Meet the Olympians bringing effective altruism to athlete climate investing

Meet the Olympians bringing effective altruism to athlete climate investing

Hugo Inglis, New Zealand hockey team vice-captain, explains how High Impact Athletes is helping to maximise athlete philanthropy around climate change

We can’t pay our way out of the climate crisis. That’s what we’re often told. But, according to Founders Pledge (FP), a community of entrepreneurs that funds solutions to the world’s most pressing problems, donating $1,000 to a climate charity has a vastly greater positive impact than making lifestyle changes – even significant ones like having fewer children or retrofitting your house.

This doesn’t mean that ignoring lifestyle changes is the correct course of action, however. FP encourages us to ask ourselves how we can make the biggest carbon-saving impact possible, rather than how we can undo the effects of our lifestyles by simply donating. This leads to what FP determines is a surprising conclusion: ‘The goal of high-impact climate philanthropy is not to maximise emissions reductions but to minimise climate damage.’

One of the top climate organisations in the world – as designated by FP – is the Clean Air Task Force (CATF). FP’s previous research indicated that CATF could mitigate a staggering 1 ton of CO2e per 10c to $1 (USD).

How is CATF so cost-effective? Its work to achieve policy changes on a national scale while focusing on neglected issues makes it an ‘effective’ organisation. This means that if there is evidence that giving to CATF is 100x more effective in tackling climate change than donating the same amount of money to a tree planting scheme, why wouldn’t you do as much good as possible? 

This logic is effective altruism (EA) in action. EA is ‘a philosophy and social movement which applies evidence and reason to working out the most effective ways to improve the world.’ 

Donating to CATF is like backing the MVP of your team to make game-winning plays. Offsets like tree planting, however, are more like receiving a participation certificate for being in the pre-game huddle.

High Impact Athletes (HIA) makes this analogy to portray the power of EA’s philosophy and effective giving. Formed by New Zealander, Olympic bronze medallist and five ATP titles winner Marcus Daniell, HIA connects athletes with the most effective charities – based on research evidence – that 100% of their donations go towards. 

Hugo Inglis, managing director and HIA #2, emphasises that enlisting athletes to HIA is about sincere interest, not guilt tripping: “There’s no right or wrong answer to a lot of this stuff. We would never tell anyone that they’ve got the wrong approach or anything like that. If more athletes just demonstrate that it’s a great virtue to care more about people more broadly, or the world or a cause in their community, then that’s a beautiful thing.

“But to give globally, their money can just go way further. When it’s a new athlete that’s new to giving, we’ll explain why we think that way. And so, I think when you start to show those things and explain that the same amount of money applied slightly differently can have literally hundreds of times the impact, then it does start to click.” 

Source: High Impact Athletes

Inglis believes that the doom and gloom culture that surrounds us sparks fear and despair, particularly when it comes to larger, more abstract problems like climate change. 

HIA uses positive framing to show that it’s possible to make progress. This includes making communications less academic and abstract, and more emotionally appealing by cutting to the essence of effective giving and explaining cost-effective examples. 

Inglis, a triple Olympian and hockey veteran, vice-captaining the New Zealand team at Tokyo 2020, met Daniell at Rio 2016 when they were roomed together. Because of where they lived, the pair often agonised about their carbon footprints. Inglis, who grew up in a family with an occupational therapist mother and police officer father, had a keen sense of justice from a young age.

“I’d been reading some Peter Singer, prior to meeting him, and was starting to ask myself some of these moral questions around what are my virtues,” says Inglis, reflecting on the fact that he was still a year or two behind Daniell on his moral philosophy journey.

Inglis and Daniell started offsetting their carbon emissions. Daniell then stumbled across EA via 80,000 Hours, an organisation dedicated to helping people maximise the impact of their careers; one way being pledging an income percentage towards effective charitable causes. 

After Daniell took this pledge and approached Inglis to do the same, explaining the genuine extra level of motivation he had when playing tennis to generate income for charity, the pair realised their ambitions were limited by just offsetting. 

In 2020, when the sports world stopped as a result of COVID-19, Daniell enrolled in Peter Singer’s free Princeton University effective altruism course, leading to discussions with the EA community and, ultimately, the idea to create HIA. 

“Marcus said, if me and him were both keen to do it, then perhaps some more athletes would be keen as well.”

In January 2021, Daniell took the Giving What We Can pledge to donate at least 10% of his annual winnings to effective organisations for the rest of his life. It’s no wonder, then, he was awarded the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Award for his work with HIA, joining the likes of Nelson Mandela.

