As part of my plan to earn to give this year, I spoke with Tee Barnett about Students for High Impact Charity, an organization that brings a specific curriculum to teach effective altruism to high school students. I also spoke to several other people who have worked with Tee who might speak well to whether SHIC is a worthy investment.
My reasons for considering SHIC was it seemed like they were unlikely to be considered by other major funders (especially the Open Philanthropy Project) and they had already run a very public fundraising round and still came up with a funding gap. My sense was that this could mean that there were reasons to actively not consider funding SHIC, but I thought it was more likely to be a failure in coordination among donors (each assuming SHIC would be funded by someone else) or a failure in large donors to look at SHIC at depth.
Overall, after evaluating SHIC, my impressions remained positive. All people I spoke to said good things about Tee and SHIC and there was a general impression given that it would be unfortunate if SHIC failed because of its funding gap. I was most impressed with the transparency SHIC presents, Tee’s amazing ability to coordinate volunteers, and the novel approaches to marketing that seem underexplored by other EAs.
However, SHIC is not without risk. I was most concerned about SHIC’s plans for recruiting high schools into the program which I still think are untested at scale (though there have been three successful pilot programs), SHIC’s potential overlap in colleges with other EA organizations (e.g., CEA) which is already a very crowded EA market (though see SHIC’s response), and possibilities that there might be more pressing unfunded gaps in EA movement building (though I haven’t looked into many other concrete opportunities yet).
What follows are my notes on SHIC, posted publicly with Tee’s permission. These notes were also lightly edited for clarity by Tee. I did not publish notes from any of my other conversations about SHIC, except for the brief summary above.
Based on these notes and my conversations with others, I decided to donate $10K for the next six months. With this donation, SHIC will have a remaining shortfall of $18K to meet its expenses for the 2016-2017 school year (through June 2017). I hope other donors would be willing to cover this.
This donation is not entirely without bias, however, as Tee is a friend of mine, is currently involved with .impact, an organization I co-founded, and used to work for Charity Science, an organization I serve on the board for. This connection likely made SHIC more salient for me as a target to look into than it otherwise would have been and it’s possible I was swayed by my personal relationship in making this donation.
Who is involved?
- Tee (co-founder), full-time
- Baxter (co-founder), 5-10 hours a week (big picture and accounting)
- Between 2 and 4 FTE equivalent of volunteers (e.g., Catherine Low @ 20-25 hours a week) depending on the week.
Volunteers are coordinators, ambassadors, and core organizational volunteers. There are about 60-70 active volunteers in total. Coordinators are people helping with outreach and finding ambassadors (~20 of them). Ambassadors are local student or teacher doing it in their own school (~20 of them). A coordinator may also deliver the pilot program or represent multiple ambassadors as they find more students in local schools.
What is your path to impact, assuming you’re fully funded?
SHIC is hoping to (1) introduce effective altruism to students and (2) help students make better decisions and rationality, using charity as a vehicle to teach these skills. There are already a bunch of different civics clubs and SHIC is hoping to differentiate itself.
SHIC is looking to launch at 50+ schools in the first semester (2016) at a large scale (see SHIC growth plan) So far they have commitments from 49 representatives to bring SHIC to their schools (see SHIC’s Progress in Numbers). I spot-checked this by talking to a few of the representatives to see what their plans were.
Why high schools and not colleges or professionals?
SHIC’s ultimate goal is to normalize the principles of effective altruism for the coming generation of influencers.
EA neglects high school outreach and focuses on colleges and professionals already, which makes high schools a low hanging fruit. Also high schools like to integrate programs more officially than colleges do, so if SHIC were able to become mainstream enough you could get far more institutional support than is available at colleges. High schools also network with each other and can share the curriculum, which creates a lot of room for growth. SHIC also thinks high schools could provide an opportunity for revenue generation to sustain the program (see SHIC plan on revenue generation) with the goal to eventually become self-sustaining without regular donors.
High school students are also at a more formative and impressionable age than college students or professionals. Tee also thinks that high school students are at their most passionate and are looking for something to latch onto.
Do other social movements target high schools?
A lot of other global poverty groups targets high school students (e.g., Green Heart Travel, UNICEF, Fair Trade Foundation, Green Schools Revolution, Allowance for Good). The atheist movement targets high school students through the Secular Student Alliance, though they mostly focus on college campuses.
How are you getting your content into high schools?
Tee is trying many different methods of outreach, such as reaching out to EA contacts; running ads on social media; posting in Idealist, a website that lists volunteering opportunities; talking to civics groups at high schools; reaching out to general studies teachers in the UK who have a much broader curriculum; and reaching out to guidance counselors.
Why focus on “effective altruism” broadly and not an individual concept, such as international development?
