Interview with Boris Yakubchik

Some people have committed a great deal of their lives to trying to best make the world a better place. I’m trying to sit down with some of these people and learn more about their thoughts and motivations.

Today, I sit down with Boris Yakubchik. He’s the co-President of Giving What We Can: Rutgers and has been involved in the effective altruist movement for a long time, regularly giving away 50% of his income to the Against Malaria Foundation.

Boris Yakubchik

Peter Hurford: One of the most notable things about you is that you regularly give 50% of your salary to the Against Malaria Foundation without missing a beat. How did you get to that point in your life? And do you plan on going any further?

Boris Yakubchik: I was lucky to have learned about effective altruism before I started my full-time job. I joined Giving What We Can previously and was already giving 10% from my part-time self-employed tutoring income. And by January 2012 I started my full-time job as a high-school math teacher and my income more-than-doubled.

Before taxes I started earning close-to $50,000 and my expenses were less than $20,000. I figured I didn’t need a more-lavish lifestyle and I thought I would be able to sustain giving 50% to cost-effective charities.

Unfortunately in 2013 I was not working full time and wanted to quickly pay down the college debt of my fiancée, so I temporarily decreased my giving to 10%.

I’m at the moment trying out a work-from-home business in which my parents have been successful; it has the potential for a significantly higher income than a teacher.

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P: Why did you pick Against Malaria Foundation as a place to give? Why not give somewhere else, or to a bunch of different charities?

B: At the time that I started giving, AMF was GiveWell’s top-rated charity. I feel that is the best reason.

Also, I had several “Birthday for Charity” events and was able to raise money for AMF directly through their website. There is certainly a psychological tie to giving to AMF because I’ve publicly endorsed AMF for several years now.

I’m open to giving to other charities, and through the years have done that. Specifically I gave to Vegan Outreach and the Humane League based on the evaluations from Animal Charity Evaluators.

There are some strong arguments that conclude that once you find the best charity, you ought to give there. I give the bulk of my money to whichever charity I think does the most towards eliminating extreme poverty, but will continue to give nontrivial amounts to organizations that effectively decrease animal suffering.

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P: You say your expenses are less than $20K. That’s quite frugal! How do you make that work?

B: I don’t want lavish things, my car is for purposes of getting from point A to point B. I try to minimize large expenses (like apartment rent). I rarely eat out (my fiancee cooks amazing food). Most of the entertainment is virtually free: spending time with friends, reading book and internet, watching films at home.

I wrote up some of the best advice about frugal liging that I’ve come across on my website: http://www.yboris.com/frugal.php

P: Let’s change topics a little bit. Another thing I’ve seen you talk a lot about is the Giving What We Can chapter at Rutgers. What does it do? And how did you get involved with it?

B: I was lucky to watch the Rutgers chapter get started (primarily by Nick Beckstead, Mark Lee, and Tim Campbell) and attend the meetings from day one. At our second meeting I gave a short talk about positive psychology and how giving affects happiness (primarily relying on Andreas Mogensen’s wonderful “Giving Without Sacrifice”).

By the second academic year I volunteered (and was elected) as the president. The main task has been to organize events, and get others involved. The primary function of the chapter is to draw an audience of undergraduate and graduate students, educate them about the problems of extreme world poverty, and demonstrate to them that they can individually make a big positive difference in the world.

We’ve done that through a variety of events like lectures (e.g. Poverty: Lessons Learned from Photography), workshops (e.g. THINK’s Evaluating Social Interventions), and fundraising (Booksale for Charity).

Last academic year we had another President running Giving What We Can: Rutgers, Michaél MF.

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P: Wow. I always forget that there are a lot of cool people involved in the Rutgers chapter! Have your events been able to engage people well? What lessons have you learned from running them?

B: I wish I tracked our success more quantitatively, but I’m confident that over the years we’ve been able to encourage many to start giving more effectively. At the very least, several of my friends have joined Giving What We Can (started giving at least 10%).

Some of the events we had, for example Thomas Pogge came to give a talk, drew an audience of students who have never heard of Giving What We Can, several stayed around after the talk to learn more. Some events were attended poorly, in part because of poor advertizing on my part, but we have video recordings for others to see, for example Zell Kravinsky talked about how he gave away over $40 million.

While it’s certainly important to have an interesting and educational event, it’s very important to advertise widely. Doing things by yourself isn’t the best strategy, I really recommend giving specific tasks to those who are interested in helping (e.g. contact the student paper to send a correspondent, or print 3 flyers and post them in these buildings).

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P: Do you have any tips on how to advertise an event so that people get interested and come?

B: I’m not sure how important it is to have a well-designed flyers, but posting flyers has been successful for us. There have been times when we post flyers on the day of the event with “TODAY” written on it. I think that can encourage more people to look at the flyer, thus increasing the chances of more people attending.

Personal invitations have worked well, one acquaintance I had I urged to come to our meeting, she came just because of the request and was interested enough to come to many events for several semesters.

I had better success getting people to come when I was a student at Rutgers. I don’t know, but it seemed that when we had weekly meetings (same day, same time, same location), we had better attendance than when we had them bi-weekly. Perhaps building a habit is good.

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P: I saw that as a part of GWWC: Rutgers you even were able to give a TEDx talk on cost-effectiveness in philanthropy. That’s so cool! How did you arrange for that to happen? What came out of it?

B: TEDxRutgers happened for several years at Rutgers and in early 2013, Michaél MF told me that he knew some of the people organizing the event. Because I’ve given talks related to Effective Altruism (some modeled on Toby Ord’s presentation), Michaél put me in touch with the organizers. I was lucky that they still had some space in their line-up and I was accepted with a 12-minute limit.

