InEffective UnAltruism: The Problem with UCL’s Effective Altruism Society

Thais Jones & Aniela Bichot

The first time a student hears the term “Effective Altruism”, they tend to assume the best. An act of altruism is an action that is done selflessly, and the fact that a whole organisation is dedicated to that concept is comforting. The Centre for Effective Altruism (CEA) is a large, global and well established charity which dedicates itself to spreading the message of how to be effectively altruistic. CEA has multiple extremely high profile donors and supporters alongside a strong foundation across the UK with associated societies in many universities. 

UCL Effective Altruism Society (UCL EA)  is also dedicated to the cause of their parent organisation, spreading the word among students on how we may help the world. Initially, it may seem that teaching a few students how to run a charity wouldn’t take up that many resources- surely a few lectures wouldn’t cost too much money? However, The Cheese Grater Magazine has revealed a worrying pattern of exuberant expenditures that have funded a life lived large by those who are meant to be amongst UCL’s most charitable. 

Anyone who is a society committee member will know that it is often a thankless job. Being a committee member is something you do out of commitment and passion for the society, with your reward being the knowledge that you contributed to the building of another unique community within UCL. Yet for the committee members of UCL EA this is not the full story; committee members not only receive a sense of fulfilment and pride in their contribution to the society, but also monetary compensation for their work. Over the 2021-22 academic year, all UCL EA committee members were paid for their roles. 

The President of UCL EA, whilst currently on a gap year, is also employed by CEA as a “community builder”. Whilst it is reasonable that he is paid for his part time work at the Centre of Effective Altruism, we understand that he is in essence being paid to run a university society whilst not being a UCL student. His daily activities consist of sending emails, organising speaker events to spread the word of EA, and other administrative tasks associated with being the president of a university society. The Cheese Grater understands that he is paid a five figure salary. One colleague (a committee member) of The President told The Cheese Grater that, due to committee members’ workloads, “It would be crazy not to pay them”. No doubt the process of arranging talks, socials and trips can make for hungry work, but other committee members across UCL’s plethora of societies have similar duties and responsibilities but are not afforded the same treatment and fiscal compensation, or incentive, to perform such tasks. Moreover, UCL EA’s newsletter Better Matters apparently has a cosy financial reward for those who write for it. UCL EA’s substantial freelance rate of £50 per article is infinitely more than what most student journalists receive at UCL; most students who write within societies contribute to journals and newspapers for free out of their love for their subject or topic areas – yet once again, UCL EA is an exception to this status quo.

A salary for being a committee member isn’t all there is to look forward to at UCL EA. Weekly trips to Oxford or Cambridge to meet with their respective Effective Altruism societies are subsidised entirely. Trips between universities is something many societies do, with some societies even going abroad, but for all trips, those partaking are usually expected to pay for, or at least contribute towards, travel and other costs. However, contrary to what is the norm in most societies, committee members of UCL EA are lucky enough to go on fully paid trips to conferences in the United States. One of these recent global conferences discussed the impact of climate change. Despite the fact that UCL EA members discussed methods and strategies which could be employed to limit the impact of the largest environmental-humanitarian crisis in modern history, society members who travelled to the USA counterintuitively increased their carbon footprint through their all expenses paid jet setting. Surely, in the era of remote work, it would be most effective, altruistic and climate-friendly to hold this event in a Zoom meeting rather than paying thousands of pounds to fly students across the Atlantic? 

Despite the obvious contradictory nature of UCL EA’s jet setting and expenditure, a committee member who spoke to The Cheese Grater described such trips as “retreats” and “a reward for [their] work” – as if receiving a salary was not enough of a reward for running a society and evangelising EA philosophy. 

While UCL EA spends tens of thousands of pounds on trips within and outside of the UK, other charity focused UCL societies have to make do without. Other such societies, like the UCL Student Action Against Homelessness, employ a version of “outreach” that not only includes raising awareness of their work within UCL, but also extending this work to the wider London community. UCL Student Action Against Homelessness does this by engaging with London’s homeless community with the very few resources they have to perform their essential and meaningful work.

In an interview with The Cheese Grater, a committee member of the UCL Action Against Homelessness Society was shocked to find out that UCL EA members were paid for their work: “No committee members should be paid for their work – especially if it’s something where funds are meant to be for the community and doing good. We obviously have very limited funds, in the single figures – if we had 5 figure funds we could really make a huge impact; we would have [more] money to buy things like blankets and warm clothing, warm food and drinks, and things for the people we’re going to outreach to on the streets.” The reaction of the Action Against Homelessness Society committee member typifies what is so fundamentally wrong about the funding structure and payment awarded to those on the committee of UCL EA. Whilst those who go out of their way to supply essential resources to those in need during a cost of living crisis receive no monetary compensation for their hard work, and are supplied very little funding to carry out their community outreach, UCL EA committee members are facilitated in their jet setting to ‘retreats’, receiving handsome payments for their conferences, writings and talks and have the ability to give out free pizza and books on top of everything else. 

