What is Effective Altruism? A Guide for Product Managers

What is Effective Altruism? A Guide for Product Managers

Product managers seek to find and address the pain of others - so it’s no wonder that some of the most altruistic and philanthropic people I know are product managers!

In fact, most product managers I know are interested in creating a positive impact in the world through their work. And, on top of that, they’re also interested in creating a positive impact in the world outside of their work.

But, there are so many potential causes to address outside of work! And, there are so many ways to get involved, whether it’s donating or volunteering or spreading the word. What’s the best way to create the most positive impact in the world, based on limited resources?

That’s where the concept of effective altruism comes in.

What is effective altruism?

Here’s the definition of effective altruism from EffectiveAltruism.org: it’s how to “use our resources to help others the most” that we possibly can.

While this question seems simple, it’s actually quite nuanced. For example, say you donate $100 to a particular cause.

What if you could donate that $100 to a different cause, to create a positive impact that is 10 times larger? Or, what if instead of donating $100, you donate an hour of your time? Which of these yields the most positive impact?

One way to determine whether a problem is a good place to focus is to use the importance, tractability, and neglectedness framework. What does this mean?

Importance is measured by “how much better the world would be if the problem was fully solved.” How many people’s lives could you improve for the better? And, by what degree would you improve their lives?

Tractability is measured by “how solvable is this problem right now?” After all, if there’s a problem that is entirely unsolvable, it’s not a good idea to invest in it.

Neglectedness is measured by “how many people and organizations are already focusing on this problem?” Due to the law of diminishing marginal utility, the more resources there are, the less impact you’ll drive.

As an intuitive example - if you donate $10 to plant 10 trees, you know that your impact is quite small versus the total number of organizations that are tackling climate change. Therefore, climate change is important and tractable but not neglected. The higher number of people and the larger amount of money is dedicated, the less neglected the cause area is.

Why is effective altruism valuable to product managers who want to do good?

Surprisingly, effective altruism and product management share many of the core operating principles! Here’s how the two disciplines are similar to one another.

First, both product managers and effective altruists are always constrained by limited resources. Money, time, knowledge, and influence are all crucial resources that can make or break the success of an initiative.

That’s why prioritization is key for both product managers and effective altruists. In fact, the importance, tractability, and neglectedness framework is one that we already use every day as product managers!

  • Importance: If a problem wouldn’t meaningfully improve business outcomes, we shouldn’t work on it as product managers
  • Tractability: If a problem is important but we can’t solve it, then we can’t work on it as product managers
  • Neglectedness: If the problem we’re trying to tackle has already been solved by most of our competitors, then it’s not a point of differentiation, and therefore it’s not as compelling to the value proposition of our product

Second, both product managers and effective altruists have many ways to address a problem. As a product manager, you might find that your highest-leverage task isn’t to write a spec, but rather to speak with a customer. As an effective altruist, you might find that sharing an article with friends might be far more effective than personally donating money to a cause.

Third, both product managers and effective altruists aim to address root causes rather than symptoms. As product managers, we know that we can’t take every feature request at face value - rather, each feature request is caused by a user experiencing a pain, and we seek to address the root pain.

Similarly, effective altruists focus on prevention rather than treatment, because prevention is much more cost-effective than treatment is.

Fourth, both product managers and effective altruists are informed by data, and they both measure outcomes to determine whether they’re making a positive impact. They both run iterative experiments on the work that they’re doing, so that they can create better outcomes over time.

Fifth, both product managers and effective altruists know that a slightly better decision than average yields exponentially better outcomes. As a product manager, if you make a great decision rather than just a good one, you might be able to create a 10x impact in your business.

Similarly, by selecting the right problem area to solve, an effective altruist might save not just 100 lives in their lifetime, but they might save thousands or even millions of lives through their efforts.

As a product manager, you’re much better equipped than most people are in determining how to best invest your time, money, and influence to make a positive impact in the world.

In fact, when I first learned about effective altruism, I was shocked that I hadn’t applied my product management mindset to my work as a philanthropist!

How can I get involved as an effective altruist?

We’re all familiar with the concept of donating money. In fact, many philanthropic initiatives are bottlenecked by the funds that they can access.

Assuming that a particular initiative is truly an impactful one, we can help make that initiative scale up in the world by funneling our money towards it. In the effective altruism community, this concept is called earn to give.

