This is my contribution for this month’s blogging carnival – ‘origin stories’. Thanks Peter for suggesting that theme, which is a lovely way to get to know each other, and Michael for instituting the blogging themes.

My origin story is very much centred around people. I first started taking effective giving really seriously because of the people I met who were doing so and I’ve stayed involved in the community because of the people. I’m so grateful to the kind, interesting people I’ve met (whether in person or online!) who are all working so hard to help others. They’ve inspired me to live up to my values, made me realise that I really can make a difference, and supported me to do so. Thanks guys!

I’ve been vaguely involved in charity since school – organising penny races, hassling the other kids to bake cakes for bake sales, volunteering at Oxfam. But I didn’t feel particularly motivated, because it was all a little ad hoc. We didn’t really know what causes to support, and mostly we were setting up things events we enjoyed (like selling goes with a toy gun trying to shoot down tin cans in a classroom!). I actually studied Peter Singer’s arguments in Philosophy class, and found it really compelling that when I had an income I ought to donate a significant proportion of it, given how much more benefit others could get from it. But no-one else seemed to believe that, or act on it, so I just figured I wouldn’t end up caring either.

At Oxford, similar factors still let me rationalise inaction. In particular, I didn’t really know where to donate – there are so many charities, and I didn’t feel I had any way to justify giving to one rather than another. I think the first time that really changed was during my Masters, when I chatted to other people in my year, particularly Will MacAskill, about where to donate. He suggested that the best way to choose among charities was to try to find out which charities helped others the most with a certain donation, and donate there. I remember wondering at the time why I had never Googled ‘which charity is the most effective’. I was pretty interested not just in which charities were the most cost-effective, but also how to find that out, so spent a lot of time chatting to Will and Toby Ord. It turned out they were planning to set up an organisation called Giving What We Can. GWWC ended up launching during our exams. I thought it was an amazing project, but what actually ended up dragging me out of my exam work was wanting to support the dedication of my classmate who was able to do all of this during his exams (still so impressed Will pulled that off and still got a 1st!).

It seems funny to look back at the amazement and wonder I felt at finding people who cared enough to be donating so much of their income. I wasn’t convinced I’d ever actually end up donating 10% of my income, let alone any more than that. But the people I met seemed so inspiring and knowledgeable I thought getting involved would definitely be my best shot at living up to my ideals. So I did! I volunteered doing research, then managing volunteers, then running the Operations team. At some point, it started feeling surprisingly standard to donate at least 10% of one’s income to the most effective charities, so taking the Pledge to Give ended up not being as scary as I thought.

By the summer of 2011, Giving What We Can was growing steadily and Will and Ben Todd had set up 80,000 Hours. We started to realise that if we wanted them to grow faster, we would need to professionalise. We decided to register them as one organisation for flexibility and efficiency, and after what felt like a very long naming process - which ended up being very much worth it - the Centre for Effective Altruism was born. I got to be the one working out how you register with Company’s House, how you become a charity, and how you employ staff. All of which, surprisingly, turned out to be fascinating.

In the summer of 2012 CEA first took paid staff and I took over from Will as the Executive Director of Giving What We Can. I feel really fortunate that I now get to be the one introducing people to others who can inspire them to live up to their values, and help people find the information they need to work out where to donate. I love that I get to live my life alongside people who continue to inspire me daily with how much they care about others and how hard they work to help them. I’d very much like to give as many other people that opportunity as I can! So if you’re at all interested in effective giving, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me or anyone else on the Giving What We Can team.           

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Thanks for sharing this Michelle! I think it's a really good example of how human connections matter for getting and keeping us motivated and involved. One aspect of effective altruism that I think can be off-putting to otherwise interested people is that we remain remote from the people we benefit. I think it's important we make up for this in other ways (not everyone feels they need this but I think sufficiently many do). I think the milestone and anniversary celebrations at GWWC have been great in this regard. This is just one reason we are so lucky to have you as the friendly face leading Giving What We Can!

I think it's a really good example of how human connections matter for getting and keeping us motivated and involved.

Yes... if anything though, I find that a bit demoralizing. It suggests that writing books, even if they're well-marketed, won't actually create that many effective altruists and the slow grind of evangelizing to friends and bringing them in to the community will end up being what's truly necessary.

If I were Will MacAskill, I would encourage the readers of my book to send me emails personally with their reactions to the book. Starting conversations is a tactic that works well for internet marketers; it's common for emails from internet marketers to encourage recipients to reply directly to the email. Also, designing a good "call to action" is key... what's the simplest, easiest way for someone who reads the book to start considering themselves a community member? Join the EA facebook group?

A book or other mass-delivered set of ideas helps a lot of people to move a little bit along - those 43 people were probably very far along that journey already or had a set of values and beliefs that fitted well with the actions they then took - but maybe there are 100,000 that are making other changes in their lives or with a 5% increased probability of becoming GWWC members later on?

1.1 million people watched it - this is good. Even ignoring Michelle's point about biased survey results - 43 EAs from one talk! That's incredible! + GWWC's 100 people already... a cause for hope?

I agree that this indicates that personal interactions and not just putting the information out there is important. That needn't be demoralising though - these seem like ideas people really want to engage with, talk about, and think through. If people want to discuss them like that, they're more likely to discuss them with people who haven't heard about the ideas yet too. It certainly shows we should be putting effort into working out how we can start conversations - that's one of the things Giving What We Can is focusing on. I wouldn't worry too much about that figure. The survey reached only a relatively small number of people, and was not a random sample. It got very many LW readers (who are unlikely to have come to the ideas through the TED talk). Giving What We Can alone has had around 100 people join or do Try Giving and cite Singer's TED specifically. I imagine the number of Life You Can Save pledgers who found the org through that talk, and the number who donate to GW charities because of it, is very much higher. I very much look forward to all the kind people we'll get to meet in the wake of Will's book! As you say, follow through and chatting to them will be key - but what a lovely opportunity.

Sure, maybe I should have avoided the words "demoralizing" and "grind"... I don't think we need to feel discouraged. The world is the way it is, after all.

Yes, I agree. If even members of CEA's core target audience (Oxford Philosophers) need community and friends to get involved, it does not bode well for appealing for people without such an analytic background.

Its a journey - the "grind" of accompanying people on that journey can actually have surprising personal and informational benefits and be a lot of fun?

Perhaps, but it's much less efficient than a successful mass-media campaign. There's a reason we're interested in mass-media hygiene campaigns and not personally flying out to Africa to educate people one on one.