Podcast interview #5

Marcus Daniell: Athletes giving effectively with High Impact Athletes

27 min read
14 Oct 2021

“There are some moments that I have when I speak to athletes where I can see the ideas click and I can see the excitement. And that is just an incredible thing to witness firsthand. If we can get high profile athletes on board, it's not just the athletes themselves, they can bring audiences of millions.”


In this episode of the Giving What We Can podcast we are joined by Marcus Daniell, an Olympic bronze medallist, professional tennis player and founder of High Impact Athletes. Marcus shares his journey to effective altruism, experience founding a charity, working with athlete advocates and more.




00:45 -- About High Impact Athletes

Marcus Daniell: Thanks so much for having me on. This is really, really exciting. High Impact Athletes, we started December last year. We're an organisation that aims to harness the influence, the audiences and the wealth of professional athletes to do as much good in the world as possible. And we're growing really quickly. We've got between 90 and 100 athletes on board now and the organic growth is starting to happen. It's all guns blazing.

01:24 -- Genesis of High Impact Athletes

Luke Freeman: Can you tell me a little bit about the story behind what led you to found High Impact Athletes?

Marcus Daniell: Sure. I discovered effective altruism in 2015 and that was the first year where I actually made a little bit of money from tennis. It's not really that well known that the lower levels of professional tennis are really poorly paid but the expenses are still huge. If you don't break through that level or until you break through that level, you're really scratching a living together and just trying to make ends meet and keep the dream alive. I was doing that for the first years of my tennis career.

Then when I finally broke through and put a little money in the bank and first felt a sense of financial security or a little bit of financial freedom, I had this urge to give back and I didn't really know how. None of the charities that I'd grown up with really resonated that deeply with me. Like any good millennial, I turned to Google and typed in something like "how to give back best" or something like that. And that led me first to 80,000 Hours. That was the first effective altruism organisation I came across. And the whole career advice section of their website just really blew my mind. And from there I found Giving What We Can. And I made my first donation that year, I believe, to Against Malaria Foundation and the next year made the Try Giving Pledge, the 1% plus pledge. And it felt really good.

Each year I just pushed myself a little more. I'd make a commitment at the start of the year as to how much of a percentage I'd want to pledge for that year. And then when I got to the end of the year, I'd make the donation and then ask myself "Can I do more next year?" and the answer has always been yes. It got to the stage last year where I felt comfortable making The Giving What We Can Pledge and did that right at the start of 2021 -- and it feels amazing.

Luke Freeman: I really liked the approach of finding what's comfortable and then trying to beat your personal best. That's something I hear from a lot of members. And it's a really good way of approaching it.

03:40 -- Achievements of High Impact Athletes

Luke Freeman: I'd love to hear more about the achievements of High Impact Athletes so far.

Marcus Daniell: Sure. We are still a very new organisation. We've been rolling for less than a year but we have moved over 100,000 dollars to what we consider the most effective charities in the world. These are the charities that are recommended by the likes of GiveWell or Founders Pledge or Animal Charity Evaluators. We use their recommendations to dictate what we should have on the website. Over 100,000 dollars of donations influenced. I think the more impressive thing is the amount of growth we've had within the athlete community. There's really been quite a flood of athletes coming on board and wanting to come on board.

This is a really lumpy game, I think, because so many of the athletes that we speak to don't actually know at the start of the year how much money they're going to make. It's really difficult to pre-commit. What we're actually telling people to do, especially if they have a lumpy income, is to wait until the end of their season, wait and see how much they've earned and from that make a donation amount or commit a percentage and then keep going like that.

What we're expecting is in December, we'll have a flood of donations come through. At this point, we're at 100,000 but we've 4 or 5X'ed at this stage the amount of athletes onboard HIA compared to last year. We're hoping that the donations influenced this year will be somewhere between the sort of 200,000, 300,000, 400,000-dollar mark and just want to keep building from there.

05:16 -- Experiences founding a charity

Luke Freeman: How have you found the experience of founding a charity?

