Book Review: Doing Good Better

Eilidh Wagstaff
5 min readApr 24, 2021

Author: William MacAskill
Publication date: 2015

Summary

Many people want to make the world a better place. Not many people spend much time evaluating the best way to do it. In Doing Good Better, William MacAskill encourages readers to think critically and strategically to maximise their impact.

The book explores how people can make more effective decisions about the organisations they donate to, the work they do, and the goods they consume. The arguments it makes are grounded in research, but Doing Good Better isn’t overly academic in style. Instead, it makes the case for evidence-based altruism in an engaging and accessible way.

Key ideas

Small-scale giving can have a big impact

Running into a burning building to rescue a child who is trapped inside is one way to save a life. But, as Doing Good Better makes clear, it is not the only way. The book argues that most people are able to improve — and in some cases save — many lives simply through practising effective altruism.

A donation of around £2,200 can provide bed nets that will protect many people from malaria, deworm thousands of children or double the income of 15 people for a year. The author argues that if a person is able to donate a multiple of that amount over their lifetime then they will be able to make a significant impact.

“That we can’t solve all the problems in the world doesn’t alter in any way the fact that, if we choose, we can transform the lives of thousands of people,” he writes.

Carefully consider the organisations you donate to

The book compares people’s approach to buying an item for their personal use with their approach to making a donation. When buying a product they want themselves, people typically consider value for money and efficacy. If they find the item doesn’t work, they’ll ask for a refund. In contrast, when making a donation, people tend to base their decisions on the worthiness of a particular cause and not on an organisation’s ability to contribute to it effectively. Once the donation has been made, they rarely follow up to check on the outcomes.

It does not make sense to approach decisions about personal purchases and donations in fundamentally different ways, the author argues. In both cases, people want results. If they buy a toaster, they want it to grill bread. If they donate to the Deworm the World Initiative, they want deworming tablets to be provided to those who need them.

Doing Good Better encourages its readers to critically evaluate the results achieved by the organisation they donate to rather than ceasing to think about their donations as soon as they have been made.

What does the organisation actually do? How cost effective are the programmes the organisation implements? How strong is the research base for the programmes? Are there trials showing the programmes are effective? These are the kinds of questions the book suggests individuals consider before donating to a particular charity.

Earn to give

A career in the not-for-profit sector might seem like an obvious choice for altruistically minded individuals, but it is not necessarily the most effective way to make an impact, Doing Good Better argues.

The book suggests that, in many cases, people can make a greater difference by donating part of their salaries. The author advocates individuals taking well-paid jobs and then donating a significant portion of their wage - say 10% annually. He calls this concept ‘earning to give’.

Reflections

Ethical consumerism

Ethical consumerism is already a powerful force within society and it’s one that continues to grow in size and significance. From installing loft insulation to buying second-hand clothes, there are endless ways in which consumers can use their spending decisions to shape the world around them.

Doing Good Better doesn’t appear to fully capture the possibilities and opportunities presented by ethical consumerism. The chapter on the subject highlights the benefits of common acts of ethical consumerism, such as adopting a vegetarian diet. However, it does not explore some of the lesser-known actions, which have been shown to be highly effective. For example, it doesn’t explore the impact consumers can make by moving their retirement savings to an ethical scheme or by moving from car ownership to car rental.

It also struck me that the book is perhaps too strong in its endorsement of carbon offsetting. It seems to suggest that consumers can eliminate the harm caused by their greenhouse gas emissions simply by purchasing carbon offsets. In reality, it’s not that simple. Offsetting techniques and technologies have their limitations, and so citizens in rich economies will likely also need to adjust their consumption habits in order to avoid contributing to climate change.

Assessing efficacy

Doing Good Better offers a clear, and reasonably rigorous, framework for assessing the efficacy of not-for-profits. However, guidance from the author on how individuals can take the framework and make it their own might have been a useful addition to the book.

There are additional factors, not covered in the proposed framework, that could be useful to consider when evaluating charitable programmes. In some circumstances, it might be necessary not only to assess the charity’s impact and effectiveness but also to conduct specific checks to ensure its operations do no harm.

Added to this, the framework is best suited to assessing well-established programmes and organisations. It is important that new initiatives receive funding too, and so a slightly altered version of the original framework might be needed to evaluate fledgling projects.

Of course, readers do not need permission from the author to tweak and build on the framework set out in the book. It could still have been useful for the author to explicitly invite people to adapt the framework though, as an evolving framework is more effective than a static one.

Conclusions

Doing Good Better is an empowering book. It shows people they can make a difference and it gives them practical advice for doing so.

On a personal level, Doing Good Better has changed the way I think about donating. I used to give a little money to charity on an ad hoc basis; now I plan and review the donations I make. Even though I do not agree with every argument it makes, I am grateful to the book for shifting my perspective in a positive and useful way.

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Eilidh Wagstaff

RI research analyst| Interests include corporate governance and business ethics