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Susan Appe, University at Albany – Does Effective Altruism Drive American International Giving

Susan Appe

On Rockefeller College of Public Affairs & Policy Week: Why do Americans give so much to charities overseas?

Susan Appe, associate professor of public administration and policy, explores different kinds of donors.

Susan Appe is Associate Professor of Public Administration and Policy at Rockefeller College of Public Affairs & Policy at the University at Albany, SUNY. Her research focuses on government–nonprofit relations and the dimensions and evolution of the nonprofit sector. She examines how government policy influences and shapes nonprofit organizations/NGOs, how and why nonprofit organizations form networks and their implications, and the relationship between civil society, foreign aid, and development. She is currently working on research projects related to diaspora philanthropy as well as about the roles of public administration and nonprofit organizations in mass atrocity prevention. Since 2020, Appe has served as co-editor-in-chief of VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, an interdisciplinary journal and leading academic outlet for research on the third sector, publishing on topics related to civil society, nonprofit organizations, social enterprise, volunteering and philanthropy.

Does Effective Altruism Drive American International Giving?


In 2020, Americans gave over $471 billion to charity and giving to international causes saw a growth of over 9 percent. Given the multitude of outlets to which individuals can give their charitable dollars, why do Americans donate to international causes? Such a question advances a major debate in the field of philanthropy that compares the merits of giving locally versus giving internationally.

There are considerations that might inform the motivations attached to giving internationally. A dominant intellectual movement, effective altruism, has emphasized rational and moral decision-making prior to donating in order to judge a donation’s cost-effectiveness. That is, the donor seeks to ensure that the effect of a donation is maximized, often measured by the number of lives saved. Effective altruists argue that for those in the U.S. and other industrialized countries, currency goes further to meet critical needs overseas, thus giving to international causes is simply morally superior.

Our research shows, however, that everyday American donors who give internationally both experience and calculate needs overseas in ways that are often distinct from effective altruists. In fact, more likely than not donors are personally exposed to needs overseas through certain pathways, such as taking part in missionary work or church-based volunteering, or adopting a child from another country. Our research shows how these pathways have both local and international dimensions. What is called philantrolocalism emerges in contrast to effective altruism as it prioritizes local and personal engagement. These donors are not persuaded solely by the cost-effectiveness and dollar-and-cent arguments which support effective altruists’ international giving. Rather, these donors consider their overseas gifts as indeed person-to-person expressions of helping and caring alongside their local giving.

Read More:

Appe, S. & Oreg, A. (Forthcoming). Is effective altruism driving American grassroots philanthropic giving overseas?Third World Quarterly. OnlineFirst.

Appe, S. & Oreg, A. (2020). Philanthropic entrepreneurs who give overseas: An exploratory study of international giving through grassroots organizations. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 49(3), 502-522.


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