Marcus Daniell: It's been really challenging and really amazing. There've been sort of both sides of it. The challenging part has been time constraints. I'm still playing full-time professional tennis and that does take a large chunk or the vast majority of my energy and most of my time as well. What I've found, especially early on as High Impact Athletes, was growing, I felt like I was always behind the ball and I could never really catch up. And it is really difficult. I really wanted to do a good job with High Impact Athletes and I'm passionate about doing good in the world but it felt like I couldn't stay on top of it. That part for me has been challenging.

At the same time, the huge silver lining of COVID was I had some time when the tennis tour was on pause to actually put my thoughts in order to do a bunch of work that I otherwise wouldn't have had the time for. The challenging part for me has been finding the time to put into HIA, to keep the wheels rolling and to keep growing it. And now, I'm lucky enough to have a really great small team around me who, when I'm just completely smashed by tennis, I know that things are still grinding along in the background.

And the amazing part has been manifold but one aspect of it has just been seeing other people get passionate about this, people who had never donated in the past, who'd never heard about effective altruism in the past and hearing these ideas and just sort of lighting up like this. There are some moments that I have when I speak to athletes where I can see the ideas click and I can see the excitement. And that is just an incredible thing to witness firsthand. And then to it's a little bit of, I guess, an egotistical feeling but knowing that if you hadn't had this chat with them, then they might not have found it. That part is really amazing.

Also, the other thing that I found incredible is how helpful and how supportive the EA community has been, even from before I started HIA but especially since I started it, just how many people have offered their time, their advice. And it's in this way that's really collaborative and I've never felt a sense of competition with anyone else in the EA community. And coming from the industry that I come from, that is just such a breath of fresh air to feel like people are actually really helping each other and we want each other to succeed and we're willing to give our time and our energy to see that happen.

I mean, the amazing part has been so much bigger than the challenging part but there have been some struggles as well.

08:12 -- Experiences talking with athletes about EA

Luke Freeman: I'd love to hear how some of those conversations with athletes have gone, how you've approached that, how you've struck up those conversations to start with, what the experience has been like.

Marcus Daniell: I think the one huge point of difference that we have is that I am an athlete and I'm still competing. It's really, really useful to be able to approach an athlete from a place of equality or as a peer rather than as a salesman or as an agent or a manager or something like that. It means that it's a conversation rather than a pitch. The vast majority of athletes who have come on board, I've had some sort of connection with, whether I've met them in the past from going to the Olympics or on the tennis tour or whether it's those people that I know who know them who have thought "Yeah, this person would be right for HIA."

Generally, it's a "Hey, I started this charity in 2020. I'm really passionate about these ideas and about this philosophy. Would you be willing to take 15 or 20 minutes of your time to just hear what it's all about and see if it resonates?" And the amazing thing is that when I get an athlete on the phone, the conversion rate is like 60%, 65%. A lot of these athletes, it's almost like they're relieved to hear about something that they can trust and believe in. And that's part of the power of effective altruism, I think, is that the ideas are so powerful that when people hear them, it's often a no-brainer.

I'll speak about my journey in giving because I think it's important for the people I speak to, to know that I put my own money where my mouth is. I speak about my journey with pledging and with increasing that pledge and how good it makes me feel and how much extra incentive it gives me to go out on the practice court and work harder because I know now that every extra match that I win, it's great for me personally but it's also great for so many other sentient beings in the world. And that is a huge, huge incentivizer for me anyway. And I've found that that's been a really resonant thing to speak about with other athletes. I speak about that piece.

I speak about why HIA is focusing on the cause areas we do. I speak a little bit about effective altruism and the basic ideas of it. And I try to keep it very high level because a lot of these ideas, if you're coming across them for the first time, there's just so much information out there that it can be a little overwhelming. I try to take a really high level approach to begin with. And then if the ideas resonate, then go down the rabbit hole a little further.

With High Impact Athletes, there are sort of three levels of engagement or involvement or athletes. There are the ambassador, donor and pledger levels. I outline those. A brief rundown is a pledger is 2% or more of income, a donor is anything less than that but still donating, and an ambassador means you're not yet donating but you want to use your platform to try and spread the word.

