The world is changing.
f you take a moment to stub out that cigarette, put down that crossword book, and think for a moment – you know that’s true.
You see it every day. Worldly images of death and destruction beamed into your brain from the idiot box that controls your world from the heart of your living room.
But there is light out there. The darkness is not having its own way. The world is also changing in a good way. More and more young people are starting to take positive action as they try to make a difference in the world. They are putting the lives of others in front of their own, and this movement has reached the shores of the poker community.
One man who is shaking the sand from beneath his toes is the Raising for Effective Giving (REG) co-founder, Adriano Mannino. What an impressive young man. I feel so fortunate and grateful to have spent time with him. I hope you do as well.
Let’s begin by understanding who Adriano Mannino is?
“I am a philosopher from Switzerland. I have done some work in academia: I have published in practical ethics and effective altruism. Practical ethics is about improving the world. Trying to make the world a better place. Trying to reduce unnecessary suffering by using scientific and disciplined thinking on how to do that.
“In the US, UK and Switzerland there is a growing movement of organizations doing this. I have collaborated with these groups, especially in Switzerland. We have gradually tried to take a more strategic approach. What can we do to make the world a better place? How much could we donate from our salaries? It’s more feasible than we thought to donate 10%. Psychological studies have shown that donating really tends to help the donor, too.
“One key strategic insight is as one single individual you don’t matter too much. You can make a change though. For just $3,000 you can save a life in a developing country. By contrast, saving a life costs 100 times more in rich countries. So life and death decisions do depend on what we do with our money, but you can only do so much as a single person.
“Now imagine you don’t donate anything, but you can inspire 10 other people to donate; now your impact is 10x greater than if you donated yourself. This is one key strategic insight that shows it’s more important to influence others, influence society and ultimately influence political decision makers.
“From this strategic insight we started to think of groups that might want to donate; have access to large sums of money, and may have the rational insight needed to understand this. This is how we were attracted to the poker industry. A lot of us are recreational players anyway, and we were friends with some of the great players within the Swiss community.
“The people on our team who had the ability to become semi-professional poker players decided to do organizational work with us instead; because they could see that their time was more valuably spent helping to set up REG, and convince many other poker players to join rather than playing poker.
“One of the earliest influential figures for us was Stefan Huber. One of the best Swiss cash game players. He had stumbled upon us and was convinced by the argument for donating to the most effective causes, and he helped set up the organization and get in touch with international players.”
How does this tale dovetail into Philipp Gruissem, Igor Kurganov and Liv Boeree becoming co-founders?
“I am the co-president of a foundation in Switzerland called the GBS Schweiz, a non-profit think-tank for critical thinking, ethics and the application of this way of thinking. This is where the REG idea was born, but then Philipp, Igor and Liv were also amongst the co-founders, and without them we wouldn’t have been able to set it up.”
You say you are a philosopher – can you expand on that?
“A philosopher is someone who is privileged to think about the big questions in life, and get paid for it. One of these questions concerns ethics. What should we do? What should I do? I have a thousand things I can do, and a lot of time ahead of me – so what should I do? There are a bunch of methods you can use to figure out what your actual values are.
“Take the Drowning Child thought experiment made famous by Peter Singer, for example. Say you are walking past a pond where a child is drowning. You can save them but you are wearing an expensive suit that you would ruin in the process. This could cost you $1,000 – would you do it or not? Most people would choose to save the life. This might show to them that saving a life and reducing suffering is more important than $1,000 of luxury to themselves. If that’s true, then you can apply that critical thinking in your own life. If you have $1,000 spare would you buy luxury goods, or would you use it to save someone else’s life?
“All of these considerations are relevant when it comes to thinking about what we want to do with our lives. That resonates a lot, especially with young poker players. If you are 25 years of age and already a multi-millionaire it raises questions: What am I going to do with the rest of my life? What am I going to do with these resources? Am I going to play poker for the rest of my life?
“One thing we encounter quite often with young professional poker players is this concern that they are taking from society and not giving back. They wonder: ‘Is this going to be what I do for the rest of my life?’ You party hard, you party harder – but do you get anywhere you really want to go? And have you stopped to ask that question? A big service that philosophy can do is to provide rational, scientifically-guided advice to finding long-term purpose and meaning in life.”
When did the light come on? When did you start to understand the power of contribution?
“As a kid I was always drawn to the big questions. I was brought up in a semi-religious home and started to question religion at a very early age. This was a very big question for me. If religion is true then it’s a big thing for the world. If it’s not true then there are other questions to be asked because people have believed in this for millennia. In general, the meta-question is: Are the current answers we’re giving to the big questions in life true? Or might we be headed the wrong way? That’s something to know. Who wants to waste their life?
“I then started reading philosophy books as a teenager. I came across Peter Singer’s writings very early on. At the same time I also enjoyed normal things like the other kids. I also started out studying math and economics and could have gone into another career. There are so many big questions and ‘who knows how to answer them’ – one thinks. Singer’s writings introduced me to the fact that these questions can be tackled in a more rigorous, rational and systematic way.
