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Accomplishing as Much Good as Possible: Honors Alum Alexander Berger Paves the Way for More Effective Giving

Nov 12 2021
Diana Aguilera

Before Alexander Berger arrived at Stanford, his father gave him one piece of advice: take classes with professors known as great teachers, whether or not the classes themselves are of great interest. Unbeknownst to him, following this advice shaped the course of his undergraduate experience.

As a freshman, Berger, ’11, first met political science professor Rob Reich as a guest lecturer for one of his classes. Drawn by his teaching style, Berger felt compelled to register for Reich’s courses over the next two years. This ultimately led him to complete the Honors Program in Ethics in Society, with Reich, the faculty director of the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, as his advisor. “The process of writing a thesis had a great impact on me – developing an argument at that length and in that level of detail was something that I hadn't done before,” says Berger.

For him, the impact of the Honors Program extended beyond the classroom. During an honor’s seminar, he read a paper about kidney donations that mentioned how safe kidney procedures had become. Immediately, he was intrigued with the idea of helping someone by giving them, on average, 10 more years of life. The more he learned about how safe the procedure was and how much it would benefit the recipient, the more reasonable it seemed. Six months after graduating with a B.A. in philosophy, he donated one of his kidneys to a stranger.

“When I first told some friends and family that I wanted to donate a kidney, they assumed I’d gone off my rocker,” Berger wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times. “They saw it as a crazy act of self-sacrifice, rather than what it is — one of the many ways a reasonably altruistic person can help others.”

It was during his junior year, around the time that he was learning about kidney donations and effective altruism, that he asked himself, “How can I give back to the world?” While pondering this question, he came across GiveWell, an independent nonprofit dedicated to finding outstanding giving opportunities to help donors decide where to donate their money. Intrigued by its mission, Berger first volunteered there as a junior. After graduation, Berger worked at GiveWell as a researcher conducting evidence reviews and cost-effectiveness analyses for potential top charities. During that time, Berger and his colleagues wondered, “How can donors accomplish as much good as possible with the highest, long-term impact?” Shortly after, Berger and co-founders Holden Karnofsky, Cari Tuna, and Dustin Moskovitz launched Open Philanthropy.

Originally incubated as a partnership between the philanthropic foundation Good Ventures and GiveWell, Open Philanthropy is a research and grantmaking foundation with the mission to give as effectively as possible. Its main focus areas are U.S. policy, global catastrophic risks, scientific research, and global health & development. “The idea of trying to answer the question of how can you use resources to help people is what I found really motivating and exciting,” Berger says. “It’s a compelling, open-ended question that motivates a lot of inquiry and is always driving us.”

As co-founder, Berger led the initial process for selecting focus areas and hiring and training program officers within them. Now, as co-CEO, he oversees grantmaking in global health and development, scientific research, farm animal welfare, and criminal justice reform, among other causes. He also leads the research fellow team tasked with selecting new high-impact global health and wellbeing causes.

Berger describes Open Philanthropy as an effective altruist organization. In essence, effective altruism is a philosophy and social movement that advocates the use of evidence and reasoning to determine the most effective ways to benefit others. Open Philanthropy supports organizations that seek to introduce people to the idea of doing as much good as possible, provide them with guidance in doing so, connect them with each other, and generally grow and empower the effective altruism community.

“For the work that I do, having a philosophy degree and the Ethics in Society type framing is  helpful,” Berger says. “Sometimes I joke to people who have philosophy backgrounds that what we do is very applied ethics. We're trying to figure out a bunch of concrete facts about the world and then interact with philosophy to try to inform the question of what should we actually do.”

In fact, Berger is not the only Ethics in Society Honors Program alum at Open Philanthropy. Claire Zabel, who leads their grantmaking on effective altruism, is a member of the 2013-14 honors cohort. For Berger, being surrounded by “super smart, talented, interesting, altruistic people every day” makes his job even more rewarding.

Looking ahead, he is eager to figure out where their next round of growth should be. "That's something that I'm really motivated to engage in and come up with a good answer because I think the stakes are high.”

Reminiscing on his undergrad years, he says following his father's advice turned out to be the best decision he made at Stanford.

"The Buzz" is the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society's media portal for ethics-related news on campus and beyond. We review events and speakers, and we feature initiatives that are of broad interest. A wide range of voices author the articles, including undergraduate students.