“In order to be irreplaceable, you must always be different.”
- Coco Chanel
What is counterfactual impact?
Counterfactual impact is what would happen if you did x, compared to what would happen if you didn’t do x. For instance, if you brought chlorine to a village in rural Kenya with no safe water source, you would probably feel like you’d accomplished some good in the world. If, on the other hand, you gave the same gift to the average Swedish city they’d probably give you a funny look. They already have clean water.
Let’s take a look at the counterfactual scenario (i.e. what would have happened if you hadn’t donated the chlorine?). The Kenyan villagers would have continued to drink contaminated water and die from waterborne diseases. The Swedes, however, would have continued to drink their clean water. In fact, even if a Swede drank straight from a contaminated river, they could likely go to hospital, get the required treatment, and survive to tell the tale.
This chapter will explain how to make sure that your counterfactual impact is as high as possible.
When evaluating your counterfactual impact as a charity entrepreneur, the biggest factor to consider is other charities in the field. The extent to which a cause area is ‘overlooked’ is often called ‘neglectedness’. These are the three big questions you should be asking yourself:
1. Are other charities implementing this intervention?
Each year, innumerable well-meaning people start new charities in spaces that are already crowded. One of the first things to do when you are considering an intervention is to check and see if someone else is already implementing it in that location and in an effective way.
Be careful not to overestimate the size of the other organizations in the space. Nonprofits often put very optimistic numbers for coverage rates. E.g. if they say they have 1 million people in their program it might be safe to assume they have efficiently and fully covered 100,000 people. Any claims that are hedged with “we expect” or “we plan on” should be taken with even more skepticism.
2. How prevalent is the problem?
Even if someone is already working on the same intervention in the same place, that doesn't necessarily mean they are successfully fulfilling the needs of the entire target population. If there’s an orphanage in the Ukraine, that does not mean that all of Eastern Europe’s orphans are covered. It’s important to factor in the prevalence of the issue in addition to the number of charities currently in the field, so you can work out whether there’s an unfulfilled need. It’s very common in the charity sector to forget just how large the planet is, and lose heart if there’s already even just one charity out there doing something similar to themselves.
Bear in mind, when we talk about neglectedness we mean in comparison to other cause areas. There are many unresolved problems in the world, but some receive more attention than others, proportional to their severity. For example, cancer is a huge problem and one could say it is neglected in the sense that it is unresolved, yet, under our use of the term, we would not categorize cancer as a neglected cause area because, compared to similarly pressing issues, more people are working on resolving it. So the implication is that a comparatively less well-known or populated cause area has more ‘low hanging fruit’ and, therefore, investing x amount of capital (be it time, money or effort) in solving a more neglected problem will go further than investing the same amount in a more mainstream one.
Why are the gaps there in the first place?
If you’ve researched the other charities currently operating in the field, and identified a gap you could fill, you should next find out why that gap exists. Some potential reasons include:
If the gaps are there for reasons that you can overcome or reasons that do not apply to you, great! If you uncover a persuasive reason why you shouldn’t go into the field, great! You have just saved yourself months or years of time.
Often, you won’t find the answers to these sorts of questions online, so make sure to reach out to experts working in the field and ask them directly. You might think that they wouldn’t like to talk to you and give away ‘trade secrets’, but most charity workers are, well, nice people. They have the same goals as you and, more often than not, they will be willing to answer any questions you may have.
Speeding things up
The next thing to take into account is that if you come up with a really excellent intervention, people will eventually start copying it. This may be a very good thing for the world, but it does make it trickier to establish your counterfactual impact. Take as an example the famous case of evolution. There was a great debate in the 19th century about who discovered it, Darwin or Wallace. Most likely, despite being separated by thousands of kilometers, both brilliant men came to the same conclusion at roughly the same time. If Darwin hadn’t been the first to publish his theory, Wallace would have done so shortly afterwards. So, even for something as unintuitive and revolutionary as the idea of evolution, Darwin only sped up humanity’s knowledge by a few years.
All else being equal, your counterfactual impact will usually be much higher if you focus on neglected cause areas and problems that are very far from solved. Generally speaking, the more unusual the values or epistemics your intervention requires, the longer it will take society to ‘catch on’. For example, if you were to get in a time machine and travel back to the 1500s to promote the abolition of slavery, you might be able to speed up the process by centuries. You also might be ignored, ostracized, or worse, which is one of the risks associated with being ahead of your time.
You might be feeling discouraged after reading all about how someone someday will probably have the same brilliant idea as you. Try not to focus on the forest and instead zoom in to the individual trees. If you say to yourself, “I’m only moving this field forward by 10 years”, that doesn’t sound so good. However, zoom in and look at the individuals you are helping. Think of the mother whose child has just died of a vaccine preventable disease. She’s hurting right now, and telling her that others in 10 years won’t suffer the same does little if anything to comfort her for her loss. Behind statistics are real lives. If you make a field move forward 10 years in expectation, you are making a huge difference to her, and a multitude of others just like her.