What is not clear is how UCL EA, as a small university society, garners enough income to afford their ‘retreats’ and financial rewards for committee members, a unique trait of UCL EA that is not found amongst other charitable organisations within the university community. Moreover, the fact that UCL EA can plan and conduct events without charging for entry, coupled with their lack of income from membership purchases (due to their society being free to join), further muddies the waters around the funding structure of the society. UCL EA’s parent organisation also has opaque funding sources. The recent fraud investigation into Sam Bankman-Fried, the founder of the cryptocurrency exchange FTX, has made the futures of CEA and, by extension, UCL EA, unclear. Ex-billionaire Bankman-Fried is a former director of CEA and was a large donor to utilitarian-flavoured philanthropic social movement until his cryptocurrency exchange collapsed in November of 2022. Whilst the fall of FTX does not directly link to UCL EA, it is clear that the main proponents of EA philosophy and those within the central organisation of the social movement and charity are somewhat farcical in their commitment to charitable action and derivation of funds from ethical and transparent sources – something which sounds familiar to those with some knowledge regarding UCL EA’s financial sources. 

Despite the opaque funding sources, the UCL Students’ Union (SU) is satisfied with UCL EA’s compliance to their funding guidelines and regulations. The Cheese Grater learned that UCL EA does not request any grants from the SU, something that has gone seemingly unnoticed by those in charge of monitoring the fiscal ongoings of UCL’s many societies. According to an SU official, societies that do not frequently conduct events registered with the SU, and do not report funding or request grants from the SU, often fly under their bureaucratic radar. Since UCL EA does not advertise free trips and events on its social media, these events are not picked up by the Students’ Union, which in turn leads to the SU being stuck in an ignorant abyss, where they are oblivious to the external funding of the supposedly charitable society. According to the SU’s Club and Society Regulations, ‘All income must be deposited into club or society non-grant accounts in line with club and society guidance’, something which has not seemingly occurred in the case of UCL EA – a society linked to high profile public figures and organisations. 

The blame for this lack of oversight should not lie solely with UCL EA for violating society regulations, but also with the Students’ Union for failing to hold societies to account. It should be obvious to anyone paying attention to the publicly advertised activities run by UCL EA that the free books, pizzas, drinks, and trips are not being funded by students’ memberships or SU grants, as there is no joining fee for the society nor grants requested from the SU. The fact that The Cheese Grater was able to so easily uncover the obvious discrepancies and inconsistencies in funding within UCL EA makes one wonders why the Students’ Union has apparently not uncovered the same fiscal inconsistencies. The lack of SU investigation into UCL EA’s financial compliance is worrying when the SU has an innate responsibility to ensure that UCL’s societies keep to their own guidelines and regulations. These are rules which are not only integral to the democratic and transparent organisation of student-led societies and clubs within our university, but these rules are also integral to the facilitation of a culture of relative economic equity and fairness within UCL’s extra-curricular community. Whilst the SU is partially to blame here, the most effective and altruistic thing UCL EA could do to help create a fairer community in the most immediate and tangible sense is abiding by the democratic core constitutional laws and guidelines of the SU which they are explicitly affiliated with. 

From all of this, it can only be concluded that UCL’s Effective Altruism society fails at the two things it aims to be: effective, and altruistic. UCL EA is fundamentally ineffective in spreading their message and philosophy on campus at UCL, with many of their talks only being attended by five UCL students and their journal having under sixty readers, at least according to their Instagram following. UCL EA’s altruistic aims are also doubtable with their society having little tangible charitable output when compared to other charitable societies with greater limits on their fiscal abilities. With funding discrepancies rife throughout the structure of CEA and, as uncovered, UCL EA, now is the time for the SU to consider their employment of ethical and financial regulations regarding the conduct of the society. More to this, the case of UCL EA highlights the rampant inequalities that exist within society funding at UCL at large – where those doing the most important charitable work within, and outside, of the UCL community receive the least in terms of financial support and funding. The unique system of personal payment to those elected to the committee of UCL EA further highlights the latter and once again shows the ineptness of the SU in their imposition of their own financial guidelines which are so core to the ethical and democratic management of UCL’s societies and clubs.

Edit 13/12/23: The President of UCL Effective Altruism Society has been anonymised upon request. We are a very nice publication for doing this.