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Luke Freeman and Rachel Mindell

The Opportunity Motivation: Effective Altruism and Our Impetus to Give

This episode of Impact Audio features Luke Freeman, Executive Director of Giving What We Can, discussing the ins and outs of effective altruism.

The Opportunity Motivation: Effective Altruism and Our Impetus to Give

29 MIN

Join Submittable with Giving What We Can's Luke Freeman in a discussion about the motivations and methodology behind effective altruism.



What are the factors that encourage charitable giving and how should people decide where to focus their efforts? Effective altruism is a social movement and research initiative with unique (and controversial) responses to these questions. 

In this episode of Impact Audio, you’ll hear Luke Freeman, Executive Director of Giving What We Can, discussing the guiding principles behind his organization. Luke also talks about motivational psychology, CSR, impact measurement, the pandemic, and criticisms of effective altruism.  

Listen in to learn about:

  • What actually motivates people to give back 

  • How businesses can support employee giving and lead by example

  • Giving What We Can’s process for choosing charities and measuring impact 

  • The movement’s responses to trust-based philanthropy and criticism about causality

  • How US philanthropy sets itself apart from global giving 

We hope you enjoy the conversation.


Picture of your guest, Luke Freeman

Luke Freeman

Luke Freeman manages Giving What We Can. He is also an active volunteer with various social impact focused projects (EAGxAustralia, Effective Altruism Australia, EA Sydney, Global Shapers Community). He has a background in marketing with a focus on growing early-stage technology startups (Positly, Sendle, TuShare, Coviu). He holds degrees and diplomas in media and communications from Macquarie University and Simon Fraser University.

Picture of your guest, Rachel Mindell

Rachel Mindell

Rachel Mindell is Special Projects Editor at Submittable. One of the highlights of her job is talking with social impact leaders about their work and learning more about how technology can help accelerate positive change.


Episode Notes:

Learn more:

Here are references mentioned in the episode:

For more frameworks to help you build your CSR or grantmaking program and understand your impact, here are a few Submittable resources:

Full transcript:

Hi and welcome to Impact Audio, the podcast thinking critically, and talking deeply, about transformative social impact. I’m Rachel Mindell and for the following episode I spoke with Luke Freeman, Executive Director of Giving What We Can. We discussed effective altruism, including criticisms of the movement, plus Luke’s thoughts on CSR, impact assessment, and how the pandemic has affected charitable giving. You can learn more about Luke’s work and background, as well as Giving What We Can, on the web page for this episode. I hope you enjoy listening in.    

RACHEL MINDELL: Hi, Luke Freeman. Welcome to Impact Audio. How are you today? 

LUKE FREEMAN: Yeah, I'm great. Thank you so much for having me. 

RACHEL MINDELL: Yeah, we're very happy to have you. Out of curiosity, what time is it for you now? 

LUKE FREEMAN: It's just gone 7 past 7:00 in the morning, so having my morning coffee. 

RACHEL MINDELL: Nice. Well, thank you for getting up early to talk with us today. Well, so to start, will you briefly orient our listeners who might not be familiar to effective altruism? 

LUKE FREEMAN: Yeah. So effective altruism is first and foremost a question. We ask, how can we use our resources to do the most good, and then taking action on the basis of what we find. So it's both an area of research as well as a social movement. And the movement's been growing a lot in recent years, with a particular focus on how to use our money and time to help others as effectively as possible. 

RACHEL MINDELL: Fantastic. And then tell us about Giving What We Can. 

LUKE FREEMAN: Yeah, so Giving What We Can is a community of effective givers. So we provide support, community, and information that people need when they're trying to maximize their charitable impact. We're most well known for Giving What You Can pledge to give 10% of lifetime earnings to high impact charities, of which over 7,000 people have taken the pledge, including dozens of public figures, a couple of billionaires, and thousands of the rest of us from teachers and tradesmen to technologists and traders. Giving What We Can also helped found the effective altruism movement, and continues to be a key organization in advocating that we use our money to do the most good as we can in the form of donations. 

RACHEL MINDELL: How did you get involved? 

LUKE FREEMAN: Yeah. So it kind of started a long time ago, for the long version of the story, which is when I was a kid I was really shocked when I learned that there were-- while I was healthy and well fed, many children were starving and suffering from easily preventable diseases. I was privileged, not because of anything I had done, but just due to being born in a rich country to a stable family and being pretty healthy. 

This led me to become involved in anti poverty campaigns around the millennium, things like 40 Hour Famine and Make Poverty History. Then I entered the workforce on an entry level wage in the middle of the financial crisis back in 2008 and I had credit card debt from studying in Canada and the Australian dollar crashing when I had to pay student fees. And I had just one income between me and my partner and we learned to be pretty frugal, but I still had this desire to give back. 

And so as soon as my income got a bit higher, my wife got a job and I got a raise, that's when I wanted to start giving. And when you decide that you want to give a reasonable amount to help others, you start to care a lot about where that money goes. So I started digging and that's what I found organizations like Giving What We Can. 

