Prioritise causes

Prioritise causes

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tl;dr
  • Some actions to help a cause are vastly more successful than others.
  • You can’t escape prioritising, you can only do a better or worse job at it.
  • Your career is likely your best shot to contribute to solving the world’s problems.
  • The impact you could have with your career could be more than 10x larger after prioritising amongst problems.
  • So prioritise heavily, do your research, and choose wisely.
  • It can make the difference between a drop in the ocean, and a major contribution to humanity.

You’re already prioritising, so do it right

It is impossible not to prioritise. You’re doing it right now by reading this article instead of sleeping, learning to tap-dance or watching Netflix.

And you’re doing it with your career.

You are prioritising certain options, but likely not for reasons that you’ve carefully examined. (We’re not picking on you specifically – very few people take the time to do this).

Why prioritising is the largest variable in your impact

If you take the time to prioritise what you work on and do so wisely, you could have a far bigger impact on the world than you might have had otherwise.

When you do the research, you’ll often find that the causes that are most in need of your help are not the ones you would first expect. This applies across all the different approaches to doing good – lifestyle choices, donations, and your career.

In the last section, we argue that of those three options, your career is the most important action to prioritise within, and outline one approach to prioritising.

Do not throw away your shot.

Lifestyle choice is not the best way to help the planet

When we discuss what we can do about the climate crisis, we talk about such a wide range of actions – recycling, not flying, or buying a Prius. What we often miss is the fact that they have vastly different magnitudes of impact.

Source:
Source: Climate & Lifestyle Report, Founders Pledge

For example, this graph represents the fact that a $1000 dollar donation to effective climate charities swamps the amount of carbon reduction you could cause through all the other common lifestyle choices put together.

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Napkin math examples:
A $24 donation is roughly as good as living a year without a car (in CO2 averted)

Living car free could stop an average of 2.4 tonnes of CO2 from being released per year (source). But Founder’s Pledge’s top charities can avert a tonne for $10 (source).

, so it would cost $24 to do the same amount for the climate as a year without a car.

And if $1000 dollars stops 100 tonnes from being emitted, then ().

So donating $1000 dollars is more than 40x as effective as not driving for a year.

Donating $1000 averts 5x more CO2 than becoming completely carbon neutral

If a $1000 donation would avert 100 tonnes of CO2 (source), and the average US citizen emits 15.2 tonnes of CO2 (source), then

Which would mean donating $1000 averts more than 5x more CO2 than becoming completely carbon neutral.

Thinking about where you donate could save lives

Guide dogs are pretty obviously good. They help blind or sight-impaired people get around, giving them more agency than they might have had before, and helping prevent accidents.

They’re also very cute:

Cute labrador puppy is cute.
Cute labrador puppy is cute.

However, many guide dogs are funded via donations. Training costs between £35,000 - £55,000 over the life of the guide dog. So funding a guide dog is an idea that sounds good, and definitely does good, costs quite a lot.

If this is all you could do with your donation, that would be pretty awesome! Just picture how good it’d feel to deliver a guide dog to help someone who’d been practically homebound from blindness.

But if you had more than that option, you could help in an even bigger way.

Global health charity evaluator GiveWell estimates that a donation to the Helen Keller Foundation can save a life for around $3,000, by distributing vitamin-A to children across Africa. Vitamin-A deficiency in children can cause blindness as well as childhood mortality. So by giving £55,000 that you might have given to the guide dogs to the Hellen Keller Foundation, you could save 25 lives and prevent blindness.

By doing research, and prioritising the options that help more people, we can often do a tremendous amount more good.

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Nerdy aside:
Why there aren’t 1000x differences between the expected value of your options

This is a graph of global health interventions, the Y-Axis representing the number of currently funded interventions and the X-Axis showing the cost-effectiveness, worked out in DALYs per $1000.

What is a DALY?

A DALY is a “disability-adjusted life year”, where one DALY represents a year of healthy life. This allows the cost-effectiveness measure to contain the negative effects of conditions such as blindness.

For more, check out the WHO’s description of a DALY.

Looking at this graph, it seems like the most cost-effective options are 100-1000x more impactful.

But actually, because of the long-term indirect effects that your actions has on the world, interventions likely don’t differ by more than 1-2 orders of magnitude.

What are long-term indirect effects?
Direct effects are those effects that are relatively obvious and intended. Indirect effects are effects which are either non-obvious (i.e., it is difficult to determine whether or to what extent they follows from the relevant actions), unintended, or both.

For instance, reduced malaria incidence is a relatively direct effect of bed-net distribution, whereas more indirect effects may include improved education and increased GDP growth (which in turn may have even further long-run effects).

... regardless of which particular case you look at, you can come up with reasons why a given charity isn't more than, say, 10 or 100 times better than many other charities [in expected value terms]. Among charities in a similar field, I would expect the differences to be even lower—generally not more than a factor of 10.

That’s still huge though! You have the option to do 100x as much as alternative versions of you might have done.

How to prioritise

Your career is usually your best shot

Most people living on middle-class salaries could help people out by donating $1000/a year, even if their work isn’t doing good directly.

As we saw above, if you used that donation to distribute vitamin-A, that would be the equivalent of saving someone’s life every 3 years. Over the course of your life, that would add up to saving more lives than becoming a doctor. That’s an achievement to be proud of.

