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.