The effective altruism community is full of kind
and thoughtful individuals. It's also a community that relies heavily on thoughtful and constructive criticism as a necessary tool for continuously improving ourselves and our charitable efforts. But this can lead to an overrepresentation of negativity, so it’s important to pause sometimes and reflect on our achievements thus far, to support our friends who are doing incredible things in fundraising, research, philanthropy, direct work, and other areas. It also helps to give
newcomers to effective altruism a personal
understanding of our community.
In these interviews, we plan on highlighting the amazing efforts of people in the effective altruism community. The first individual we’ll feature is Michelle Hutchinson, executive director of Giving What We Can (GWWC), part of the Centre for Effective Altruism (CEA). GWWC was one of the first organizations created explicitly as part of effective altruism and has remained a cornerstone of our community. One of their most straightforward measures of their accomplishment is the average number of new members per month:
2013 - 10
2014 - 35
2015 - 53 (up to the end of November)
GWWC might not get as much attention these days as some other groups, but Michelle has brought together an amazing team and served as a tremendous leader in the broader EA community. It’s unlikely that GWWC would have been as successful without her help. We spoke with her to find out more about her incredible work.
How did you become involved with effective altruism and find your current position at Giving What We Can?
While studying at Oxford, I got to know Will Crouch [now Will MacAskill] and Toby Ord who were considering setting up Giving What We Can. I had done some charity work before, but hadn’t really known where to give or where to volunteer. The idea was that we could choose between those opportunities by asking which would help people the most and actually find an answer to that was really exciting to me, and I immediately wanted to help with the project.
At first I was doing research, then I ended up coordinating the research volunteers. It turned out I really enjoyed coordinating a team. Later on I became Director of Operations (in part because I was interested in finances, and we assumed that came under operations!). At that point, 80,000 Hours was starting up, and we soon realized that Giving What We Can and 80k were both getting to sufficient size that we needed to professionalize and hire staff. We planned to set up one legal unit to house both. At the time, we were thinking we really just needed a name for legal purposes, so we decided on “Centre for Effective Altruism” even though “effective altruism” seemed like a somewhat cumbersome phrase (though decidedly better than the placeholder ‘High Impact Alliance’!). It was quite a surprise to us how popular that name turned out to be! (Though Mark Lee very much anticipated it.)
I really enjoyed running Operations - learning how companies and charities operate, how to hire staff etc. When we started as full-time staff I became Executive Director of Giving What We Can, taking over from Will, which has been a whole new challenge. The main similarity though is it still being a primarily management role, which greatly suits me.
The decision between research and other forms of direct work comes up pretty often in effective altruism career decisions. Do you feel more naturally inclined towards operations work or did you enjoy it more because it was important work that needed to be done?
I only took it up because that was what was needed (I’m pretty academic by nature), but I ended up finding it very satisfying. I’m very much a team person, so I liked supporting other people on their various roles. I see my current role as manager of the Giving What We Can team as much the same kind of thing - facilitating the work of my team, and making sure they have everything they need to flourish.
Would you say that’s what really inspires you in your work, helping others on your team do the best they can?
On a day-to-day level, it’s really the people around me that keep me motivated - people who work so hard, are so smart, and care so much. I just found it amazing finding people like Toby, Will and Andreas who care so much and do such good work. That’s still how I feel about the new people joining us - whether new members of Giving What We Can or new CEA staff. In the really early days what got me to late night events full of new people (I’m rather shy!) was knowing that Holly would want me to go; now what keeps me working hard even when it’s late and I’m tired is knowing that Sam is still in the office coding, or that Jon’s out giving a talk at a chapter right now.
Definitely lots of people in the effective altruism community are very hard-working. Do you feel under pressure to work longer hours? How do you weigh the balance between working long into the night and potentially burning yourself out?
Thankfully, the people at CEA are very supportive and recognize that everyone is different. Some people are happy to work really long hours, for others evenings and weekends are sacred. Some are happy to live extremely frugally, others find a nicer house important to them or need to save for the future; some are v*gan, for others that isn’t the right choice at the moment. There are so many dimensions on which we could optimise that it would just be too easy to cause each other burn out. Thankfully, everyone at CEA is really accepting of each other’s limits.
