The Explanatory Obstacle of EA

This post discusses multiple issues relating to the way the EA movement is perceived (ranging from common misconceptions to unjustified strong opinions against EA) and suggests alternatives to the ways we describe EA.

Since I don’t have the resources to quantify this problem, I rely on my personal experience as a community builder and that of many other community builders and explain the rationale behind my suggestions.

Around 2013, a couple of mass media articles about EA (1,2,3) - specifically about Earning To Give—were published. These articles clearly missed most of the nuances behind the idea of Earning To Give, and heavily misrepresented the idea.

In light of such events, the EA movement at that time faced a critical question:
Should we stay away from mass media?
The answer the EA community arrived at was yes, and CEA formalized this as a part of its strategy:

Historically, spreading EA via the mass media was a key focus of CEA. Over time it became clear that the mass media is not particularly well suited to spreading ideas with high fidelity. Therefore, we have pivoted away from this focus and towards higher-fidelity methods like books and podcasts.

I think this was a good decision, but I think the movement should have asked itself another critical question to prevent future broad misunderstandings of EA:
Are we explaining what EA is well enough?

From my experience, the answer is no, even today. EA Israel used and experimented with the common pitches and explanations from several EA pitch guides (1,2,3), but we’ve kept noticing how almost every new member needs additional explanations on the basics of EA. We’ve kept encountering newcomers who are highly excited about EA while thinking it’s something else (e.g. it’s about making people more altruistic, or specifically making charities more efficient), and then lose excitement through the onboarding process. We also find ourselves struggling with common misconceptions, as does the rest of the community (1,2).

If individuals who look into EA perceive it as something that is not sufficiently close to its meaning, we both attract individuals who are not a good fit for EA, and miss individuals who could have been a good fit.

Clarifying our explanation of EA is also a great way to recognize disagreements among the community about what EA is. For instance, does EA call individuals to spend more resources on doing good, or to do more good with the same amount of resources?

What is a good explanation?

For the purposes of this post, let’s make a distinction between three approaches to describing a concept, each with a different focus:

  • A definition: Should be as accurate as possible.

  • An explanation: Should be as clear as possible.

  • A pitch: Should be as convincing as possible.

While not true in all contexts, a pitch in our case should include a clear explanation of EA: Regardless of how convincing our pitch is, we still want newcomers to have a good understanding of what EA is, so they can later make better decisions. Therefore, crafting better explanations of EA is beneficial both for pitching and for explanations.

The EA community discussed the definition of EA many times before (1,2,3), and has many convincing and clever pitches (linked above). But I haven’t seen as many discussions on explanations, and accordingly, I think what’s most missing for newcomers is clarity.

Sidenote: It can be challenging to discuss what “convincing” is. I find it useful using the theory of motivational salience, and I’ll try to explain how certain phrases create reasons for being involved with EA (incentive salience) versus creating reasons against being involved in EA (aversive salience). For the purpose of this post, this mostly means that we want to emphasize the value gained from being involved, and reduce the perceived effort of becoming involved.

What is not a good explanation?

To better explain what I see as a good explanation, and to exemplify the problem, let’s take a look at what was until very recently the explanation of EA at, just before it was updated in August 2021 (I’ll discuss the new version later in this post):

Source (note that this website snapshot might have been affected by A/​B testing of some sort)

The main issues I see in the explanation above are:

  • This description tells us what EA is about, but not what it is. Is it a movement? A community? A set of ideas?

  • Describing EA as about utilization of resources is indeed accurate, but it is not clear.

    • What do resources mean in the context of helping others? Saying time and money later in the explanation doesn’t quite resolve the obscurity when reading this line.

    • It is also off-putting for people without an analytical background—who are underrepresented in EA and are important for skill diversity.

  • The sentence “to find the very best causes to work on” implies that EA is mainly about cause prioritization, while most of the individuals in the movement don’t work directly on cause prioritization.

  • Saying “the best causes to work on” here means something like “the causes that would help others the most”. This can be inferred from the text by understanding the relationship between the first and second sentences. I suspect, and probably only some readers would make this connection, especially because they don’t linger on the text and only skim through it. If we want readers to understand something, we need it to be prominent.

Common misconceptions we wish to avoid

Before discussing better ways to describe EA, it’s helpful to keep in mind common misconceptions that our explanation would need to address:

  • EA doesn’t only take into account measurable or ‘proven’ interventions, and it also takes into account uncertainty and systematic change (1,2,3,4)

  • EA is not only about donations, but also about doing good in additional contexts, such as developing an impact-oriented career or volunteering (1,2,3)

  • EA isn’t only for utilitarians (1,2)

  • EA isn’t about a single cause area (e.g. global poverty) (1)

What is the basic concept of EA?

