On a balmy Thursday evening in May, the Dublin Sceptics group had their monthly meeting in the dreary basement of the Stag’s Head on Dame Lane.
Below the excited chatter of pub-goers getting ready for the weekend, the basement is full of silent sippers listening intently to Michael Nee, who is explaining why they should give up 10 percent of their income for the rest of their days.
But this is not a sales pitch, or a scam. Nee, the founder of the new Dublin chapter of Giving What We Can, speaks over the sound of the creaking floorboards above. As shoes stomp and pipes whoosh, he discusses the concept of effective altruism, a movement that encourages people to donate money to the charities that are most effective according to research.
Nee — who formerly studied philosophy, but currently works in e-commerce — speaks up at the request of a sceptic: “money that is badly donated can be wasted, or even damaging,” he says, continuing on to describe a situation in Zambia, Mozambique and Swaziland where a charity built merry-go-rounds that pumped water.
The idea was for children to play while buckets filled with water; the reality was a high-maintenance pump that had to be operated by adults to avoid a cruel, new form of child labour.
Giving What We Can is an international society that is dedicated to ending extreme poverty through effective altruism. Founded in 2009, it spearheaded the effective-altruism movement, a term which was coined just three years ago.
All its members, including Nee, pledge to donate ten percent of their income to effective charities.
During his studies, Nee was inspired by the writings of Peter Singer, a member of Giving What We Can, and Toby Ord, the founder who has pledged to give all of his earnings above £18,000 to charity.
Their outlook had Nee asking: if we can save lives without any major inconvenience to ourselves and we don’t, are we bad people? Realising that he had a lot when compared with those living in extreme poverty, he felt he had an obligation to start donating.
“Not only do we have this obligation,” he announces to the stool-perched people before him, “but we need to think about where we donate the money and not just give for the sake of it.”
He doesn’t believe it is a hard adjustment to make: “If you add up the coffees, the pints and the crap sandwiches we already feel a bit bad about buying, you realise the cost of doing something really good is so minimal, but the effect is so high. I decided I had to bridge the gap between my values and my actions,” he says.
According to Nee, if we all gave ten percent of our income to effective charities, world poverty would be ended in a year with enough money left to do it five times over. There are currently 1,077 members of Giving What We Can worldwide.
Although all this sounds positive, the group of Dublin Sceptics begin living up to their name.
One woman from Ethiopia is concerned about the image of Africa that these charities portray to the world, to which Nee replies: “Giving What We Can is more concerned with the donor and creating a culture of altruism”.
It’s a surprising statement considering charity usually focuses on those in need.
Another question is asked about giving to local charities and Nee admits that Giving What We Can goes against people’s intuition to give to people close to them, but argues that our donations are twice as effective in Africa.
After Nee’s grilling, the stools are rearranged for the next round of drinks.
At one worn-down table displaying three stumpy pint glasses and one elegant wine glass, four friends continue the discussion happily.
Sitting close around the table, the group agree that they don’t like the idea of charities that are easy to assess quantitatively getting all the funding and are worried these assessments would create a hierarchy of charities.
“It is a great idea, but has limitations,” says Miranda. “Qualitative research is extremely valuable too; they should combine the two. People equate giving at different levels.”
Sitting to her left, Joe nods in agreement and says the idea that for the same cost as training one guide dog in the US – around $40,000 – you could prevent hundreds from going blind, ignores human virtues.
“We’re here and we have a degree of empathy for those around us, because we live in a society with dignity,” he comments. Although he does agree that those who can afford to should give ten percent of their income to charity.
Afterwards, Nee and his girlfriend Emily Bourke, who is co-founder of the Dublin chapter, appear to be surprised at how easily they had wooed the sceptical crowd.
After setting up the Dublin branch, he held its first meeting in March. More experienced members warned him to bring a friend in case nobody showed up, but 15 people showed up.
But for the moment, Bourke is the only other member in Dublin to have taken the pledge. As a PhD student in Trinity, Bourke only has to give one percent of her income, but she chooses also to give 10 percent.
What inspired the couple to take the pledge? Bourke felt a need to contribute something when she was working in the past. She began volunteering but when Michael became interested in Giving What We Can it all came together for her.
“It’s an interesting way of making any job a charity-based job,” she says. Bourke admits the pledge can be daunting and tends not to talk about that side of the society.
“It tends to sound sort of culty,” Bourke laughs, comparing it to Freemasonry. The couple went through a phase of minimalism, so the idea of giving up a chunk of their income wasn’t too scary.
Nee began by donating five percent of his income and found it so easy, he made the jump to ten. The pair haven’t noticed much change in their lifestyle. They drink fewer pints and eat out less, but their social life is unaffected because they invite friends over.
The pledge seems to be flexible as you can stop donating at any time if you need to, and although Giving What We Can recommends four effective charities, members can choose others.
“You can donate your ten percent to artificial intelligence if you feel it’s most effective,” smiles Nee.
Addressing the concerns of donating abroad raised by the Sceptics, Nee argues that if we truly believe all lives are equal, then it is logical to donate abroad.
He and Bourke agree that it is nice to know exactly where their money is going. For example, a life will be saved for every $3,300 donated to the Against Malaria Foundation. Or it can cost as little as $0.30 to deworm a child.
“It’s a simple fact that you can do more good by donating abroad than you can here, because of the economics of it,” states Nee. “People want to donate; just not to someone’s salary, a backhander or an insufficient mess.”
No Irish charities are highly recommended, often due to issues with overheads. Bourke feels this side of things can be a bit cold and calculated, but she likes knowing that her donations are going to a good cause.
Nee would like the Dublin chapter to be social and is planning a board-game tournament in August, with all proceeds going to charity, of course. He hopes to set up chapters in Trinity and UCD in the autumn and also has some speakers lined up.
It’s about presenting effective altruism to a new audience, Nee said, instead of discussing the ethics of eating insects with people who already know about the concept.