And one thing I also try and make clear to athletes, obviously, we're aiming for pledges, we're aiming for people to commit a percentage because that's just a really meaningful commitment and people stick to that, but the cool thing about athletes and any other celebrity for that matter is if they are ambassadors and they're active ambassadors and because they have such huge audiences, then they might actually be influential. And athletes for better or worse are heeded on more subjects than just sport, which is a little strange, but it's also a lever that we can use. I mean, I don't know how many athletes are on things other than chasing a ball or running fast or whatever it is but these audiences and these voices we can use and really try to spread the ideas of effective giving. If people don't feel comfortable with donating right now, then I try to say "That's fine. If you're effective as an ambassador, you can really make a huge difference as well."

Those are the main points I hit. And then if someone seems particularly excited about any specific area, then I'll just sort of go a little deeper.

Luke Freeman: I've spoken with another member who really struggles to get up in the mornings and they like to think of giving around 12% of their income as the first hour of the day that's for the world.

Marcus Daniell: I love that frame. It's a frame but it's also true. That's the beautiful thing about it. You're trying to sort of change your perspective on something but it's also just valid.

Luke Freeman: What are some of the risks you see going forward, the challenges you might be facing in the coming years.

12:56 -- Future risks and challenges for HIA

Marcus Daniell: That's an interesting question. I was giving it some thought and the one big risk that I can see is when I retire, because at this point, anyway, I'm the driving force behind recruitment and I think recruitment is our most important aspect and it's probably the most important aspect of many charities. When I retire, I'm not going to be on the tennis tour, I'm not going to be an active professional athlete. Perhaps my utility as a recruiter might decrease. I'm not sure that that's going to happen.

I think it's actually one of the beautiful benefits of having won a medal is that it's immediately recognisable by every athlete in the world. Even when I'm finished with tennis, if I try to approach someone and say "Hey, I'm an Olympic medallist," then that's something that any athlete can grab onto and say "Okay, this guy is actually legit. He's not a club player who's sort of aggrandising himself." That is a risk that I foresee and I don't know how much longer I'm going to keep playing tennis but I think it's worthwhile putting some thought into what we might be able to do if that does mean that recruitment goes down.

14:28 -- Preparing for the future

Luke Freeman: Have you found some of the early pledgers and donors and ambassadors promising potentially? Is that next generation of people who will really take this on board and want to spread it themselves?

Marcus Daniell: I have. There are a few that I can think of off the top of my head who have really bought into effective altruism and are keen to spread it as much as possible. There's a woman called Julia Ratcliffe who's a hammer thrower from New Zealand, a really smart lady.

She wants to do things like get the New Zealand Olympic team together and do a seminar on effective altruism and this sort of stuff. I mean, that could be hugely impactful.

The logistical side is difficult, especially at the moment during COVID where everything is just difficult to organise, but I can picture in a post-COVID world using athletes who are passionate about this, doing the organising for them, if that's possible, but getting a group of potentially interested people together and putting a successful professional athlete in front of them and getting them to say "This is why I do what I do. This is High Impact Athletes. Who wants to get involved?"

15:28 -- Supporting High Impact Athletes

Luke Freeman: On that note, any final calls to action of ways that people can support High Impact Athletes?

Marcus Daniell: There are a few different ways. One way is just by following us on all the social media and sharing our content, sharing the athletes who are coming on board. The more we can push this information and this movement in front of people, I think the faster it will grow. And I think the faster it will grow, the more impact it will have.

The other thing that is gold to us is if you know of any athletes who have an altruistic bent or you think they might just be interested in being part of a community of athletes who want to give back, then please refer them to us. I'm open to chatting to any athlete who wants to give back. And the cool thing is that we have the likes of Joe Parker who's a world heavyweight boxing champ; Stef Tsitsipas who's a Grand Slam finalist, Olympic gold medallists, world record holders, we've got so many amazing athletes on board that I think part of the appeal is just being part of this group of these amazing athletes doing something good. If you know an athlete who might be interested in getting involved, then please do refer them to us. The more, the merrier.

16:48 -- Childhood and moral development

Luke Freeman: Were there things in your childhood or experiences in adolescence that you think helped shape your moral development?

