Theme 11

The changing face of altruism

Charitable donations are increasing, with new ways of giving and, in some cases, more emphasis on long term results. Meanwhile development needs more flexible, risk-tolerant, longer-term funding, especially with ODA under pressure. While philanthropy is only a part of the funding available for sustainable development, can it inspire a more risk-tolerant approach that looks to the interests of future generations?


Worldwide more people are giving to charity [156], helping strangers and doing voluntary work: their numbers have increased by a quarter since before Covid.  There are new ways to give: you can donate bitcoin; Manifold Markets has established a charity prediction market [157]; UNICEF has used non-fungible tokens (NFTs) to raise money for internet access in schools, giving donors a way to track when their funds are used.  Oxfam has partnered with universities to trial a blockchain-powered platform  that supports real-time donations, triggered by conditions their donors set.  

The founder of clothing company Patagonia has donated  the company to a charitable trust to fight the climate crisis.  In 2021 effective altruists spent $600m  on global health and development (although the collapse of cryptocurrency exchange FTX has shut down its philanthropic Future Fund) .  Meanwhile some longstanding donors are reducing their commitments to ODA. 

  • More tech innovations for philanthropy

  • Growing concern for future generations

  • New alliances for the global commons


Illustrative Signals
  • Oxfam trials blockchain platform that triggers donations when donors’ conditions are met

  • Founder of Patagonia gives company to charitable trust to fight climate change

  • “Effective altruists” spend $600m on health & development in 2021

  • Collapse of FTX shuts its philanthropic Future Fund

So what for development

Flows of philanthropic funding are relatively modest compared to ODA.  However, at a time when development is calling for more flexible, risk-tolerant funding that can be put to work towards long term results, private donors – with no taxpayers to answer to - might be less risk-averse partners than government donors. 

Major philanthropic donations may come with conditions or values attached that don’t always align with recipients’ or with the SDGs.  They might focus on a single issue, or prioritise short-term results, rather than trying to address systemic or structural challenges.  In return for relatively modest contributions [163], philanthropists and private donors may secure an influential role in decision-making and agenda-setting.

New mechanisms for giving can be risky – NFTs and cryptocurrencies are highly volatile.  But new technology might offer opportunities; for example, could blockchain help demonstrate development results more robustly (winning wider support for ODA) or engage donors more closely?

The effective altruism movement – finding unusually good ways to help people for maximum benefit, including people not yet born – has drawn attention to funding for long term impact.  Is focusing on long-termism a promising direction, or do distant outcomes appeal to people even less?

How can we reframe our thinking on altruism so that it’s less about giving and receiving, more about sharing, and directed towards attaining a common future?