Skip to content

Effective Altruism

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

Today’s post by Susie Wilkening is the first in a series profiling sessions I picked for CFM’s annual “Guide to the Future at the Annual Meeting.” I hope these previews help you plan your schedule in St. Louis. Susie will be moderating the session Effective Altruism, Evidence-based Giving, and Museums at 10:30 am on Tuesday, May 9.  She and her panelists will be looking at a trend that may significantly disrupt traditional philanthropy over the next decade—I recommend it you to your attention!

Imagine you are in a museum, and you are standing in front of a masterpiece. Starry Night, perhaps. Or a Gutenberg Bible. A young child is standing beside you, also looking.

But disaster strikes. You have to make a choice … save the masterpiece or save the child. It is on you. No one else can help. Which do you choose?

Perhaps you think my scenario is fanciful. We are never presented with that kind of choice in real life.

Skip over related stories to continue reading article

Or are we? Are we making that kind of choice, a life or a masterpiece, every time we give money to a museum? Are we asking others to make that choice when we ask for funds?

Peter Singer, the Princeton philosopher and advocate of effective altruism, would say yes. That when someone gives money to a museum (he loves to single out museums specifically; my scenario is inspired by one he presents in his book The Life You Could Save), that individual’s gift may have cost others their lives.

How? He estimates that it costs $1,000 to save a life in developing nations with inadequate food, shelter, and medical care. Since museums don’t save lives, a $1,000 gift to a museum means the loss of one life. A gift of a $1,000,000 means 1,000 lives lost.

Thus, the moral choice, nay, the moral imperative, is to save lives, not donate to museums.

And he’s right. At least when you paint it in such black-and-white terms. But is he?

Effective altruism is an evidence-based philosophy in which philanthropic gifts are given to organizations that are most effective at saving the most lives. By that measure, museums don’t make their cut.


While relatively few people practice true effective altruism, it is influencing broader philanthropy. Increasingly, donors and foundations are looking for harder evidence of impact from the philanthropies they support. In practical terms, it means that a donor or foundation that, say, wants to support early childhood development is going to look much harder at the evidence a museum provides about their work in this area … and compare it against other organizations also working with young children. How will the museum’s evidence stack up? Is it enough to say that you spark a love of learning? Probably not.

This shift in philanthropy, with that greater emphasis on evidence of impact, is something that all museums are facing. Heck, we are even facing it in the national budget and in many state and local budgets. Measuring impact has never been more important.

And that’s why Dean Phelus at AAM encouraged me to chair a session on effective altruism, impact-based philanthropy, and other shifts in philanthropy that matter to museums. I’ve pulled together three incisive women to discuss these shifts, and how museums can and should respond.

  • Laura Callanan: Founding partner of Upstart Co-Lab, which creates opportunities for artist innovators to deliver social impact at scale. In particular, she focuses on connecting artists with social entrepreneurs and impact investors to deliver significant impact in communities.
  • Kat Rosqueta: Founding executive director of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy, which helps donors leverage evidence to achieve the greatest social impact.
  • Putter Bert: President and CEO of KidsQuest Children’s Museum, who has first-hand experience dealing with some tough questions about impact from local donors and foundations.

But here’s the thing. This shift toward high-impact philanthropy is good for museums. It is good for our missions. And it is good for our audiences. If we want more individuals to value the role museums play in people’s lives, we have to be as effective in our work as possible. This doesn’t mean turning our backs on our missions, but instead doing our own hard work to understand the actual impact we are having in the lives of individuals, collecting that evidence, articulating it broadly, and focusing our efforts on the things that matter the most. Understanding, measuring, and maximizing impact only makes our work better.

And without such evidence of impact, museums will suffer. Greatly. So will our society. Because I happen to believe, and my most recent research underscores, that without the work of museums, it will be harder to raise new generations of empathetic, critical thinkers who understand the cultural challenges of real global change … and who will care about those issues in the first place.

I hope you can join us at our session in St. Louis!

Susie Wilkening (@susiewilkening) is the principal of Wilkening Consulting. She has 20 years of experience in museums, including over ten years leading custom projects for museums as well as fielding groundbreaking national research on the role of museums in American society. She resides in Seattle, and is working hard to raise her two young children to be empathetic, creative, global citizens … by taking them to museums early and often.

Susie shares her latest research and data insights at The Data Museum blog and book and research reviews on The Curated Bookshelf.

AAM Member-Only Content

AAM Members get exclusive access to premium digital content including:

  • Featured articles from Museum magazine
  • Access to more than 1,500 resource listings from the Resource Center
  • Tools, reports, and templates for equipping your work in museums
Log In

We're Sorry

Your current membership level does not allow you to access this content.

Upgrade Your Membership


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Field Notes!

Packed with stories and insights for museum people, Field Notes is delivered to your inbox every Monday. Once you've completed the form below, confirm your subscription in the email sent to you.

If you are a current AAM member, please sign-up using the email address associated with your account.

Are you a museum professional?

Are you a current AAM member?

Success! Now check your email to confirm your subscription, and please add to your safe sender list.