Marcus Daniell: My family has always been very connected to nature. I grew up watching animals being farmed and what I believe is the most humane way possible for farming and seeing the care of those animals. And not only that. Within the farm, there are pieces of native bush that are part of a conservation trust and this sort of stuff, and doing a lot of hiking as a family, doing a lot of water sports as a family and just spending a lot of time in nature. I think that bond with nature started very, very early. And that's one aspect of my giving or aspect of my passion for improving the world that stayed very strong the whole way through.

My family has been charitable but not extensively so. I definitely haven't made a song and dance about it. I think the piece of moral development that might've come into play was just feeling lucky for what we have. And that was just sort of ingrained in us as kids, appreciation for what we had. And then I think at some stage, I sort of clicked into taking that to the next level where I felt very lucky for being born in New Zealand where just by virtue of winning the birth lottery and having loving parents, I had a huge step up in life and realising that and realising that that was pure luck was a huge step for me in terms of realising that I really wanted to give back, realising that I felt a duty or a really strong urge to balance the scales.

I can't pinpoint a specific moment or a specific conversation but I think being taught appreciation was probably the key thing for me.

18:48 -- Media recommendations

Luke Freeman: Further to that, I'd love to know if there are any books, podcasts or other media that have really influenced your thinking, which you'd like to recommend to people.

Marcus Daniell: There are so many. I'll try to narrow it down. I still can't recommend highly enough websites like yours like Giving What We Can or 80,000 Hours. I just think they're incredibly concise and practical guides towards doing good with your life and with your career. And, for me, it was a real light bulb moment to realise that even in this entirely selfish career of trying to become an amazing tennis player, I could do good in the world. I think that idea resonates with a lot of people. Either the 80,000 Hours website or the Giving What We Can website, hugely helpful.

Another one for me was Animal Liberation by Peter Singer. This is in quite a specific area of effective altruism but it goes into the way that we treat animals and the idea that, in particular, factory farms are morally abhorrent and shouldn't exist. That's an idea that I believe in wholly philosophically, ethically, environmentally, even from a public health perspective. That book was really a catalyst for me in going plant based. And that's something that's been a huge change in my life, particularly coming from a sheep and beef farm in New Zealand.

And then, also, because I'm on the Peter Singer train, his book The Life You Can Save, I think, is an amazing intro to effective altruism and to giving back to the world. I think you're doing a much better job of describing it than me but his Drowning Child essay is just one of the most hard hitting pieces of philosophy I've ever come across.

Luke Freeman: It can be quite an eye opener for a lot of people. And The Life You Can Save is now currently available for free.

20:50 -- Similarities between sports and effective giving

Luke Freeman: Do you feel any crossover between your approach to sport and your approach to effective giving such as dedication or evidence-base or things like that?

Marcus Daniell: Absolutely. And this is something we're still trying to figure out the right tagline or slogan for but I see real overlap in that all professional athletes every single day are looking for optimising their training methods, looking for how to get the most out of every calorie of energy that they output every minute of their time, because sport careers are short. You have to maximise every single little piece that you can. And my conception of effective altruism is basically the same thing but with charity, trying to find the most effective ways to do charity.

One tagline we've come up with is "World-Class Athletes, World-Class Charities." And it's just that idea of optimising and optimising and optimising until you reach maximal efficiency.

And I think that's definitely across sport, it's across effective altruism, it's across many other industries. It's almost just like the high performance echelon of each industry and that's where I see effective altruism.

22:12 -- Common Objections or Responses While Trying to Recruit for HIA

Luke Freeman: Another question we have is what are common responses that you get from athletes who you have the conversations with that you try to recruit to High Impact Athletes but don't succeed with. Are there common objections or responses that you find that you're hearing more often?

Marcus Daniell: Yes. The most common response (one that I imagine is the most common across EA) is "I want to give to my community." I completely understand that. I think, as humans, we have proximity bias, we all care more emotionally about those closest to us. And athletes are the same as everyone else in that regard. The most common failure I've had is "I want to give to my local charities."

Behind that is athletes who have already set up their own foundations or their own organisations. That's not always a failure. There have been some athletes who have their own foundations and the foundation has donated through High Impact Athletes, donated to the charities that we feature.

