The GSB Interview

Doubles Star Marcus Daniell Looks to Ace ‘Effective Altruism’

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Marcus Daniell, the 45th ranked doubles player in the world, had two weeks of “stay in your hotel room 24/7” quarantine in Melbourne in advance of the Australian Open. Unable to practice, he did what he could to maintain his fitness while isolated. Whatever he did must’ve worked as Daniell and partner Philipp Oswald of Austria, although unseeded advanced to the quarterfinals.

The New Zealand native also used the time to further develop High Impact Athletes, the innovative nonprofit he launched in December to help athletes maximize the impact of their charitable donations. HIA focuses on three areas: animal welfare, extreme poverty, and climate change.

GreenSportsBlog spoke with Daniell, an EcoAthletes Champion, about his interest in “Effective Altruism” (EA), which led him to create High Impact Athletes, and his plans for building it into, well, an impactful organization.

 

GreenSportsBlog: Marcus, how did you come to even think about the issue of how to maximize the effectiveness of athletes’ charitable donations, much less start a nonprofit to do that?  

Marcus Daniell: Growing up, my family in New Zealand gave me the ethos of giving and that has stayed strong in me since then.

The inspiration for High Impact Athletes began in around 2015. That’s when I became interested in the Effective Altruism movement, which focuses on deriving as much impact as you can from your charitable donations.

GSB: What does that mean in practice?

Marcus: In a nutshell, Effective Altruism is the idea of trying to achieve the most good possible with your donations or your actions and using evidence and reason to continually search for the most impactful interventions.

The website that introduced me to the ideals of Effective Altruism is 80000hours.org – The organization is based on the idea that a human works an average of 80,000 hours in a lifetime, and that we can use our careers to benefit not only ourselves but thousands of other people or animals or the environment at the same time.

The tenets of Effective Altruism dovetailed perfectly with my tennis career as I improved on the court. The principles of Earning to Give and Advocacy meant that the better I did, the more money I would have to give away, and I’d have a bigger platform to influence others to give effectively, too.

 

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Marcus Daniell (Photo credit: Marcus Daniell)

 

GSB: When did you start giving? And how did you know which charities were effectively managed?

Marcus: In 2014 I was in the red, with my parents and other sponsors supporting me. As mentioned earlier, in 2015, I started to make some money from tennis and started learning about Effective Altruism. I made a small donation at the end of 2015 and in 2016 pledged to donate a minimum of one percent of my earnings to effective charities – these are charities that are highly recommended by Effective Altruism charity evaluators such as GiveWell, Animal Charity Evaluators, or Founders Pledge. I upped my pledge to five percent the next year, and steadily grew the amount until at the start of 2021 I pledged to donate a minimum of ten percent of my income to effective charities for the rest of my life. It feels good.

GSB: That’s terrific. Now, just a wild guess…2020 was a bit different thanks to COVID-19…

Marcus: Yeah, in June I was basically out of a job. There was no French Open, no Wimbledon, the future looked bleak. I asked myself, “If I can’t give more of my own money now, how can I do more for the causes I care about?”

So, I took a class on Coursera by Princeton professor Peter Singer, one of the founders of both the Effective Altruism and Animal Rights Movements, and widely considered the most influential living philosopher. I came out of that course reinvigorated about maximizing my own impact and landed on the idea that another way I could do more would be to get more people on board with the idea of effective giving.

I decided to use my unique position as a professional athlete to start an organization that focuses on spreading the message of effective giving in the sporting world, which is where I could leverage my relationships.

Staying true to the tenets of EA, High Impact Athletes only represents the most effective, evidence-based charities in the world. This means using the research from organizations like Give Well, that was and is laser-focused on ending extreme poverty and does incredible in-depth research on cause areas such as malaria prevention, deworming, direct cash transfers, and providing vitamin supplementation in the most poverty-stricken countries in the world.

Their standards are super high.

Since its inception around 15 years ago, GiveWell has looked into thousands of charities, thoroughly investigated over 500, yet has recommended only nine. Founders Pledge only recommends three climate change organizations out of the many they’ve researched. Animal Charity Evaluators only has recommended four.

GSB: How do these organizations compare to Charity Navigator, an organization that provides easy-to-understand rankings of nonprofits across seemingly all sectors?

Marcus: In my opinion Charity Navigator is extremely accessible but has much lower standards in terms of measurement of impact and quality of intervention.

GiveWell, Founders Pledge, and Animal Charity Evaluators are at another level of sophistication, depth of research, and quality of recommendation. It makes a real difference in terms of the effectiveness of one’s donations — if you donate to any of GiveWell’s recommended charities you can be highly confident that every dollar is doing a huge amount of good. Not so much with less researched charities.