HIA pledgers, on the other hand, give a minimum of 2% of their annual winnings. The pledge is a percentage rather than a fixed amount so that it doesn’t put a heavy strain on finances, especially when many athletes don’t know how much money they will make at the beginning of a given year.

The current HIA roster of almost 200 athletes includes many hockey and tennis players, such as #5 ATP ranked player Stefanos Tsitsipas, but those from an array of other sports too, such as world heavyweight boxing champion Joseph Parker and #5 ranked freestyle wrestler Giullia Penalber.

Some of the highest profile athletes that Inglis and Daniell approach have their own foundations or charitable organisations with associated sponsors, complicating any potential associations with HIA. But Inglis and Daniell have found that many athletes have a desire to use their platform and income for good but don’t know how. Inglis describes how many athletes are relieved to learn about effective altruism as a philosophy they can trust in.

A sizeable extent of this trust arises from HIA acknowledging that they are not the experts in determining where athletes should invest. Rather, HIA work with charity evaluators including The Life You Can Save, GiveWell and Animal Charity Evaluators, in addition to FP, that provide expertise across the climate, human and animal sectors. 

When assessing whether to recommend a charity, these organisations consider metrics such as:

Importance: how many individuals does this issue affect, and how deeply?  

Neglectedness: Are there aspects of a cause, or opportunities to make a difference, that receive little support relative to their importance?

– Tractability: are there clear ways in which our donations could contribute to progress?

For example, FP climate research found that philanthropic funding largely goes towards clean electricity and tree planting. They recommend, however, that the most effective climate philanthropy should be directed towards advocacy for innovation in neglected low carbon technology. This includes leveraging innovation to drive down the cost of low-carbon technologies and enabling low-carbon development in emerging economies.

In 2020, Inglis donated 2% of his earnings to the two animal welfare charities recommended by HIA; The Human League and The Good Food Institute: “I stopped eating meat in 2016. Being a South Islander, where we grew up around farms, meat and two veg was kind of the staple meal in our household. So I definitely still love the taste of meat, but there just isn’t great substitutes.

“And so the Good Food Institute reduce a ton of suffering in terms of animal lives by finding alternative protein sources, but they’re also an incubation hub for new start-ups for policy change across fermentation, cellular meat and alternative protein. So it was almost one: do good, and two: to be a little bit selfish in that I wanted some good meat substitutes, and I like that innovation approach where they kind of spur new technology and give catalytic finance for new companies to start.”

HIA has produced numerous materials aimed at athletes to not only educate, but update on the organisation’s view about which charities are the most effective, based on the latest research. HIA acknowledge that the most impactful charities evolve over time, meaning their recommendations to athletes are reviewed every 12 months. For example, the Founders Pledge Climate Fund was recently added alongside CATF as a recommended climate charity. Only 12 charities constitute HIA’s current list of recommendations, but, as HIA determine, ‘Charities that change lives are the exception.’

For a relatively new and small organisation, HIA has had a “massively outsized impact” in the spaces it donates (figures are all based on best guess estimates from research of FP, GiveWell and others):

– Human lives improved: 242,367-plus

– Animal lives improved: 3,000,700-plus

– Tonnes CO2e mitigated: 444,636

– Total money influenced (USD): $747,200-plus

HIA’s earning capacity is only going to grow as more athletes are recruited, and with this growth comes an increasing desire to generate a sense of community between athletes and produce an array of new communications content.

Both Inglis and Daniell are aware that the true power of HIA rests on inspiring athletes to share the power of effective giving. A FP climate change executive summary published in 2020 found that athletes are ‘uniquely positioned to influence both the wider climate conversation and how government and private budgets on climate are being spent.’ 

“In New Zealand, we’ve got ‘tall poppy syndrome’,” says Inglis, “where those who like to stand out will get cut down. And the New Zealand public love to do that sometimes, which is great because it keeps us humble, but at the same time, it can reduce people’s confidence to put themselves out there and talk about issues which they care about. So we’re trying to work with athletes so they can put themselves out there to deliver messages that they can be really confident in and that they’re not going to be tripped up on.”

Creating content that athletes want to share on their social media means emphasising the simplest, well-evidenced and most uncontroversial claims that won’t be misinterpreted by their followers. 

“We would love to see sports fans and, even wider than that, just the general public really champion these athletes that are committed to having a huge impact with their lives,” Inglis adds. “We’re super honoured that we get to play a small role in their journeys.”

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