I guess the only other failure we've had is if athletes are worried that by associating with us, they malign or sideline other sponsors that they have. For example, one response I've had is that they were interested in the climate change space but one of their clothing sponsors was doing this thing where some of their clothes were made out of partially recycled plastics or something like that. And their agent thought that they didn't want to step on any toes.

For me, that gets a little ridiculous because I think there's just a huge difference and having a bit of recycled plastic on your tennis shoes and the sort of climate change impact you can make through Clean Air Task Force or that sort of organisation, but especially when agents are involved, there's a real consciousness around "How will this affect my athlete's media image and social image." Because we're a new organisation and we're not well known in the sporting space, I think there's a little bit of trepidation there.

Luke Freeman: The thing is we live in this really complex world with all of these interrelated decisions like no decision is in a vacuum. Not to have any spoilers but The Good Place deals with this quite well in some of the latest seasons around the fact that our decisions and our behaviours just have all of these flow and effects. You can't expect that if someone is advocating for climate policies that are going to improve the world. You've got to expect that they do nothing, which makes that slightly worse, so they have no associations with anything because that's an impossible standard but someone will use that sometimes as a way to attack someone. I can understand the trepidation.

Marcus Daniell: I've had some pretty interesting emails from some people who are not fans of the ideas of effective altruism. And I think it is true that regardless of what you do, someone will hate you for it. All you can do is do what you think is right and stick to a strong moral code. I don't hold it against these athletes who make those decisions. One thing I try to be very, very clear on, if I speak to people, is "Look, there's no pressure on this. This is something that I really strongly believe in but I don't want you onboard HIA unless you're happy to be on board. I don't want to pressure you into this. I don't want you to feel squeezed emotionally or financially" because where I think this could gain the most traction and the most momentum is if people feel really happy and excited about being involved and pass on that enthusiasm to other athletes. That's where I see the organic growth, not in people being like, "Oh yeah, I made this commitment and now I feel like I sort of have to" or "I'm not quite sure" because I've seen that reaction in regards to previous donations that people have made, where someone's come and knocked on their door and they've given them 500 bucks and then be like "Ugh, what's that actually going to do?" And sometimes I think that's legitimate. And I really, really don't want that to be the case for people involved in effective altruism or involved in High Impact Athletes.

Luke Freeman: I'd like to see it as an invitation. And the first battle for any idea is awareness. And many of us experience this where we just discover something exists in the world that aligns with our values and what we want to see in the world. And just knowledge of existence is the first step. And then the next thing is seeing that other people are motivated and passionate about things. And that comes from people sharing their personal stories and experiences. And then you go a little bit deeper and you see that it is backed up by evidence, strong reasoning and all that behind it. And that's that kind of level of confidence and ability to move forward, knowing that obviously the world is uncertain, not everything is solved, but you can move forward with more confidence than you might otherwise have. The awareness, the motivation and that robustness behind it is just a nice combination. And that's so much better than going and having an experience when someone feels they're being guilted into doing something.

27:30 -- The battle for awareness

Marcus Daniell: Absolutely. And that first part, I really liked that phrase "the battle for awareness." That's the part where I really think that High Impact Athletes can make a huge difference because if we can get high profile athletes on board, it's not just the athlete themselves, they can bring audiences of millions. I might be selling effective altruism a little short here but this is what I see as the biggest failing of effective altruism right now is how unknown it is. And I think there can be more effort put into spreading the ideas as wide as possible, trying to get them more into the mainstream because it's been my experience with High Impact Athletes that the majority of people who hear these ideas love them.

And one reason I've heard for, I guess, the slow push or the slow rollout of effective altruism is that some of the sort of founding members, if you want to call them that, really wanted to nail down the messaging first, wanted to nail down the philosophies and get it perfect before they pushed it out. And I get that but I don't think it will ever be perfect. I think it will be constantly changing. And I think that's actually one of the strengths of effective altruism is no one's fully on their high horse and saying "This is exactly what we should do forever." It's "We're always looking for the best way to do things." And that, as an idea, is pretty simple. We should always try to give effectively if we can. I don't think that can be misinterpreted too easily.