But you could do a lot more than that. If you were working as a fundraiser, you could raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for effective climate charities each year – 100 times the impact of your hypothetical $1000 donation.

Or if you were a good personal fit for a career in policy you could work on a neglected but achievable climate change policy. With this, you might be able to shift 10s of millions of dollars towards making renewables more efficient (and probably many times more if you’re really successful), and accelerate society’s transition to more sustainable energy sources.

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Bottom line:

Don’t ignore the impact your donations and lifestyle choices have on the world, but spending more time & money on them usually won’t increase your impact nearly as much as your career will.

Choose the most impactful problem

The largest variable in the good you will do with your career is the cause that you choose to work on. There are many pressing causes in the world: reducing global inequality, responding to the climate crisis, ending factory farming, lowering the risk of nuclear war. But in your life, you can probably only make a significant dent in one of them.

If you pick a cause that is already filled with people and funding, then you are less likely to make a significant difference.

But if you pick an important cause which is more neglected, or which you have a unique angle on, you have a shot at changing the world in profound and positive ways. Sounds grandiose, but as far as we can tell, it seems true.

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Activity: What global problem should you work on?

Use a framework

All models are wrong, but some models are useful. – George Box

Figuring out which problem you should work on solving requires all kinds of value judgements, a good understanding of how the world works, knowledge of what kinds of solutions tend to be effective, not to mention a robust self-knowledge. And as we saw above, it’s the largest determinant of your impact.

That’s a non-trivial question to answer.

But we can simplify the question, and make it easier to make progress on.

Although not without its limitations, one framework you could use to help you compare problems is to examine how important it is, how much attention it already gets, and how easy it is to make progress. Respectively, its importance, neglectedness, and tractability.

Read more about the importance, neglectedness, and tractability framework:

Importance

Importance refers to the scale of the problem: how many people does it affect? Does it affect future generations as well as people today? Does it make those people ill, kill them, or lower their happiness? The worse the effect on more people, the greater the importance.

Neglectedness

Neglectedness refers to the amount of resources (people, money and time) being spent on the problem. If you find two problems that are just as important, but one receives 100x as much funding as the other, this is a clue that you could have much more impact in the less funded problem. Why? Because you are more likely to find low hanging fruit – interventions that are really effective, but cheap and achievable. In a more saturated field, these will likely have been snapped up by the people who came before you.

Tractability

Tractability refers to how much progress we can reasonably expect will be made on the problem. For example, if we suddenly realised that Earth was a year away from being sucked into a black hole, this would be the most important problem, but not at all tractable.

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Impact story:
Saving children by banning lead paint

In 2020, Jack Rafferty and Lucia Coulter, (previously a marketer and a doctor respectively), co-founded a charity (LEEP) dedicated to reducing lead exposure to children around the world.

I doubt you knew this (I definitely didn’t), but lead exposure is very important; it affects 1 in 3 children on earth, causing a million deaths a year.

Exposure happens through several means, but a major source is lead paint. Sadly, many countries either don’t have laws against lead paint, or fail to enforce them. But, fortunately, previous attempts by NGOs have suggested that convincing countries to pass these laws is tractable.

Jack and Lucia also noticed that this problem was neglected in the field of global health, perhaps because lead exposure is no longer an issue in western countries. There are some organisations that work on reducing lead exposure, but they don’t target many countries where lead exposure is a serious issue. LEEP focuses on those neglected countries.

Through prioritising amongst the causes they could work on, Jack and Lucia found space for a new charity to confront a deadly problem via tractable means. You can read more about their progress on their website.

Note: this video uses “scale” instead of Importance and “Solvability” instead of Tractability.

Consult other research

If you attempted to find the most important problem you could work on above, you probably found it tricky. That’s pretty reasonable – it’s a hard question to answer.

An alternative approach is to use research other groups have done on the problem.

Lists of important problems from other organisations we trust:

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Bottom line:

Finding such an important problem that you’re a good fit for working on is probably daunting. (If not, you’re way more zen than we are). But it’s also fascinating and it would be surprising if something this important was easy.

Read next

Next in our series

From 80,000 Hours

Footnotes

[1] ^ Hums ‘My shot’ to the consternation of my housemates.

[2] ^ Each additional doctor in the developed world saves around 5 lives over their career when you add up all the improvements to welfare from the thousands of patients they help. This is lower than you expect because a) there already are a lot of doctors, reducing the value of additional ones (diminishing marginal returns); b) a lot of the improvements to welfare over the 20th century came not from medicine itself, but public health (sanitation, vaccinations etc.) This is a lot less than I (Peter) expected, which caused me to rethink my plans and eventually drop out of medical school. After all, you do only live once.

[3] ^ Our aim in this example to show a variety of different approaches and we’re not trying to make a claim that policy is more impactful than fundraising. That depends on a bunch of factors about you, and factors about the world. For example, what’s most impactful also depends on the problem you’re solving and your personal fit.

[4] ^ We can think about this in a framework of being cooperative to other values you might have, like being an upstanding participant in society, a good partner, or a reliable friend. When the consequences of a decision are as high as they are with your career, it can be tempting for some people to let all these other values slip, myself (Peter) included. I mostly try not though.