“For me, I started out focusing on philosophy as a major, it was a career I deliberately took up. I could have taken the economics route and earned lots of money working for a corporation. But would that have made me happy? I wouldn’t have let that child die, so perhaps my future laid in ethics, in helping people and reducing suffering?
“I wanted to create a non-profit, find an interesting career, and change thousands of lives in the process. That’s the strategic approach I took. I guess I got lucky. I stumbled across this path very early on in my life. Back then I didn’t fully realize the potential of the money-making career for improving the world yet: If you earn a lot of money and donate, you can create several jobs at non-profits that wouldn’t otherwise have existed. By contrast, if you work for a non-profit directly, you’re often doing one job that would have existed anyway.”
How important is action?
“It’s ultimately the only thing that’s important. There are a whole bunch of things that go on under the name of philosophy. There is something called Sturgeon’s Law: a semi-serious adage that presupposes that 90% of everything is crap. Maybe that’s true of philosophy? Ultimately, living is acting. The only question we need to answer everyday is how to act? That’s the sub-branch of philosophy I’m interested in. How to put our values into action? This is everything we are doing while we are alive. Whatever we do intellectually, whatever we think about, whatever information we can gather should be oriented towards better action, and more valuable goals.
“The idea is to think of life as a game. Think very carefully about the goals that we want to pursue, and consider the best strategies to take in order to maximize the probability (or rather the expected value) of winning in life: which means achieving these long term life goals that we choose after reflection.”
Who are your mentors?
“Peter Singer was very influential, but also Bertrand Russell. I would highly recommend his work, and his general outlook on life – combining science and philosophy was a big influence on me. Other big influences are contemporary philosophy and rationality blogs, such as LessWrong.com.”
What are REG’s goals?
“The ultimate goal is to make the world a better place by reducing as much unnecessary suffering as possible. The main strategic aim is to build a movement as fast as possible; of donors and activists that are interested in this idea, and are willing to contribute a significant part of their resources to it.
“REG gives us a reach into the poker community. If you are in such a position, and the question of what to do with your resources comes up. You need to realize you have great power, and with great power comes great responsibility. There are is a lot of extremely cool stuff that people with influence can do if they come together and go about it very rationally.
“We have only been going now for seven-months. We had already done something with Phil and Igor. They did a matching challenge with their fans early in 2014 and raised $80,000. That was before the official REG launch. Since the launch we have been able to raise roughly $500,000 for effective charities against both world poverty and factory farming. Dan Smith and Martin Jacobson are interested in donating towards reducing animal suffering, as well as human suffering.
“It’s important for us to not only donate to direct charities but to also have a more long-term strategy. We also want to fund meta-charities: We want to encourage people to donate towards creating more donors. The data show that this can pay off even more in the long run.”
So you want to use your money as a marketing tool to attract even more donors?
“Part of it, yes. If you do that with a good strategy, then often you can get a fund ratio of 1:4 (you put one dollar in, you get four dollars back). Our current fund ratio is about 1:10. We started out with seed funding from Swiss poker players – without them we wouldn’t have a REG – this paid for REG staff. Overall staff cost has been $50,000 since our launch last summer, and we have generated $500,000 in donations, hence the fund ratio of 1:10.
“The whole thing continues, the signs are good and the idea seems to resonate with people. If people can make stable commitments then who knows. Perhaps we could hit a ratio of 1:100? We are also looking to expand into other sports such as professional tennis and gaming. So with REG seed funding we can try and launch other ideas. It might pay off big time. We are at the start of the effective altruist movement. It’s very young. The idea of having more substantial commitments, not just the little annual donations, but real established donations going to the causes saving the most lives per dollar – this approach is quite new.
“When you provide seed funding for a business, this is part of the funding that would generate the most impact. Our current policy and recommendations are roughly for a 50/50 split between direct charities and meta-charities. The ultimate point is to make sure that as much money goes into the direct charities. But we need to make sure how well each charity does and later on we can be better at comparing them and making decisions to give more money to the better ones. This takes a lot of resources and effort. It’s important to grow the movement.”
I imagine the whole process from giving to receiving is very complex?
“It is, and this is why a good administration is essential to success. One popular idea of what charity effectiveness means is very low administration costs. A lot of charities advertise that 99% of their money goes directly to the people in need. Why would anyone believe this is an effective business model? Imagine a hospital that advertised that 99% of funding went directly to the patients. Nothing went towards administration, equipment, training, and staff. You would be setting yourself up for failure. On our website, we have a blog post analyzing the misguided idea that charity effectiveness necessarily means low administration cost.
“On the website you can donate to specific charities. For example, we support the Against Malaria Foundation, which distributes anti-malaria bed nets. They have proven to be very successful at reducing malaria infection and save lives for about $3,000 per life. You can donate to this cause directly, or you can just donate to ‘REG Unrestricted’ in which case the board decides where to allocate the money based on our most recent estimates. Roughly the split we go for is 50% direct (such as the Against the Malaria Foundation) and the other 50% would go towards meta-charity efforts.”
