brands have jumped on the #BlueMonday bandwagon, Skullcandy has partnered with activist artists to celebrate the role music plays in mental wellbeing. They also launched limited-edition products funding mental health treatment through the nonprofit To Write Love on Her Arms. Skullcandy is a brand that is truly committed to improving the mental health of its consumers, not just on Blue Monday, but every day of the year.

Is the problem big enough?

When choosing a problem to invest in, the first question EA asks is: what good can be done?

This question seems particularly relevant for brands, as a key part of their potential impact will come from how their size and scale can add weight to a movement.

Critics of the Mastercard “True Name” campaign have raised questions about the scale of the impact, given that 0.5% of the US adult population identifies as transgender. However, another equally important impact of this campaign has been to illustrate to the 974 million people using Mastercard every day around the world that inclusive business practices are the new normal. The scale and size of this message is actually quite unprecedented and desperately needed at a time when hate crime incidents have increased by over 30%.

How solvable is it?

EA’s philosophy also states that our resources are best used to solve problems that are easily solved. For example, global health is super solvable: in 1980, humanity eradicated smallpox, saving more than 60 million lives, more than if we had achieved world peace in the same period.

From a brand’s point of view, this is a crucial question. How realistic is it that your company has the authority, reach, and expertise to have a meaningful impact on the issue?

For example, through its “1 pack = 1 vaccine” campaign, the P&G Pampers brand supports UNICEF’s program to eliminate neonatal tetanus, an entirely preventable but extremely deadly disease. Incredibly, Pampers has donated 300 million vaccines to date and helped eliminate the disease in 26 countries around the world.

How neglected is it?

Finally, EA philanthropists consider the extent to which an area has been overlooked. According to a theory of diminishing returns, the more resources have been invested in a problem, the harder it will be to make incremental progress.

As marketers, we’re trained to spot and follow trends, which has resulted in numerous brand goal campaigns addressing the hot topic of the moment, from plastic straws to cyberbullying. We also tend to focus on the short term, desperately looking for feedback loops between our actions and our desired results.

In contrast, the focus on neglected causes has led many EA leaders to focus on the “long term” – maximizing the good not only for those living today, but also considering the threats facing face billions yet to come.

Sadly, only 3% of global philanthropy goes to environmental causes, which means our planet is one of the most chronically underfunded problems facing humanity.

Bank of the West, for example, is a leading sustainable bank, and environmental policies are at the heart of how the business operates. Since 2017, they’ve opted out of the coal industry, they’ve made the one percent planetary pledge, and they even offer products that help their customers make more sustainable choices.

Take a data-driven approach to doing good

The advertising industry is addicted to efficiency. Indeed, we are already competent to measure and optimize campaigns based on ROAS, ROI or any other equally sexy KPI. This makes our industry extremely well placed to play a leading role in bringing the philosophy of effective altruism to the corporate world.

By using an EA lens, we can identify and engage in brand lens campaigns that address the most important, solvable, and overlooked issues facing the future of our species.

It will make companies, and the people who work with them, a real force of nature.


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