Features, On-Campus Profiles, Profiles

BC Effective Altruism Integrates Intentionality Into Giving Back

At Boston College, the “men and women for others” spirit guides the mission of the many on-campus volunteer and philanthropic organizations dedicated to helping both the Boston and global community. 

When Brian Gardner discovered the philosophy behind effective altruism, which encourages the use of evidence and reason in determining the most effective ways to help people, he realized it matches perfectly with this BC passion of giving back to others.

So, along with Caroline Bald, MCAS ’23, and Molly Binder, LSEHD ’23, Gardner, CSOM ’23, started Boston College Effective Altruism (BCEA) this fall. 

The term “effective altruism” is a philosophy that can mean many different things to different people, according to Gardner. BCEA aims to teach students about this philosophy so they can apply it to their lives. 

“To me, it’s an organization that’s interested in looking at the ways that we can help the world through a more critical lens,” Gardner said. “More specifically, it’s a program that’s hoping to look at the world through a lens of data and logic and reason to see where we can kind of make the most difference and affect the most lives in the most positive ways we can.”

Effective altruists focus on pressing global issues—such as climate change, world hunger, and pandemics—and examine and implement practical solutions to these issues. 

For college students, Gardner said the effective altruism philosophy is particularly useful because it can help them consider the impact their future career or pursuits will have on the world. 

“So it kind of teaches people, especially as college students, ways where you can get involved or spend your time or resources to most positively impact the world,” Gardner said. 

Gardner said he was first introduced to the effective altruism movement during his sophomore year at BC. He heard about the organization One for The World, which seeks to maximize the impact of donations by screening charities to make sure they are spending their money effectively. The BCEA club founders originally planned to start a One for the World club at BC, but they decided to start a more broad effective altruism club after learning more about the philosophy.

“Slowly over the years, it’s transformed into this larger movement that we wanted to encapsulate,” Gardner said. 

Binder said she was also interested in effective altruism because it was a philosophy she had no previous exposure to. She liked its focus on intentional giving and how it encourages people to expand their donations and community service beyond their own communities. 

“Usually, when we go about our decisions for how to make an impact, it’s based on things like our immediate circle [and] who we may be surrounded with,” Binder said. “But if we kind of expand that out, we can have a much bigger impact in a lot of cases.”  

The journey to starting BCEA began in spring 2022 when the founders first applied to start the club. After gaining approval from the Office of Student Involvement, BCEA became an official club this fall and started recruiting new members, reserving rooms, and hosting meetings.

BCEA breaks down into smaller groups called fellowships, Gardner said. A fellowship consists of eight to 12 students who meet once a week for an hour to read and discuss ethics topics together.

There are introductory fellowships lasting around 10 weeks that cover a broad range of topics and introduce members to effective altruism. After that, members can participate in an in-depth fellowship where group members decide what topics they want to discuss in depth. Gardner said the fellowships covered a wide range of topics last semester, including climate change, animal suffering, poverty, machine learning, and artificial intelligence. 

“[We discuss] how, as students, we can better gear our studies towards things that might make a difference on our planet in the future, ” Gardner said. 

Binder, who led a fellowship last semester, said she really enjoyed talking about different ethical dilemmas with the other members of her fellowship. 

“One branch of effective altruism focuses on non-human animals and reducing their suffering,” Binder said. “So kind of the ethical dilemmas that go along with, you know, eating meats, or specifically, we talked about choosing to donate, for example, to a cause that would save thousands of chickens versus potentially one human life. What is the measurement there?” 

BCEA is part of a wider effective altruism circle around Boston. Harvard and MIT have EA student organizations. BCEA members attend socials with fellow students around the Boston area, which Holly Branco, MCAS ’25, said has been a memorable part of her experience as a club member. 

Branco joined BCEA last semester after learning about it at the student involvement fair. One of her favorite discussions in her introductory fellowship was about animal ethics. 

“You might not immediately think insects have moral weight,” Branco said. “But one of the questions that they’ll ask is like ‘Oh, well, would you have a headache for 10 minutes to save 1000 insects?’ And a lot of people might be like “Oh well, I guess I would,’ and then that implies that you care about insects a little.”

BCEA ran two introductory fellowships last semester, and it is hoping to run three this semester, Gardner said. Gardner also plans to host more social events so students who do not have the time to commit to weekly meetings can still engage with the BCEA community and talk with like-minded people. 

Gardner said he is proud of what he and his fellow founders have accomplished and feels BCEA will continue to be a part of the BC community even though the founders will graduate this year. 

“Immediately through our first rounds of fellowships, we met a number of awesome underclassmen,” Gardner said. “We’ve started from nothing and reached a point where we’re impacting the way people see the world and the way they hope to help others.” 

Being a part of BCEA gives members a chance to be reflective about both their impact on the world and their own futures. Branco, for example, shared how BCEA has gotten her to think about potential new career paths. 

“It’s definitely gotten me to think more about how effective my career will be in helping others’ lives,” Branco said. “And how there are a lot of options that I wouldn’t have considered before, like public policy is much more influential than I’d realized.”

Binder’s experience has also led her to take a more reflective look at her career choices, she said. 

“I think the most important thing that I’ve realized is that it’s not something that is a quick process of deciding what’s a good fit for you career wise, because it’s not only that you have to have a passion for a specific area, but also that you are someone who’s qualified enough to make a difference,” Binder said.

Gardner said he is excited to see the impact BCEA will have after he graduates this spring and hopes it leads even more students to have reflective experiences. 

“How can college students who have such a great impact and such a great life ahead of them use that for good under this lens of using data and reason and logic to make sure what they’re doing truly provides the best benefit that it can?” Gardner said.

March 14, 2023