As a starting point for a standard explanation of EA, let’s use the current explanation on

While this description is much clearer than the previous one, it relies on a few traditional ways for describing EA that I suggest we should change. I’ll address those along with general guidelines that I think would lead to better explanations and pitches of EA:

Suggested Guidelines

Below are a few guidelines that I suggest using when explaining or pitching EA. These are merely suggestions and probably not optimal, but I share them with the hope of starting a discussion on clearer explanations of EA.

#1: Helping others (versus doing good)

I suggest using mostly “helping others”, rather than “doing good” (e.g. helping others the most instead of doing the most good):

  • It’s much more concrete and much easier to imagine what “helping others” means rather than “doing more good”.

  • “Helping others” has a stronger emotional connotation than “doing good”.

  • “Do good” has multiple meanings, not all of them refer to altruistic actions, and that probably decreases clarity.

This is not a guideline against using “doing good”, but only a guideline for using it less than a better alternative. If you’ve already used “helping others”, alternating between them is useful.

Another interchangeable term to use occasionally is “social impact” or just “impact”. This alternative shares the first concretization benefit mentioned above, and also connects EA to the increasingly popular “Impact” buzzword, which is important to attract organizations and individuals who relate with this buzzword (think of Impact Investing, Social Impact Bonds, philanthropic grants, and so on—fields where it’s very rare to find the mindset of impact maximization).

Caveat: Depending on the philosophical stance of individuals, in edge cases, “Doing good” would be more accurate if their definition of good doesn’t refer to helping others.

#2: Prioritization, in order to help the most

This section touches on how to present the most central idea of EA, which would probably make it the most important and yet controversial suggestion in this post. I would highly appreciate your feedback on this point.

The very core idea of EA is something like “getting the most good out of an investment of resources”, or “making decisions based on maximizing good”. Both the resources (as explained above) and the maximization approaches can be off-putting to individuals who didn’t study analytical fields.

In EA Israel, we’ve invested a lot in exploring how to convey this idea with enough clarity. From our experience, just saying “helping others the most” doesn’t convey the core idea of EA with enough emphasis, and many individuals don’t recall this specific idea afterward, even though it’s the most important point about EA.

We’ve found it works better to focus our explanations on prioritizationEA is about the prioritization of opportunities to help others, in order to help the most.
The word “opportunities” in this sentence is interchangeable with “efforts” or “ways”.

The concept of prioritization introduces many important nuances; it provides better intuition and framing for the use of analytical methods to make decisions, and avoids the impression that we care only about evidence and ‘proven’ interventions.
Thinking of EA research as offering a toolkit for prioritizing opportunities makes it much clearer what sort of information and methodologies we offer, what’s the purpose of measuring cost-effectiveness (not for its own sake, but for comparisons in order to be able to prioritize), and so on.

Prioritization also conveys the point that EA is not necessarily about doing more; it’s about achieving more with the same resources.
The confusion between these two ideas is a common misconception when using explanations like “EA is about doing the most good” or “Effective altruism is about helping others as much as you can.”

Sidenote: The phrase “Doing good better” is occasionally used for marketing purposes (e.g. as a motto or short headline), but it isn’t as good as an explanation. If we don’t even give a hint of why we think our proposed paths to doing good are better than others, it’s unclear what we’re advocating for, and it can come off as a condescending statement—especially when pitching to individuals who are highly invested in other ways of doing good.

#3: Give concrete examples of the contexts in which we do good

My epistemic status for this guideline is extremely confident, as this point is rooted in the most agreed-upon guidelines of user experience and marketing.

Without being concrete about the contexts in which we try to help others—such as donation, career decisions, choosing research topics, and more—it’s not clear to what areas of life we’re alluding to, and it doesn’t connect to any specific needs of newcomers (who might just be, for instance, in a career crossroad or seeking donation advice). If it’s clear that this pitch offers value on something concrete that the reader seeks advice on, they’d probably read more. Without concrete examples, the value we’re providing is unclear.

This is a great place for adjusting the explanation or pitch to the audience. The major options for contexts, in an order that I think is beneficial for clarity and motivation:

  • Donations

  • Volunteering

    • Why this is included as one of the major contexts: We offer very little guidance on effective volunteering compared to donations and career (yet*), but:

      • This is a basic context of doing good, that increases the overall clarity of this point.

      • Mentioning volunteering might match the needs of many newcomers; for specific individuals (who are interested in volunteering) this can be the entry point that would attract them to learn more about EA - whether we eventually help them with prioritizing volunteer opportunities or with career/​donation decisions.

  • Career decisions

    • Why last on the list: Although this is pretty obvious for EAs, the connection between doing good and career is not clear to newcomers. Sometimes in spoken pitches, I use this as the last example and add “and even career decisions”).