GSB: So, what’s your plan to make High Impact Athletes the same or similar caliber as Give Well and Founders Pledge?

Marcus: High Impact Athletes is positioned in a different space to the likes of GiveWell: GiveWell is a research organization, HIA is a meta-charity and educational platform.

We don’t claim to have any research expertise. I leave that to the people who have been passionate about it for decades. Luckily for us donors, they make all of their research public, so we can use their research and recommendations and pass them on to our audience.

My job is to make as many people as possible aware of the importance of giving to effective charities rather than average charities. To highlight this point: the majority of people guess that a good charity is around 1.5 times more effective than an average one. In reality, a good charity can be hundreds, or even thousands of times more effective.

So, $1 donated to a good charity can actually do the work of $100 or $1000 when compared to an average charity.

GSB: For real? How is such a massive gap possible?

Marcus: There’s one classic Effective Altruism example that comes to mind: In the USA it costs around $50,000 to train a seeing-eye dog that can help a blind person navigate life for around a decade. This is obviously a worthy cause. However, an organization like Fred Hollows Foundation can cure blindness in 1,000 people for that same amount of $50,000 through interventions like cataract surgery. Those cured patients can live with restored eyesight for decades.

So, for the same amount of money you can have, at minimum, is 1,000 times the impact by donating to an organization like Fred Hollows Foundation rather than an average seeing-eye dog charity. This is illustrative, but also challenging because everyone (me included) loves puppies. But these are the sorts of decisions we have to make when we donate.

Given this difference, it’s a no-brainer to me to donate to the most effective charities in the world. So, HIA serves to educate people about the importance of effective giving, and then facilitates the donations themselves. We don’t touch any of the money – 100 percent of donations go directly to the charities where they can do the most good.

Our focus is initially on athletes because, as an athlete:

  1. I know them, understand their lifestyles, and have a sense of what’s important to them.
  2. I walk the talk by donating at least ten percent of my own income, and because of that,
  3. I am a credible source on effective giving and the positive impact a percentage pledge can have on an athlete’s life.

GSB: How does High Impact Athletes select its charities?

Marcus: We represent charities that are highly recommended by the aforementioned GiveWell, Founders Pledge, and Animal Charity Evaluators. We take personal bias out of the equation and rely on evidence and reason in selecting the most impactful charities.

When deciding whether to recommend a charity, these groups all consider the following metrics:

  1. What is the scale of the problem tackled by the charity?
  2. How neglected is the problem?
  3. Is the solution sufficiently tractable (how much change can be made)?
  4. Can the charity effectively absorb additional funds?

GSB: What are some of the charities High Impact Athletes supports?

Marcus: In climate change, we support the likes of Clean Air Task Force and Carbon180. Against Malaria Foundation and Helen Keller International are examples of the extreme poverty nonprofits on our list. And as far as animal welfare is concerned, we’re support The Humane League and Good Food Institute. For a full list of the charities we represent, please check out the website at highimpactathletes.org

 

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GSB: You said earlier that 100 percent of an athlete’s donations goes to the chosen charity. With that being the case, what is High Impact Athletes’ business model?

Marcus: Not taking any fees is sacred for us – we will never take a percentage of a donation for ourselves. 100 percent of an athlete’s donation indeed goes to the selected charity.

Our business model is to apply for grants from Effective Altruism foundations and other like-minded organizations. A possibility for the future is to offer people the option to donate directly to HIA’s operations expenses if they really believe in what we’re doing and the impact we’re having.

GSB: Which athletes have donated with High Impact Athletes so far?

Marcus: Not surprisingly, my first outreach has been to tennis players. A non-exhaustive list includes 2021 Australian Open semifinalist Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece, Germany’s Jan-Lennard Struff, Rajeev Ram of the USA — he and partner Barbora Krejcikova just won the mixed doubles in Melbourne — and Wesley Koolhof from the Netherlands. Fellow New Zealander and EcoAthletes Champion Hugo Inglis is a field hockey Olympian who has joined us.

 

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Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece, currently the 5th ranked men's singles player in the world, donates through High Impact Athletes (Photo credit: AFP)

 

GSB: Finally, what are your growth plans for the rest of 2021, keeping COVID in mind?

Marcus: I hope to have channeled $1,000,000 to the most effective charities in the world by the end of 2021. Join us and let’s make a huge difference in the world!

 

Photo at top: Marcus Daniell prepares to rip a backhand (Photo credit: Marcus Daniell)

 


 

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