If I volunteered a weekend to teach one child to read, I would be spending 10 hours to help that one child. But, if I earned $500 that weekend through some other means, and I donated all of that to a children’s literacy organization, I might be able to help dozens of children instead!

So, earning to give can be a surprisingly good way for product managers to give back. After all, most product managers are already constrained by time, so volunteering time is not a good way for them to use their resources.

Rather, these time-constrained product managers can donate financially instead, which enables other volunteers to do good in the world on their behalf. After all, product management is one of the most well-paid professions you can find. As an individual donor, you can make a shockingly large impact!

If you decide to take the earn to give route, you'll want to identify which charities will be most impactful, so that you can maximize the impact of your donations. After all, donating to an effective charity yields significantly more impact than donating to the average charity, since your donation will have far more cost-effectiveness.

Consider using GiveWell to identify the cause areas where your charitable donations will make the most impact. Or, consider using Giving What We Can to identify where your donations should go.

Another way to get involved is to identify new, impactful focus areas to tackle. That is, if you can convince other effective altruists that your cause yields higher ROI than other investment areas, you can get these effective altruists to pivot their energies towards your cause.

Product managers are typically on the cutting edge of technology, and they also typically have deep insight into a specific industry and into a specific group of users. This knowledge means that product managers have the capability to identify new areas of investment for others to focus on.

It’s surprisingly similar to crafting a roadmap! When a product manager creates a roadmap, she assesses all of the knowledge available to her to decide where her company should invest resources next. She identifies focus areas, then works with engineers, designers, and others to address the focus area.

Yet another way to get involved is to dedicate your own time towards identified focus areas. There’s already lots of great research on priority areas and careers that you can take to create positive impact in the world.

Since product managers have both a wide breadth of general skills and a deep mastery of specific skills (which we call being T-shaped), we can be uniquely positioned to create exponential impact through our time and our knowledge. So, product managers are sometimes the best people to get involved in particular cause areas.

One other way you can create a positive impact in the world is to spread ideas to others. As a product manager, you’re a full-time storyteller! You share knowledge about customers to your engineers and to your designers, and you share knowledge about your product to your customers. 

When you spread the ideas that doing something is better than doing nothing, that giving back is important, and that giving back thoughtfully can be an impact multiplier, you’re empowering many others in your community to do more good in the world.

Product managers aren’t measured on their individual output. Rather, they’re measured on the output of all of the stakeholders they work with: engineers, designers, quality assurance, analysts, sales, marketing, customer success, legal & compliance, and more!

Similarly, effective altruists shouldn’t measure themselves on their sole individual contributions. Rather, they should measure themselves by the total positive impact that they’ve unlocked across all of the people they’ve influenced.

Summary

The world needs more love and care right now than ever before, and we’re the right people to make the world a better place for all.

As product managers, we’re uniquely positioned to unlock positive impact, not just in our day-to-day work, but also in our private lives. Whether we decide to donate money, to identify new problem areas, to invest our own time, or to spread ideas, all of these actions can create a significant positive impact in the world.

When we use the lens of effective altruism, we can unlock 10x or 100x more positive impact than we might be able to do otherwise. And, thankfully, the principles and methods of effective altruism are already familiar to product managers!

Additional resources

Want to learn more about effective altruism? Check out these resources:

  • 80,000 Hours: Learn how to use your career to do the most good that you can, and get access to interviews and podcasts on effective altruism
  • The Life You Can Save: This free ebook by Peter Singer discusses how to make a larger impact in the effective altruism movement, and paints a clear picture on how to alleviate extreme poverty in the developing world.
  • Effective Altruism Concepts: Learn what other effective altruists are focusing on tackling, such as career choices and high-impact careers, artificial intelligence, global health and global poverty, mental healthy and well-being, animal welfare and animal suffering, and creating social movements
  • The Centre for Effective Altruism: Find out about multiple effective altruism organizations and charity evaluators
  • Doing Good Better: This book by William MacAskill discusses how to drive more impact with your resources
  • The why and how of effective altruism: This TED talk by Peter Singer walks through multiple thought experiments to help you identify how you can create the most good you possibly can with your own life.

Also, consider joining a local effective altruism (EA) group! For example, if you’re in London, check out EA London. If you’re in Singapore, check out EA Singapore. To find out more, here’s a directory and map of local EA groups.

 


Have thoughts that you'd like to contribute around effective altruism and philanthropy? Chat with other product managers around the world in our PMHQ Community!