Additional contexts:

  • Choosing research topics

  • Policy

  • Social entrepreneurship

*I personally believe that attracting individuals to EA using the lens of effective volunteering is an extremely overlooked outreach strategy, and EA Israel is currently working on a pilot of an effective volunteering website (led by Yael Vardi) that will be launched soon (for feedback on the forum).

Edit note: I originally had stronger opinions on the order of the list, but I now left here only my thoughts on the order of ‘career choices’.

#4: We’re a movement and a community

This stands in contrast to many other ways to explain what we are, that are accurate or appealing but quite unclear. Saying that EA is a question is a great way to describe epistemic modesty, but it’s really confusing to a newcomer that has never encountered people organizing so well together around… a question? The same problem arises when describing EA as an “intellectual project”.
Just to clarify—I’m not saying we shouldn’t send the EA is a question post to newcomers as a part of a reading list (I even strongly recommend that) - I’m saying it’s an unclear way to describe what EA is for the first time.

There is a very strong clarity benefit of describing us as a movement; it provides a strong context of taking action, and of us trying to advocate for something.

Guideline #6 discusses whether we should explain EA as a philosophy.

#5: Time and money

People don’t intuitively link resources to time and money. Some link it just to money, which is misleading.

Caveat: Less accurate. Individuals with other dominant resources, such as skills and connections, wouldn’t have those resources pop into their minds. But hey, saying “resources″ doesn’t pop these into their heads anyway. That said, if you’re pitching to people who are highly connected, saying “time” and “money” explicitly might make them feel like they have something unique to give (which would feel more meaningful → increase motivation).

#6 What we do and how you benefit from being involved

After pitching EA, I’m often asked about what happens in the movement, or what people actually do.

There are many answers to this question, and as another best practice in user experience and marketing, I suggest that we choose the answers that emphasize what the readers would receive from being involved (or how they can help):

  • The movement develops and promotes practical tools and advice about prioritization of social action.

  • It’s a thriving community where we collaborate and consult with one another about how we can help others the most.

A few notes about these sentences:

  • Saying both developing and promoting is important. Many descriptions of EA only mentioned the developing part (e.g. describing EA as a “research field”), but it’s obvious that the movement is also investing a tremendous amount of effort in spreading EA mindsets to individuals and within different sectors.

  • The framing of practical tools is not currently common in EA, but is beneficial to neutralize the impression that being involved in EA is mostly talking. This is also the weakness of describing EA as a philosophy (in addition to that “adopting a philosophy” sounds quite demanding and even frightening).

  • In certain situations, especially when speaking with individuals who already run a project, it can be beneficial to add “...advice about measurement and prioritization”, to give a better sense of the tools relevant to the later phases of their project.

What these guidelines don’t convey and you might want to include in a longer explanation

Bonus #1: Evidence and reason

Talking about evidence and reason is very important, and I suggest this to be the very first thing to say when you get an opportunity to explain EA in length. Nevertheless, given the guidelines of prioritization and practical tools, I don’t think this needs to be a part of the basic pitch:

  • We only care about evidence and reason instrumentally—using evidence and reason is not the goal of EA. We don’t want to “dilute” the movement with individuals with bad epistemology, but the importance of thinking thoroughly about doing good is conveyed when we talk about prioritization and about practical tools for prioritization and measurement.

  • We need to attract individuals who are excited about doing good, not individuals who are excited about evidence and reason. We do want to convince anyone who wants to do good to use evidence and reasons, but the other way around is:

    • (1) not the focus of EA, as we’re not about finding how research or data-driven tools can do good, we’re about how to do the most good

    • (2) might be dangerous if we end up being biased towards cause areas that are more intellectually stimulating and exciting for research.

  • The expression “using evidence and reason” is also not strong in clarity; it means a lot for individuals who understand the importance of evidence and reason, but individuals without scientific mindsets (e.g. aren’t familiar with concepts such as counterfactuals, control groups, expected value) probably don’t understand what evidence even means in the context of doing good.

Bonus #2: Give a concrete example of a tool

The most nontrivial, and yet easiest to explain, are:

  • Neglectedness: one of the most overlooked but most important considerations.

  • Counterfactual thinking: I’ve found that calling it “What-would-have-happened-if” is clearer (and less non-condescending) than saying “counterfactuals”.
    (it’s also useful to mention the 2019 Nobel prize in Economic Sciences, which inspired Givewell’s work)

  • Marginal Impact: A good anecdote for explaining this is donating to Wikipedia now compared to its early days.

Bonus #3: Give a concrete example of an effective donation or career opportunity

For instance, AMF is a very clear and concrete example, which is also very nontrivial—most people are surprised that a low-tech intervention such as distributing bed nets is so effective, but it’s easy for them to understand why it’s the case once the logic is explained.