How do you choose your charities?
“We choose them based on existing recommendations from charity evaluators as well as our own research. GiveWell is the world’s foremost scientific charity evaluator. They have very competent staff of economists and mathematicians. They have systematically measured hundreds of charities, tried to gather the best data from the World Health Organization, and from the charities who need to be transparent otherwise they can’t recommend them.
“GiveWell is our primary resource for human charities. Then there is an organization called Animal Charity Evaluators (ACE), which does the same thing for animal charities. Even discovering basic facts like more than 90% of factory-farmed animals are chickens, means you can now make a difference with that knowledge: Just leave out chickens and you save 90% of the animals suffering in factory farms. Even better, again: Get many other people to leave out chickens.
“We greatly rely on these charity evaluators. Plus we have our own research team as well. We rely on GiveWell and ACE for direct charities, but there isn’t a really big charity evaluator for meta-charities. The idea of meta-charity is very recent and solid data is still out. Many meta-charities have ratios of 1:4 and REG has a ratio of 1:10 so you can see that it’s a very promising strategy to explore. If we can get seed money to expand into tennis it could get really big, and we could potentially be raising millions more over the years.”
Why should poker players be giving their money to REG?
“Poker players should donate if they come to the conclusion that this act aligns with their own goals. One intuitive way of thinking is to feel like we primarily want to save money for whatever selfish needs we might have. We have a blog post titled ‘Charity ain’t for me, I’m a hedonist, you see!’ that addresses this way of thinking: We present a thought experiment in that post where you could push a button that gave you $3,000 but it would inflict a fatal disease on a child at the other end of the world. A hedonist should do this without any hesitation, but most people wouldn’t. So if they wouldn’t do that, the question then becomes: ‘If you have $3,000 lying spare in your bank account, aren’t you facing the same situation? Aren’t you, in both situations, deciding between a world where you have $3,000 more and a child dies, and another world where you have $3,000 less and a child lives?’
“Our aim is to provide resources for everyone, especially poker players, to be better able to decide what their goals are. We at REG have decided that we want to spend a good fraction of our resources helping others and reducing suffering; we hope other poker players would also like to do this.”
Are we genetically and evolutionarily wired to want to contribute?
“I can highly recommend Joshua Greene’s recent book Moral Tribes, which covers this issue as well as many others. I think that wanting to help others was evolutionary advantageous in our evolutionary history. For hundreds and thousands of years we lived in small communities where everyone knew everyone else. Evolution could count on the community helping a person in need. In that context it paid genetically and reciprocally to always have an impulse to help and gain a sense of fulfillment for doing that.
“The biggest problem in the modern world is we are now a tribe of seven billion people. It’s inconceivable for us. We still have stone age genes and brains that are well-calibrated for a small-scale environment of 200 people where we can cooperate and reciprocate and have strong emotions. When the village is seven billion large, and we have ways of helping or harming people at the other end of the world, it’s difficult to comprehend emotionally what situation we’re in.
“This is why when usual charities advertise they don’t talk about statistics. Statistically, 30,000 children are dying every day from the consequence of extreme poverty and undernourishment. When you tell people this stat they don’t feel much – it’s just a number. Yet, if you show them a photo of a child and name it then they are much more willing to give. You also see this in the news. They are full of individual tragedies, but the number of victims are very small compared to the 30,000 children that are dying every day. The victims from terrorism are a prime example. The number of victims are so much smaller than the daily victims of poverty and yet it doesn’t make the same waves in the media.
“The biggest tragedy is that we, living in rich countries, have become so rich we could wipe out global poverty basically overnight if we wanted to. If we all donated 10% of our income, we’d still be the richest generation to ever have walked the earth. And we’d then have $7 trillion each year to improve the world! Economists have estimated it would take a mere $130 billion per year of additional aid to end extreme global poverty and prevent the 30,000 deaths that occur each day. $130 billion is roughly the amount the US annually spends on booze.
“Our stone-age brains have a hard time realizing that whenever we spend money, we’re actually in the situation of a firefighter faced with a burning building: We have to decide whether we (1) walk away and spend our time just enjoying ourselves; (2) walk into the building, to a room where one person is trapped, saving them; or (3) walk into the building, to a room where 100 people are trapped, saving them. (1) corresponds to donating nothing; (2) to donating to comparatively ineffective charity; (3) corresponds to donating to effective charities.
“Evolutionary, we are primed to feel stronger emotions when something happens within our vicinity. Although cognitively we understand that we are a tribe of seven billion people, we have a tough time trying to act appropriately. Fortunately, the non-emotional rationality skills that poker teaches can help us out. They help us win at life’s most serious game, too: Saving as many lives as possible.”
If this interview interested you then you can connect with Adriano on Twitter and Facebook. More information on his work can be found on his personal page by clicking here. And check out the video below!