At CRDF, we love books that help us do better and be better. One of our board members recently read William MacAskill’s Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Help Others.

Press — William MacAskillThe author is an Associate Professor in Philosophy at the University of Oxford and the co-founder of 80,000 Hours, an organization that researches which careers have the biggest positive impact on society. MacAskill has pushed forward the effective altruism movement which seeks to use evidence and logic to determine what actions and projects benefit others the most.

Steven Levitt, author of Freakonomics, and Sue Desmond-Hellmann, CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, are fans of the nonfiction book–which speaks to the wonderful balance of data and altruistic suggestions Doing Good Better contains.

The Premise

The basic premise of the book is to understand the larger impact of our actions– which ones help and which ones harm. Does your donation really make an impact? Is the nonprofit you support doing more harm than good? How can you evaluate your actions? Which volunteer efforts are worthy of your time and resources?

Example 1: The PlayPump

This questioning hits home in the first example of the book: the PlayPump. Invented in 1989, the PlayPump was widely received as as a game changer for African communities that struggled to get clean water.  When children played on the merry-go-round pump, clean ground water would come out of the pump.

Everyone loved the fun idea that would keep women from walking miles a day to get water from the river. Jay-Z raised thousands of dollars for the project. Laura Bush launched a campaign to raise funds as well. PlayPump was awarded a World Bank Development Marketplace Award.

It sounded like the perfect development project. But then things went bad.

Two reports studying the PlayPump made serious claims. The pumps produced less water than hand-pumps and needed to operate around the clock in some communities to churn out enough water. The pumps were difficult to spin and children broke limbs and vomited while trying to get enough water. Women found pushing the merry-go-round demeaning. The pumps cost four times more than hand-pumps and could not be repaired by community members. Most communities preferred the old hand-pumps, but no one had asked their input.

This introductory story sets the tone for the rest of the book. MacAskill uses real examples to demonstrate why aid goes wrong so often.

Though learning about these points alone would be worth the read, MacAskill goes further and dives into what does have a positive impact.

Example 2: Deworming

To illustrate this, he writes about a program that tried for years to increase the reach of education in Kenya. The project performed controlled studies that tested the effectiveness of additional textbooks, increasing the number of teachers, and other education-based ideas. It shocked the team that nothing demonstrated an impact until finally the group pursued deworming.

That was it. Providing deworming medication was the most cost-effective way of increasing school participation. Kids were healthy enough to go to school and they were more engaged. Ten years later, those kids, now adults, were earning more money from their jobs than the control group.

The PlayPump was an exciting-sounding project driven by emotions that ended up doing harm. The deworming effort, eventually called the Deworm The World Initiative, was a success because it involved careful testing and the group put their efforts behind the action that did the most good, no matter how unappealing it sounded.

Key Questions

Throughout the rest of the book, MacAskill explores five key questions that he believes are essential to ask when seeking to do good:

  1. How many people benefit, and by how much?
  2. Is this the most effective thing you can do?
  3. Is this area neglected?
  4. What would have happened otherwise?
  5. What are the chances of success, and how good would success be?

MacAskill gets into a lot of topics beyond education or international development. What impact does eating meat have on our planet? How can I best support our environment? Should I quit my job to move abroad and do good? What will bring me the most satisfaction? There’s even a table that analyses a variety of philanthropic causes to shows which ones are neglected and how severe the situation is–helping you figure out how you can provide purpose.

The writing is clear and engaging and the advice is practical and applicable to every person who wants to do good. So, our suggestion is to read Doing Good Better and start learning how you can have the biggest positive impact on the world!