My main bottleneck on working hours is stress. Some weeks I happily work long hours. Others I get stressed out and need to take more time off (preferably going for walks or watching Gilmore Girls). I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by people who think that’s totally fine. I also get a lot of support, not just from within the Giving What We Can team, but also from others in CEA - whether that’s advice from the trustees whenever I need it, or emotional support from Rob (he’s my mentor within CEA, and as such has to put up with rather a lot!).
What’s your day-to-day work like? Is there a particular task you really like doing and maybe one that you don’t enjoy as much?
It’s variable throughout the year. Sometimes, recruiting really takes up a lot of my time, sometimes fundraising does. Strategy and planning is always a large part of my role - whether reviewing how effective particular activities were, or planning future ones.
The things I like most are those that involve managing people. Whether that’s having individual meetings or reviewing work that my team has done, I relish it because it’s fundamentally about helping each other. It’s all the more rewarding because my staff do such great work!
I’m much less keen on fundraising. It’s a lot like asking your friends for money, knowing that if they don’t actually come through on the money, you won’t be able to pay salaries, which has the ultimate outcome of people having malaria or not receiving deworming (though I try hard not to think of it in those terms because that makes it far too stressful!).
Who are some of your role models, in effective altruism or other areas?
It’s so difficult to pick - I’m in the really fortunate position of being surrounded by people I hugely admire. In the early days of CEA, I couldn’t get over the fact that a significant part of our budget was paid for by Julia donating the money she earned working as a social worker in a prison (which sounds pretty terrifying to me, although I think she felt otherwise!). Likewise, some of our members earn huge salaries, yet live on very little in order to donate almost all of it. I think it’s wonderful that there are people in the world as generous as those I get to correspond with on a daily basis. More of a personal inspiration to me is Ben Todd, executive director of 80,000 Hours. We have been doing similar jobs for years in different organizations, and he’s always been a model for me in terms of how he manages people, how well he puts together strategy and how calm he stays regardless of the situation. Watching what he’s done with 80,000 Hours is inspiring, and despite his focus on and dedication to that he is always the first to provide help whenever Giving What We Can needs any.
That’s so nice of you to say. What is your vision for both your personal career and GWWC or EA as a whole?
I’m very excited about both figuring out how to do the most good and building a community of support around that goal (as well as providing practicalities like shared information on how to give tax efficiently and services for doing so as easily as possible). It was being surrounded by people putting their money where their mouth was that moved me from thinking I ought to donate significantly but probably never would, to feeling that it was the default to give 10%. I really want to give other people that opportunity to live up to their ideals, and I think that GWWC is in a good position to do that. Having such a big community doing it shows that giving 10% isn’t the big deal I once thought it was.
I hope that in this way, GWWC can help to unify the effective altruism movement, and help it demonstrate to the world at large the impact it can have. Effective altruism faces risks at both extremes - it could seem like this unachievable thing that’s way too extreme for the average person, or it could get so watered down that it ceases to mean anything but trying to sound smart on the internet. By all standing solidly behind a call to action which is significant but achievable to most people in rich countries, we can hopefully make sure that enthusiasm translates to impact.
In the long run, I’d like effective altruism being so common it’s taken for granted, like vegetarianism already is. People used to attend vegetarian support groups to meet other people with their view of the world - that now feels amusingly redundant in places like the UK. I hope the same will happen for giving 10%, and that in the future when people are choosing where to donate or what job to get it will be the default to consider which option has the most social impact. Likewise, I look forward to a future where key decision makers, whether that be politicians or institutions like the World Bank, will automatically make their decisions with reference to how to do the most good.
Thanks for your time, Michelle. I really admire you and all the great work you’ve done, especially in bringing together such a great team at CEA. Just to let readers know, CEA is running its winter fundraiser until the end of the month.
The EA Interview Series is currently produced by Jacy Reese, research associate at Animal Charity Evaluators, and Nicole Ross, operations associate at GiveWell. Disclaimer: the views expressed above are those of Michelle, Jacy, and Nicole, not their employers. We hope to continue producing one interview each month, as a way to highlight the incredible work being done in our community. There’s a good chance the people running this project will change over time as people have shifting availabilities.