When Catherine discovered effective altruism in 2014, she thought, “There’s bound to be thousands of other Catherines out there who would make more of a difference if only they were to find EA.” So she began working to further the reach of EA, running Effective Altruism New Zealand and an EA group in her hometown of Christchurch. She also began teaching EA in her high school ethics classes. In 2018, she aspired to reach more students with the ideas of EA and left her teaching position to work on the Students for High-Impact Charity programme full time, delivering the programme to many schools in Canada and New Zealand.
I chatted with Catherine to discuss the Students for High-Impact Charity programme, how to talk to young people about effective altruism, and how she has stayed committed to giving despite changes to her income.
What inspired you to join Giving What We Can?
I was listening to the Rationally Speaking podcast episode with Peter Singer. One of the podcast hosts and his wife decided to totally change their life based on reading Singer’s book. I just needed an example of someone doing that—that I can let an idea in a book change my life and that’s ok.
What are the issues in the world that you care most deeply about?
I feel like I care most deeply about animal suffering. To me it feels the most obvious moral crime that is occurring right now, so I feel quite motivated to try and help with that.
Which organisations do you give to?
In 2018 I gave the bulk to the Good Food Institute. I think their strategy for reducing animal suffering is really strong. I’ve also donated to the Against Malaria Foundation because it looks like a very effective organization.
How do you track your contributions vs. your income?
An Excel spreadsheet. I also do carbon offsetting separately, that’s not part of my 10%.
Has it ever felt challenging to give 10%?
At first it seemed a little weird: who just gives away thousands of dollars? But then it became normal. When I started to work on a nonprofit, it felt a bit harder, but I still felt overwhelmingly like I wanted to donate. It’s what I do now, and if a year went past and it was January and I hadn’t donated, it would feel wrong. I also looked at how to cut my expenses by more than 10%. I feel emotionally attached to donating now, I get warm fuzzies. If I have a really bad day, I donate to a charity because I felt really good about it. But I can’t do that every day because it would blow my donation budget. (laughs)
I help run the Effective Altruism NZ Charitable Trust. We collect money and send it off to different charities. From that perspective, I just find it gleeful to see money coming into that bank account. When it’s time for the money to go out to the charities, I feel so good that it satisfies all my Scrooge-like tendencies. There are so many amazingly generous people giving each month, and it’s amazing to watch that.
You developed and taught workshops on effective altruism with Students for High-Impact Charity. What do those workshops look like?
The workshops cover ethical ideas and several different cause areas in an accessible and interactive way. Students then do a bit of cause prioritisation and discuss career ideas. There are lots of videos and discussions. The parts I enjoy teaching the most are the charity evaluation activity, which can get pretty heated because the students get quite passionate when arguing for their favourite charity, and the section on how farmed animals are treated, because most of the students haven’t been exposed that much to factory farming images.
What do you find engages students most about effective altruism?
While I’d love to just talk about effective charities, talking about ineffective charities seems to be quite a shock for them — realizing that some organisations harm people. If they get duped into loving a charity that ends up being harmful, that’s quite effective in getting them engaged.
Do you have any suggestions for how to talk to young people about the ideas of altruism and ethics?
Bring up a lot of ideas and present arguments as “here’s an interesting argument” without making it clear what you think. Sometimes that can be hard, but try not to present it as truth—frame it as a philosophical discussion. Let them run with the ideas if they feel like it.
Can you share a story of a student you have worked with?
One of my students was going to be a doctor; she really wanted to help people. Through the course she realized that being a doctor in New Zealand wasn’t the most effective use of her career. She’s a good scientist and mathematician, so she’s now working on microbiology and hoping to work on big global health risks.
Where is the Students for High-Impact Charity programme now?
We tracked the students who took the programme and found that, while students during the course would say things like they wanted to stop eating animal products and change their career path, after a few months usually those changes wouldn’t really stick. Young people are influenced by everything around them, so while they might be influenced in the short term by the programme, long-term they might be influenced by other factors. So at the moment we’re winding down the programme.
Perhaps what’s needed is longer contact with the materials. If someone is interested in integrating the Students for High-Impact Charity materials into their curriculum, where could they find those?
This interview is part of the “People of Giving What We Can" series which profiles a selection of the Giving What We Can community. The Giving What We Can is a community of people from all walks of life, with different perspectives and motivations for giving – all united by their desire to make a significant commitment to use their income to effectively helping others. Read more member stories. Share your effective giving story to help inspire others to give more, and more effectively.