RACHEL MINDELL: Fantastic. So to shift gears a little, what are the psychological factors that you think motivate or maybe negate altruism? 

LUKE FREEMAN: Yeah. So the first one, I think, that comes to mind is empathy. Empathy is our ability to understand and share the feelings of another. When we see someone in need our natural reaction is to feel empathy and therefore, to take action. 

The problem with being motivated by empathy, however, is that psychology research shows. And I'm sure we've all seen this, that it can sometimes lead us to discriminate against who we help based on factors that should be irrelevant. For example, we might be more likely to help people who are more like us, who we can relate to more easily, such as people of our same gender, age, nationality, religion, or species. 

A better motivation that does exist for a lot of people is compassion, so that's the desire to relieve the suffering of others without any discrimination and very much from wanting to do it from their perspective in the way that helps them. So the recognition that we're all able to suffer and that we should help equally as much as we can. And it's a bit of a more reliable motivation. 

It doesn't require us to discriminate who we help, and it also helps us to have more sustainable motivation than being triggered by just empathy. Another factor is often obligation, duty, or guilt, which is more of a negative motivation that we feel when we've done something wrong or we see someone suffering. We might feel guilty because we have more resources than others and we're not doing as much for them and people don't have them. 

It might kind of guilt us-- feel guilty that we should give that to others, and while that can be a motivation sometimes, I prefer to focus on more of an opportunity motivation than an obligation. We do have this huge opportunity to help others and that's a lot of good that we could be doing, and that when people do that they do find that really motivating to continue to do more good. 

RACHEL MINDELL: Absolutely. I'm just curious how you think proximity impacts empathy and compassion, right? When we can't see firsthand what's happening within a community, what can motivate us to care? 

LUKE FREEMAN: Yeah. So as mentioned earlier, empathy often relies on things like proximity. We can overcome it, but it is a lot harder. This is why I often find people taking the time to actually think about what it is they truly value and be somewhat consistent in their values and make judgments that are more intentional. So I don't know if you're familiar with the system one and system two thinking. 

So Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky, psychologists who won the Nobel Prize, developed their systems theory where people use a more slow and rational thinking sometimes and more intuitive and fast thinking other times. Empathy is very much a fast thinking emotion. Compassion can be more of a slow thinking emotion. And when you take the time to kind of sit and think about what you actually truly value, you realize that proximity is often not really at the scale that it could be. 

So we feel a lot of proximity led empathy, but if we stop and think, well, is it really the case that someone who lives on the other side of my country is a hundred times more valuable and more important than someone who lives in another country who might be cheaper to help and you could help more people there. So it is this kind of slow, reflective process that I think can be really helpful. And sometimes it just comes from a realization that just the numbers can be so different. 

RACHEL MINDELL: Right. Absolutely. So along those lines, why do you think donating and volunteering can be hard things to motivate, especially when people who do them do tend to find value in them? 

LUKE FREEMAN: Yeah. That's the trillion dollar question, right? 


LUKE FREEMAN: Why do we not do things that we know we get value from? Look, change is hard and often requires us to overcome our natural tendencies. And this isn't limited to donating and volunteering. There are so many things that bring us and the world a lot of value that we struggle to motivate ourselves to do. That's why we encourage people to not leave it up to chance and to not rely on making the decisions on a whim. 

We encourage people to take a moment to stop and think about what their values are, what they want their giving behaviors to be over the long term, and to change your identity as part of the process and thinking about yourself as someone who gives. One way of doing that is we have things like our giving pledges, or you can set up a recurring donation. You can surround yourself with other people who give and give more and think about that more intentionally. 

And the other thing is we're really motivated by other people, particularly people who we trust and admire. We find that that's the biggest source of people coming across Giving What We Can and changing their giving behaviors is they've heard someone in their life or someone on something like a podcast that talk about giving and if they can admire the person and understand that behavior and that motivation, we start to think about, well, is this something that I could be thinking about in my own life? 

One of the best parts of my days is reading member motivations when they sign up. So people tell why they're doing this, why they're giving a meaningful amount to help others, and it is the most encouraging thing that definitely keeps me going. And you definitely see trends like people realizing the luck that they have and wanting to share that with others, and wanting to do the most good they can. And look, it's really motivating to see, and yeah, we're looking at ways to surface this more and help people see just the joy that others get and the motivation that others have to help others, and that it's something you can actually picture yourself doing too. 

RACHEL MINDELL: Yeah. Absolutely. I can see the pledge being very powerful too in terms of an accountability piece of it. 

LUKE FREEMAN: Yeah. Well, it's actually a big part of-- yeah, a big part of the reason we created it as well is there's another thing in psychology is the idea of precommitment, that we're much more likely to do things if we commit to it in advance. And that's another thing that also changes our social identity, our commitment to things. 

