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Book Review: Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference

Is “well-intentioned” the same as “well done”? With the concept of effective altruism, William MacAskill - Professor of Economic Philosophy and the founder of two non-profit organizationspresents criteria to assess the work of non-profit organizations and make them more effective. His unusual but sound approaches can also be applied to the field of arts and culture. At the same time, MacAskill's book is a practical and intuitive guideline for facilities, staff workers and supporters of non-profit cultural work.

 

 

Is social value the main argument of your organization to policy makers and potential sponsors? And, when you are together with your friends and family, do you also justify your statistically low paid and temporary work in the cultural sector with the greater purpose of doing something good? Culture is important for educating people and opening new perspectives. But which organization does that particularly well? How can added value be measured and depicted? And, does one have to put up with precarious conditions? Each institution and every employee in the cultural field poses such questions at one point or another. William MacAskill’s book provides answers that are sometimes uncomfortable but are incredibly helpful.

With his book Doing Good Better, MacAskill wishes to encourage public and private donors to selectively support like-minded individuals and organizations with the most effective output. To achieve this, he works with indicators that are based neither on personal nor on purely economic interests, but for example calculate the so-called QALYs or WALYs (Quality or Well-being Adjusted Life Years) or the expected value of a project, i.e., the benefits that can be most likely expected.

Figures, methods and questions for non-profit organizations

MacAskill explains the key figures, the underlying mindsets and methods in the theoretical first part of the book. On the basis of five questions, one learns how to assess and improve the effectiveness and impact of charitable work:

  • How many people benefit from it and to what extent?
  • Is this the most effective thing that one can do?
  • Is this a field that has been neglected?
  • What would happen without support / expansion in this field?
  • How good are the prospects and how much would success be worth?

Now, you may be wondering if these questions are suitable for measuring the added value of culture. These doubts are justified because cultural institutions are currently being measured with indicators that are not always apt for them. Visitor numbers indicate nothing about whether an establishment is enriching the lives of its visitors or is giving them new content. But indeed “even in what seem like „unquantifiable“ areas (...) we can still think rigorously, in an evidence-based manner, about how good those activities are. We just need to assess the chances of success and how good success would be if it happened“.

Key figures for marketing

Therefore, it is by no means outrageous, nor does it place the character of the project in question, if one has assessed it using rational methods. You can better convince yourself and potential supporters with solid arguments about the value of your work. "Effective altruism" is therefore not only a management tool but a marketing tool as well. Promoters want to know how useful the goal of a project is and what exactly an organization has achieved with the money that has been invested. For MacAskill, appropriate feedback mechanisms are needed in the world of the non-profit to show tangible information about the success and failure of projects.

He provides examples and instructions of how this would look like. They focus on precise targets to make it clear to stakeholders why one theater, museum or cultural center is better than another. The correct figures are an important basis for communication, explains MacAskill, because not every organization with the same purpose has the same value. This applies even more when for example a new orchestra or festival enters the already saturated market, increasing the competition rather than covering other needs that have been neglected. It would be more sensible to invest in a risky endeavor with potentially higher expectation. MacAskill, as the voice of your patrons, would not only ask if you are achieving the greatest impact with your resources, but what kind of difference have you caused.

Comparability and effectiveness in practice

The second part of the book is very practical. He deals with exemplary charities and uses selected issues and sectors to show the applicability of the theory. Again, MacAskill’s questions help cultural managers to improve their organization:

  • What does the organization do? Which programs does it pursue for what  purpose? 
  • How cost-effective and useful are the programs?
  • How accurately are they implemented? What facts can be used to assess  their function? 
  • How does the organization evaluate its programs? Does it work transparently and admit its failures?
  • What alternatives are there in the same field? 
  • Does this organization need additional funds? What they would be used for? Why have they not been sufficiently supported by others until now?

For MacAskill, the amount of administrative work is not his concern, but its value in comparison to similar institutions. Employee satisfaction is also an important aspect for him. Therefore, the author dedicates a separate chapter to those who (want to) work in the non-profit sector. They should critically analyze what their actual professional goals are. Do you want to earn your living by dealing with culture? Then you are exactly right. But if you want to improve society and be active in culture for purely altruistic reasons then, according to MacAskill, you should scrutinize your own career path. That means, rather than being active for an institution that has noble goals but reaches few people, his alternative is "earn to give," in other words, to strive for the highest possible income in order to donate the money for a meaningful initiative.

Conclusion

Although non-profit organizations “often talk about trying to maximize their impact, they normally just focus on maximizing their impact within the cause or causes that they’re personally passionate about […], rather than thinking strategically about which causes they should focus on". In order to implement MacAskill’s ideas, you need to ask yourself how you define the tasks of culture and achieve the programs of your organization for a specific cause. What kinds of formats can be used to reach and motivate as many people possible for a specific social issue?

Whether or not you would like to discover effective altruism for yourself, each cultural organization should face the challenge of defining measurable goals for their institution. This is where the questions and mindset of "doing good better" serve as a good starting point for cultural practice and research. Because, according to MacAskill, applied research areas such as cultural management have the greatest potential to create new added value through their interdisciplinary nature. It could be a promising strategy to further develop MacAskill's indicators and methods for the field of culture, so that "well-intentioned" truly means "well done."

More information on effective altruism can be found here. See also our book review of "Culture as a Vocation. Sociology of career choices in cultural management"

Author/Source: written by Kristin Oswald, translated by Erik Dorset
Management Topic: Organisation & Leadership
Cultural Area: General
Submitted by editor-in-chief on Aug 08, 2016