I had significant help from friends and the EA community while drafting and revising my talk (at the very least I’d like to thank Roxanne Heston). I wish I had an extra day to practice, because during the final talk I stumbled several times.

Unfortunately, it took a long time for the video to be edited. But,finally, a year later, we were able to post it online on the Giving What We Can YouTube channel.

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P: In addition to raising awareness via Giving What We Can: Rutgers, I’ve also seen you raise awareness on different issues via prolific posting on Facebook. And I remember we once talked about how you were handing out leaflets from Vegan Outreach that encourage people to eat less meat. A lot of people, like me, care a lot about these causes, but are too shy to become activists. How did you cross that bridge?

B: I was rather shy even in my first year in college, but by third year I became a lot more social (with the help of a friend who kept encouraging me to go to parties with him). I didn’t like the parties, but at some point I somehow knew hundreds of people and felt a lot more confident talking to strangers.

At some point, I went silly in the head on Facebook and started befriending people who I just met once, or who had some large number of friends in common; so I managed to have a ‘network’ of about a thousand people.

At first I was a cheerleader for science, posting news of fantastic discoveries and potential technologies, but with time, especially once I learned of extreme world poverty and moral arguments like Peter Singer’s, I decided to use my platform to share pro-social ideas.

I think incremental steps can help one become less uneasy about approaching others (when handing out VO booklets), and it’s easy to talk about what you’re passionate about.

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P: Do you have any recommendations to people that also want to get involved in influencing, whether through Facebook, pamphlets, or official organizations?

B: Facebook provides a rather safe environment for starting a conversation. It’s hard to know how much influence posts and discussions can have, but I think over the years, at least a dozen people have messaged me privately saying things akin to “I really appreciate your posts” and even “You’ve influenced my thinking”.

I’ve occasionally posted images that were provoking (especially ones urging people to take steps to decrease animal suffering). Sometimes the discussions are hijacked by people that sound like they are from another planet, but at other times it feels productive.

Getting involved with official organizations is great because they legitimize what you are doing. It’s much easier to talk about a topic when others are there for that purpose.

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P: Has anyone reacted negatively or hostile to your activism? If so, how do you deal with that?

B: I’ve had in the past some discussions with friends (in person) where the topic of morality came up and I argued too forcefully. I think one needs to be very careful when discussing issues like that because even well-worded comments can be misunderstood, and even the purpose of the discussion could be misinterpreted. With practice you can get better at these conversations. I absolutely love Giving What We Can’s approach: you just share your excitement about how awesome it is that you can, thanks to research and awesome organizations, help people significantly with little cost to you!

It’s possible that some people won’t be moved by arguments or other appeals. Something that’s helpful is to keep in mind that people come from different backgrounds with different assumptions. Motivating a change that is too drastic can backfire. Reading books written by psychologist can help (e.g. Influence, The Charisma Myth, etc)

One of the most helpful books I’ve read was “The Animal Activist’s Handbook” which shares excellent (psychology-informed) advice about working towards change.

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P: Speaking of vegan activism, I’ve heard you describe yourself personally as “near vegan”. What do you mean by that? And how did you make that lifestyle change?

B: The first time I heard of vegetarianism was with a PETA leaflet that compared factory farms with concentration camps. This was too-drastic for me to accept at the time and I promptly threw it away with a laugh and a thought “crazy people”.

I was lucky that I met many vegetarians through my college careers, many were happy to say why they chose it for themselves, many were not pushy. I think because I liked the people, I was eager to learn more.

Through extended conversations, and especially because I made a close friend (Graduate Philosophy student) who was vegetarian, I warmed up to the arguments. I was lucky that my diet was primarily vegetables based (mom cooked soups, fried potatoes, etc) so it wasn’t hard to decrease my meat consumption.

For the longest time, and still, I think of vegetarianism as a continuum. This type of thinking makes it psychologically easier for people to eat less meat: they can feel like they are already doing something by eating less.

I know it’s possible to be entirely vegan; one year that I was living alone I just refrained from buying animal products. But I think it’s better to be flexible (and not freak out over some butter in your restaurant dish) - this creates a more inviting picture for others to join.

It’s important not to forget about the social component: you are able to do more by encouraging and inspiring others to change too.

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P: When not trying to save the world, what do you do in your free time?

B: I really enjoy reading and have read some amazing books in the past (I recommend some here: http://www.yboris.com/reading.php). I like electronic music and listen often through the day (have been listening to trance/progressive house on di.fm for over a decade). I enjoy spending time with friends, learning about and joking about trivial things. During the summer, hiking is one of my favorite activities.

Now I’m lucky to have met a partner for life, Yetzenia, now my fiancee. We live together and thus spend most of the time in each other’s company. I recently bought a used projector and with the help of a large white wall Yetzenia and I watch movies.

I look forward to the release-version of Oculus Rift.

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P: Last time we talked, you were involved in a massive cross-continental US road trip with your fiancee. What’s that like? What’s your favorite moment?

B: It’s hard to pick one. The 10,000-mile trip was wonderful and we both learned a lot about what we like and what we don’t. There were numerous beautiful moments, I’ll share one.

One of the most exhilarating moments for me was when I found a probably-five-story-high mountain of sand along the East Coast Highway in California (some miles north of LA); I walked up it for a long time, and then ran down. Yetzenia described that I looked like a gazelle. By the time I reached the bottom I was breathless, laughing, with tears running down my eyes from the wind.

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P: Wow, that sounds really fun! Well, thanks for taking the time to let me get to know you! This was awesome!

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Cross-posted on the EA Blog.