Where I think High Impact Athletes can be huge for the effect of effective altruism is in that awareness piece where hopefully, through the mouthpieces of really popular athletes, we can get a ton of people speaking about effective altruism and giving effectively and maybe through a bunch of people speaking about it, we can get more people donating. That's the part that I get pretty frothy about.

Luke Freeman: Effective giving is a really accessible way that many people can engage with these ideas and make a real tangible impact in the world. You don't have to change careers. You don't have to pick up and move location. You don't have to make sweeping changes in your life. You can have a taste of what it's like to make a tangible impact today by just making a small donation even to start with. And then from there, start to learn more and start to give more and start to think about other things in your life but it's a really great on-ramp to really engaging with some of these big problems in the world and how we can use our resources to solve them.

30:06 -- Being motivated by community and opportunity

Marcus Daniell: And the other thing that you said there that really, really hit home with me was the motivation piece. One of the things that I loved about taking the Giving What We Can pledge was knowing how many thousands of other people had taken it and were doing it with me. That's a huge boost, knowing that you're not alone, knowing that other people who're on this journey and finding the same joys or the same hardships.

Luke Freeman: It is a very simple idea of how can we do more good with the resources we have than we would do otherwise if we didn't think about this question. I think that framing it as a question and that we have some tentative answers that we think are pretty good but they're far from being ultimately true but they are great steps in that direction. When you have a list of highly impactful charities, that's a list that will change over time. And that is the best guess that you have with the information you have at this point in time and to be clear that that is the pursuit that we have.

Marcus Daniell: Absolutely. And I think asking that question is already a leap ahead of the majority of the charity world.

31:25 -- What's Coming Up for Marcus and High Impact Athletes

Luke Freeman: Before we finish up, I'd just love to hear what's coming up for you personally and High Impact Athletes that you're excited about.

Marcus Daniell: Sure. Personally, I'm playing more tennis, which is sort of the answer that's been on the table for the last many, many years. I'm currently in the States. I just finished Davis Cup which is sort of the world cup of tennis. It's country versus country. Heading over to California for a few tournaments after that. And then the tour goes over to Europe. This is one of the pieces that I get very uncomfortable about with the tennis tour is I'm constantly traveling and constantly flying. My carbon footprint is disgusting but that's one of the realities of the job. And like you were saying earlier, I'm aware that it's not good for the environment but we can only do the pieces that we can do. And no one's ever going to be perfect.

And then, at the end of the season, which will be early November, I'm looking to take a bit of a break like a month off. It's been a hell of a couple of years trying to play tennis during COVID and I haven't been able to get back to New Zealand because the borders have been closed and actually missed out on a spot last night in a big quarantine raffle that they did. I don't think I'll be able to get back to New Zealand this year, which is a bit of a bummer. I think just taking a month to put the racquets out of sight and really do some deep rest and rejuvenation and gear up for giving season because this is the first full year for HIA and we're expecting that December is going to be an extremely busy month. Just trying to reach out to all of the athletes who have made commitments. For the majority of them, it's going to be sort of a bespoke donation pathway to maximise tax deductibility and that sort of stuff. There's going to be a ton of work in December but I'm looking forward to it because I think we've done a really good job in growing the organisation and then growing the athlete base. I'm excited to see the sort of numbers that we can post.

And then actually I might be coming down to see you in Australia at the start of next year for the Australian Open, COVID dependent.

Luke Freeman: Yes, looking forward to it. And I will say now you've got to be the most quarantined person I know personally.

Marcus Daniell: It hasn't been fun.

Luke Freeman: Well, looking forward to that being behind us and hoping you can make it out early next year. I always enjoy catching up and it has been really great to hear a little bit more in the weeds of your story and how things are going at HIA and what's coming up.

Thank you, Marcus.

Marcus Daniell: Thanks so much for having me. I really enjoyed the chat. I love what you're doing with Giving What We Can. It's just going from strength to strength and it's awesome to see. I'm really happy to be a part of it. Thanks for having me on and thanks for the work that you do.

Luke Freeman: Thanks to Marcus for joining us today and thanks to our listeners for lending me their years for the duration of this episode. I hope you found it to be insightful. Don't forget to check out GivingWhatWeCan.org where you can learn more about giving effectively and to join our community of compassionate people.

Until next time, keep on doing good.