The program does not ever directly mention “effective altruism” and instead prefers the term “high-impact charities”. This is to prevent SHIC from looking like a “movement”, which could scare away teachers or parents.
However, SHIC does refer out to 80,000 Hours , Giving What We Can, TLYCS, and the EA Forum. Coordinators likely know that the content is affiliated with the EA movement, though ambassadors may not.
How will you know if you’re successful at having an impact?
SHIC is in a similar position as John Behar and Giving Games in proving long-term impact. SHIC is hoping to proxy their long-term impact with short-term impact, such as having students run quarterly effective fundraising (e.g., Christmas P2P fundraisers). This initial short-term fundraising could already potentially produce 1:1 or 2:1 returns (see SHIC’s impact plan).
SHIC will also track students as they move onto university, to see whether they join EA clubs, whether they use 80K content, whether they take the GWWC pledge, and whether they convince their parents to donate. SHIC plans to heavily rely on pre-program and post-program surveys to assess this impact (see SHIC notes on impact measurement).
SHIC believes that impact can be measured by:
(1) tracking GWWC pledge rates
(2) tracking the amount of students who go vegetarian
(3) tracking the amount of money brought in through student fundraisers
(4) tracking whether students who graduate and go to college also end up joining college EA activities
What have you done so far to validate your idea?
Primarily aimed at high school students, but have also run SHIC curriculums at colleges. Right now going to both as opportunities arise. For example, expanding SHIC along with LEAN.
Catherine Low has done two classes of 10-20 each. Don’t have hard numbers on students, but would guess to have had 50 students (mostly from Catherine Low). Qualitative feedback has come in (e.g., Catherine’s class, Radim’s class, Roland’s class) but the surveys have not been used yet.
Existing traction has mostly happened in Australia and NZ (e.g., Catherine Low) because their school is currently in session (because it’s a different hemisphere). It has been hard to get additional traction at the moment because the school year in the US and Europe has not happened yet.
Have nearly 50 people hoping to run SHIC at a high school or a university for the 2016-2017 school year. There is a 500-600 student program potentially on the horizon.
What went most wrong with the pilot? What are you going to change?
Launched a few programs before having a pre- and post-survey and wasn’t able to run the survey in time, so it is hard to interpret the current qualitative responses for impact.
Tee is concerned that he has had to spend too much time fundraising and programs have been neglected as a result, but Tee feels like this is typical for a start-up.
Tee felt like his original curriculum development was clunky, with too many people focused on each on piece, with it taking too long to complete each piece of content. This lead to slower content development. The workload also likely pushed a few volunteers to quitting.
Tee also felt like he neglected emotional marketing content for SHIC fundraising because he focused too much on an EA audience, missing another potential source for potential supporters and student participants.
How finished is the curriculum?
The pilot curriculum is done, except for minor tweaks, and there are additional levels up to Level 11. Levels 12-16 are planned with a good framework, and Tee is planning to have completed up to Level 20 by the end of 2016. 20 levels would provide several months of content for a class, but almost a year of content for a once-a-week class.
Curriculum development has been delegated to the best volunteers, with oversight from Tee and Baxter. Most of these volunteers are EAs that have prior experience working in education.
How much of the curriculum have you drawn from existing EA content? How much of it have you had to rework on your own?
The vast majority of the curriculum has come from existing EA content or EA advisors. For example, Duncan Sabien at CFAR has provided activities to help uncover cognitive bias at the high school level. Curriculum has also drawn from Ajeya Corta’s EA class at Berkeley, Eleanor Stephens’s activities at her high school, and Stephen Shubert’s student reading list.
80K has reviewed SHIC’s material and is happy with the presentation of career-related materials (though this isn't an endorsement or lack of endorsement for SHIC as a whole).
What other support has SHIC gotten from the EA movement?
SHIC got initial support from the Charity Science Foundation of Canada, the umbrella organization that now currently holds Charity Science Outreach (fundraising) and Charity Science Health.
Tee is also doing some operations for .impact and bringing SHIC in because it has a lot of parallels with LEAN. Tee is hoping to help boost local groups with SHIC and boost SHIC groups with services provided by LEAN. SHIC intends to keep a separate budget from LEAN.
TLYCS has provided support for running Giving Games.
.impact also collaborates with SHIC to help use SHIC to boost LEAN.
SHIC has received advice from ACE about which charities to feature and how to present animal-friendly ideas to non-vegetarians.
THINK tried this before but failed. What makes you think you won’t fail in the same way?
Tee believes that THINK content was written more for people who already know EA. Tee and other people working on the content have prior experience as educators, with more classroom experience and experience crafting lesson plans.
Additionally, THINK was launched at a time when the EA community was smaller. Now that the EA community has dramatically increased in size, it may be easier to attain critical mass.
What is your 2017 budget?