It is important to emphasize that this is just an example and that the question of “what’s more effective” is way more complex (both in a moral and epistemological sense).

Sensitivity to context

Many explanations of EA (such as that on and that of Will MacAskill) put extreme emphasis on “taking action”. Will discusses this in the context of misconceptions within academia, which makes sense, as concepts are often discussed in academia without the context of taking action. On the other hand, outside academic contexts, this point is probably redundant.

Sensitivity to chosen explanation

Moreover, explanations might also be sensitive to whether certain chosen guidelines. To continue the example above, if we describe EA as an “intellectual project” or a “research field” instead of explicitly describing it as a social movement, we increase the need to add an emphasis on “taking action”.

An example of a 1-minute spoken pitch

This text is based on EA Israel’s upcoming intro video (in Hebrew). The first three paragraphs serve as an intro for the video (and their goal is to emphasize the prioritization point), but are optional for a full pitch.

The highlighted paragraphs (with larger font) are my suggested explanation. After that, I added the first “bonus” about evidence and reason.

How do people buy a car? They do a lot of research online about different models, consult with others, go for test drives, and make lists of pros and cons...

This mindset—where we consider many alternatives to choose the best option—is a prioritization mindset. This is our natural thinking when we take care of ourselves.

But our natural mindset when we help others is actually often a “checkbox” mindset. Think of the expression “it’s the thought that counts”—we checkmark the intention of helping, without regarding how much we’ve helped. But try to imagine a couple that’s about to buy a car, and one of them says “but this car doesn’t have air conditioning!” and the second responds “that’s OK, at least we intended to find a good car”.

We are Effective Altruism: a social movement that calls us to prioritize our efforts to help others, in order to help the most. We aim that when individuals are about to invest time or money in helping others, they will examine their options, and choose the one with the highest impact—whether they are looking to help through donations, volunteering, career decisions, social entrepreneurship, or any other means.

The movement develops and promotes practical tools and advice about prioritization of social action, and is also a thriving community where we consult with one another about how we can help others the most.

In order to help others the most, we can’t just guess what would help more—we need to measure our impact, meaning to measure things like: How many people does this project get out of poverty? How many lives does it save? How much animal suffering does it avert? How much CO2 emissions does it spare?

The movement promotes tools for this type of measurement, in addition to tools for situations where measuring is impractical, as some problems are too complex for direct measurement (like global warming), and because we can’t always foresee the results of our decisions (such as when we’re choosing a career path).

{At the end of the pitch, I recommend mentioning concrete action item—specifically, you can invite them to learn more, ask for advice, volunteer, and stay up to date through social media or an EA newsletter}

Examples of short pitches

Each of these examples is made of two sentences; the first one communicates the core idea of EA (guideline #2), and the second is conveying an important nuance (either guideline #3 of concrete examples or guideline #6 of what we actually do).

Using a prioritization framing (with both options for the second sentence):

  • We are Effective Altruism: A social movement that calls us to prioritize our efforts to help others, in order to help others the most—whether this help is through volunteering, donations, or career decisions.

  • We are Effective Altruism: A social movement that calls us to prioritize our efforts to help others, in order to help others the most—we promote practical tools and advice about prioritization of opportunities to help others.

An alternative for the first sentence, using a maximization framing:

  • Effective Altruism is a social movement assisting people in maximizing their social impact.

An alternative for the first sentence, using the resources framing, but in a way that might be able to convey the “prioritization” concept:

  • Effective Altruism is a community of people thinking separately and together about how the investment of our time or money can help others the most.

Next steps & testing

While self-experimenting with different ways to pitch EA is probably beneficial, I believe there’s a need for strong leadership regarding this matter. If after conducting market testing we find some ways to explain EA’s core ideas that are extremely effective, the movement’s leadership would have to invest substantial effort to get this messaging used across the movement. Such findings might also lead to harder decisions on the branding of the movements, e.g. changing its name at some point in the future.

One particular question I’d be happy to get a better answer on is how severe is this problem of misunderstanding EA—I’ve tried to explain my intuition on why I see this as the biggest bottleneck to building EA, but the extent of investment in this topic should depend on the delta of improvement in clarity we can make with different explanations and anecdotes.

Personally, I think that the scale of this problem and the testing of different alternatives (that could include metrics such as “how many nuances of EA are understood from this pitch”) is a very important topic for projects like the EA Market Testing.
That said, I think that the process of creating a good pitch (that is later to be tested) is best when it’s done with personal experimentation and quick feedback loops, so I recommend that individuals who work in out-facing roles in meta-EA orgs, and community builders, would experiment and be attentive to responses to different explanations.