A Powerful Framework to Spark Student Engagement
- Founded in 2011, effective altruism is a social movement that focuses on maximizing the positive impact of charitable donations and actions.
- EA is an effective pedagogical framework for driving student engagement, facilitating productive dialogue around society’s biggest challenges, and bringing social impact assessment to the forefront of classroom conversations.
- After looking at relevant data, students realize that they will likely need to invest their resources outside their home communities if they wish to do the most good for the most people.
As an educator, I have three objectives in my classroom. First, I want my students to engage meaningfully in classroom content, going all in and taking a deep dive into the material. Second, I want them to be challenged as they seek to understand complex frameworks and wicked problems. Finally, I want them to develop the courage to challenge the assumptions inherent in the course materials. Pragmatically, I know that when educators can do these three things, they will create successful learning pathways.
For me, the course that most frequently opens up these pathways is Social Entrepreneurship, which I have had the privilege of teaching at multiple levels and universities over the past ten years. In that time, I have found that the topic of social entrepreneurship aligns well with learning outcomes related to driving societal impact and facilitating greater global awareness—but only if the courses are built to leverage relevant opportunities.
Most social entrepreneurship classrooms expose students to topics such as the fundamentals of entrepreneurship; the nuances of social ventures; and the similarities and differences between for-profits, nonprofits, charities, and public benefit corporations. Even so, faculty can teach the subject in a variety of ways, with a range of outcomes. Below are just a few approaches commonly used in social entrepreneurship classrooms:
- The fundraising-for-social-good approach. Students raise funds for a given social venture, most often by hosting fundraising events and/or leveraging crowdfunding platforms.
- The improving-home-community approach. Students identify and address problems in their local regions.
- The SDG approach. Students develop novel solutions to address the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
- The international-awareness approach. Students gain an understanding of global issues and challenges, exploring how they can use social entrepreneurship as a mechanism for change.
These activities all have the potential to facilitate positive learning outcomes. They all challenge students to work collectively toward a common goal; to practice pitching causes driven by strong and passionate stories; to experience (and hopefully learn from) rejection; and, in many cases, to leverage disparate resources and technologies.
But a few years back, after trying many of the above approaches, my colleagues and I in the William G. Rohrer College of Business at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey, recognized the power of effective altruism as a pedagogical framework. Soon after, we adopted this framework in our classrooms, and it has transformed how we teach students to be leaders and changemakers ever since.
What Is Effective Altruism?
Effective altruism (EA) is a philosophy and social movement that focuses on maximizing the positive impact of charitable actions by identifying and promoting the most effective ways to benefit others. At its core, EA is about directing resources to where they can do the most good for the most people.
With such tremendous need and so many charities vying for limited resources across the globe, proponents of EA advocate for using careful reasoning to determine the best causes and organizations to support. Often, this vetting process leads social entrepreneurs to champion causes that are neglected or less popular. Then, these entrepreneurs use evidence-based research and a long-term thinking mindset to determine the most effective interventions.
EA in the Classroom
In Rowan’s social entrepreneurship course, we kick off the semester by talking about the power of entrepreneurship as a mechanism for addressing society’s biggest challenges. We point to examples such as the work that the Rotary Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation continue to do to eradicate malaria. We talk about Muhammad Yunus’ work with Grameen Bank to help address poverty through microfinance and microcredit.
Time and time again, students admit that they have only a surface-level understanding of the impact that the nonprofits closest to their hearts actually make.
Then, we shift the conversation by asking students to talk about the causes, social issues, and charities that are closest to their hearts. Some have lost loved ones to cancer, others have seen economic despair in their communities, and others have experienced (or are presently experiencing) food insecurity. They know which organizations have helped them and their loved ones, and they recognize the national and international organizations that are heavily advertised on TV. They also know the organizations to which they are asked to donate a dollar each time they are in the checkout lines at their local grocery stores.
Yet, time and time again, they admit that they have never looked at the efficiency of the business models of these organizations—that, in the best-case scenario, they have only a surface-level understanding of the impact these organizations actually make. It is at this point that we introduce the concept of EA.
What Constitutes ‘Doing Good’?