$52,050 USD to cover through August 2017.
Programs and Support
Already provided by The Life You Can Save
(See more on SHIC’s budget)
How much have you raised for 2017 so far?
$19K USD from over fifty people to cover 2016 expenses (not counting the grant described here). This means there is a current shortfall of $28K.
What are your prospects for closing your gap?
Crowdfunding campaign has come to an end , but talking to several interested private funders. Hoping to have one of them cover the 2016 gap ($4K) and deliver funding through next year to get to August 2017 ($47K for the full year).
What would you do if you raised $20K more than your 2017 budget?
Would not hire right away because Tee wants to see how well the first semester goes and how far volunteers can go. Tee would then re-evaluate for the second semester and possibly bring someone else onboard full-time.
What would you do if you had to cut your budget by $20K?
Were SHIC to have the budget cut by 20k, that would constitute nearly half of yearly budget. We simply wouldn't have a full-time staff member spearheading the organization and SHIC would likely turn into a dormant source of material for EA similar to THINK. EA would effectively lose the opportunity for mass appeal to students at this time.
Tee is also doing some operations for .impact and and bringing SHIC in because it has a lot of parallels with LEAN. Tee is hoping to help boost local groups with SHIC. SHIC intends to keep a separate budget from LEAN.
Tee has an amazing volunteer core that also helps dramatically reduce costs.
What skills are you in the most need of?
Would potentially look for a head curriculum developer and admin work. Also looking for help with website development, though could resolve this with a partnership with .impact.
Why are you pursuing a volunteer model instead of a staff model? Have you found volunteers to be successful?
If Tee were to hire, it would be for core organizational staff. However, SHIC does not have sufficient funds.
Tee feels like his signature strength is volunteer coordination and engagement and feels like volunteers have delivered high quality work.
Volunteers have also turned out to be a good fundraising base, helping bring in SHIC’s initial budget.
Thanks for this Peter, you've increased my confidence that supporting SHIC was a good thing to do.
A note regarding other social movements targeting high schools (more a point for Tee, who I will tell I've mentioned): I'm unsure how prevalent the United Nations Youth Association is in other countries, but in Australia it has a strong following. It has two types of member, facilitators (post high school) and delegates (high school students). The facilitators run workshops about social justice and UN related issues and model UN debates.
The model is largely self-sustaining, and students always look forward to the next weekend conference, which is full of fun activities.
At this point I don't have an idea for how such a model might be applied to SHIC, but it could be worth keeping in mind for the future.
An alternative might be to approach UNYA to get a SHIC workshop into their curriculum. I don't know how open they would be to this, but I'm willing to try through my contacts with UNYA in Adelaide.
Thanks a lot, Peter, for taking the time to evaluate SHIC! I agree that their work seems to be very promising.
In particular, it seems that students and future leaders are one of the most important target groups of effective altruism.
Sorry, I'm seeing this late, but this is an area I have some experience in, so I'll ask anyway:
This was definitely not my impression. For instance, the THINK's Resources page includes, as their first workshop, an "introduction to effective altruism," plus other standard intro-to-EA exercises like "guess which charity is actually effective" and intro-level modules about a number of favorite EA causes.
Has Tee spoken to anyone at THINK about why it went dormant to confirm this impression? Or about any of the other numerous failed student-outreach initiatives?
Why does the size of the EA community matter if SHIC is not associating themselves with the EA community at all?
As someone who ran a student group that was at one point nominally a THINK group: I suspect the real reason THINK failed was that they didn't actually do very much. I think I met up with a THINK representative once or twice and tried one of their modules once, but other than that, they were completely non-proactive. Maybe they helped other groups more, but if not, the default state of college students is to flake out on everything, and it seemed like THINK was not doing much to avoid having their group leaders fall into that failure mode.
Of course, that's just the proximate cause of failure; there were probably deeper underlying reasons. For instance, maybe THINK stopped being proactive because they got discouraged by how little initiative most of their group leaders took. And maybe the group leaders didn't take much initiative because THINK's resources were too focused on more speculative arguments and cause areas (e.g., their sequence of workshops goes right from "charity assessment" to "intelligence amplification").
To get more speculative, my guess is that the core problem of student group outreach is finding motivated group leaders and keeping them motivated, and I haven't noticed any of the student-group-outreach efforts doing particularly well at this. There's some base rate of highly motivated student group leaders popping up basically by reading things on the Internet and deciding to run a student group, and I haven't yet noticed any focused outreach effort improving on that base rate very much. Although of course I might be missing some.
Glad to hear of your support, SHIC is an important and worthwhile project!
Thanks Peter Hurford for putting in the time and effort to make this process more transparent. I think it's a great service to the EA community at large, and of course, we're elated to be able to continue bringing effective charities to students around the world