After everyone has shared their causes and organizations, we challenge students with the following prompt:
You have 50,000 USD of charitable support to distribute. Your goal is to do the most good for the most people, so you have to consider the trade-off between offering a lot of people small improvements or offering a few people major improvements.
In response, many students revert to talking about the causes and organizations with which they are most familiar. We let them debate the possibilities for a few minutes—then, we introduce comparative data on what their charitable donation could do in different contexts. We tell them, for example, that 50,000 USD could do any of the following:
- Train a guide dog to assist a single blind individual.
- Deworm 102,000 children.
- Purchase enough bed nets to save 15 lives.
- Provide more than 25,000 meals through community foodbanks.
This allows them to better understand the difficulties of EA. Providing a guide dog is a transformative intervention, but only for a single person. Deworming 102,000 children will improve the lives of many, but once the children are treated, most still will need other support related to food, shelter, and education.
After more discussion, students typically disagree on how to best invest the funds. Some students believe the transformative impact of the guide dog is the way to go. Others vote for funding bed nets, arguing that saving lives is more important than improving lives. Still others want to support their home communities, so they believe that funding an essential service such as a foodbank is the best course of action.
The goal at this stage is to get students talking about these types of decisions and engaging in the course content. The conversations often go in many directions, with students circling back to wanting to invest in different charities in their home communities or focus resources on a specific problem. The richness of EA is that it inspires such deep debates and compels students to struggle with their views on societal impact.
The Five Questions of EA
The content of our EA course is framed around Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Help Others, Do Work that Matters, and Make Smarter Choices about Giving Back, a book by Scottish philosopher William MacAskill. MacAskill is credited with co-founding the EA movement with Australian philosophers Peter Singer and Toby Ord. In his book, MacAskill outlines the five key questions to ask when considering EA:
- How many people benefit, and by how much?
- Is this the most effective thing you can do?
- Is this area neglected?
- What would have happened otherwise?
- What are the chances of success, and how good would success be?
Then, as the semester progresses, students engage with research. They learn that, from an impact perspective, there are magnitudes of difference between good charities and the most effective charities. As the discussion continues, they realize that, from a data perspective, if they seek to do the most good for the most people, they will likely need to invest all their resources outside their home communities despite the needs they see firsthand each day.
In Doing Good Better, MacAskill also lays out a moral case for sweatshop goods; argues for why donating to disaster relief is a poor strategy; and dives into fair trade practices, carbon emissions, and ethical consumerism. As we discuss topic after topic, we see continued student engagement, accompanied by deep reflection and an exploration of data. In no other class have I come across a tool, framework, or theory that has produced such deep outcomes for students.
Imperfect but Powerful
The recent collapse of cryptocurrency exchange FTX has focused a great deal of negative attention on EA. FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried was not just a major proponent of EA, he also reportedly used to work at the Centre for Effective Altruism. Through the FTX Foundation, he donated significant funding (more than 125 million USD in 2022) to organizations that practiced EA. Several of these recipients have since returned the donated funds to FTX.
In a November 2022 article, Peter Singer speaks to the relationship between Bankman-Fried and EA. “Wise effective altruists and utilitarians know that honesty is the best policy, and dishonesty is inherently risky,” he notes. He adds that Bankman-Fried’s actions brought great risk both “to the causes that would have benefited from his support, and to the effective altruism movement itself.”
Although EA is imperfect, it still is a powerful pedagogical framework to facilitate productive dialogue around addressing some of society’s biggest challenges.
Overall, I am not advocating for EA as a philosophy for how people should make their social and charitable decisions, nor am I seeking to convert students into effective altruists. Like most theories and philosophies, EA is imperfect, not fully specified, and subject to a wide array of (mis)interpretations.
But while EA is imperfect, I have found it to be a powerful pedagogical framework to drive student engagement and facilitate productive dialogue around addressing some of society’s biggest challenges. It brings impact assessment, measurement, and data-driven decision-making front and center in classroom conversations.
By its nature, the EA framework forces students to think deeply about why they support the organizations they do. It asks them to look at the efficacy of those organizations and to consider impact on a more global scale. Achieving this level of engagement, reflection, and global awareness in the classroom is a true win for any professor.