Like even identifying yourself as a Given What We Can pledge member, like this is a behavior that you've internalized and you know that you're accountable, not just to yourself, but to everyone who's done it before you and everyone who comes after you, and that internalizing of things that you care about. Like being a feminist or an environmentalist is these things that you really take into our identity, things that we've committed to, especially if those commitments are public, even if not many people will ever see it. Like we have a list of thousands of people and very few people scroll through that whole list, but you know that you've done it. 

RACHEL MINDELL: Yeah. Absolutely. So if we're thinking about companies right through CSR, corporate giving that are trying to inspire their employees to give back or volunteer, what do you think they can do to help motivate employees? 

LUKE FREEMAN: Yeah, so I think it begins by starting the conversation. We do a lot of things like workplace talks or we know workplaces that organize events or fundraisers, they provide resources on giving. Things like I know one major tech start up in Australia, anyone can request a book, Doing Good Better, from their corporate social responsibility team, and that helps people guide them through this process. 

So really being at the forefront of your community of employees, and that's often really good for the company as well because people-- one of the number one things that people look for in work these days, particularly millennials and Gen Z, is meaning and purpose. And they're much more likely to work for a company that is taking their social responsibilities really seriously and really leading by example. Other things I've seen are calls to action in really strategic places. Like when someone gets a letter saying that they've got a pay rise or a promotion or a bonus, that's a time to give them the option to enroll in a workplace giving program or to participate in the company fundraiser. 

And another thing is just leading by example, things like providing donor matching, senior leadership, being open about their giving and contributing things, like maybe they're the ones who are doing the donor matching. And of course, we've also had companies take a pledge themselves that they're going to give a certain portion of their profits to high impact charities. So yeah, there are lots of ways that companies could really take action and really lead here. 

RACHEL MINDELL: Those are great suggestions. So according to effective altruism what are the factors that determine effectiveness in a charity? 

LUKE FREEMAN: Yeah. So effectiveness is just like starting with, what is the effect that you want to have? So you generally think about some kind of outcome that we care about, things like lives saved, quality of life improvement, risk reduction, years of education. These are all concerned with the amount of good that we're doing. So cost effectiveness is simply the case of how much good you can do for the amount of resources that you use.

But of course, it isn't very easy always to have cost effective estimates for every possible thing you could give to. Doing cost effective estimates are pretty hard, and there's a lot of uncertainty in that, so we find it helps to start by finding a promising cause to support. And these are generally causes that are going to be large in scale so they significantly impact many lives, or by a large amount that they're neglected so they still need more funding and support. 

There aren't a lot of other people funding that already and so therefore, it often has a lot more room for funding. And that they're tractable, so there are actually clear ways of making progress. So if you've got something that's big, there aren't many people working on it, and there's something to be done, there's a good chance that a lot of the low hanging fruit haven't been picked and there's something really superb to fund that isn't getting the money. 

So once you've narrowed it down to some high impact causes with some clear interventions, then you're looking for an outstanding organization working to support the cause. First get some evidence that that charity actually has the ability to execute on that, there is evidence of effectiveness or at least a strong track record. And then you start to figure out, well, how much of that outcome are you getting for the money that you're putting in? 

And that requires things like transparency, the charity be willing to be open about this. Fortunately, there are a few organizations out there that help. Giving What We Can, we have a lot of resources on our website about different cause areas and different charities within them. There are charity evaluators like Give Well and animal charity evaluators and Founders Pledge, as well as grant making organizations who can do a lot of this work on your behalf. But we also have guides for how you would do this on your own if you were looking at something as well. 

RACHEL MINDELL: How do you see Giving What We Can's role in terms of global philanthropy? 

LUKE FREEMAN: Yeah, so Giving What We Can started as a global movement of people who pledged to donate a portion of their incomes to the most effective charities, and that's partly because we believe that everyone has a moral obligation and an opportunity to give back, and we wanted to make that as kind of effective and easy as possible. And that was back in 2009, and since then not only have thousands of people joined our community and we've raised hundreds of millions of dollars ourselves and pledged many billions, we've also seen that the philanthropic sector has responded to the ideas of effective altruism. 

And many quite notable philanthropists have started to put this into their thinking from the founders of-- one of the founders of Facebook, Dustin Moskovitz, and his wife, Cari Tuna, they started Open Philanthropy. One of our members, Sam Bankman-Fried, recently has done quite well with his cryptocurrency exchange and is one of the youngest billionaires. And he was inspired to do this because when he was at MIT one of our founders gave a talk about earning to give and he was like, oh, this sounds great. If I can earn a lot of money and give it to some really high impact causes, I can do a lot of good in the world. 

And yeah, so we're seeing this starting to change. And we're also seeing organizations like Charity Navigator, which used to just look at things like overhead, how much does a charity spend on their operational costs or something like that, relative to the amount they spend on programs, which isn't a very good measure of effectiveness. They're starting to really look at what they can do to improve effectiveness measures as well with their communicating and looking at charities. 

RACHEL MINDELL: Great. So to shift gears a little bit, at Submittable and really, it seems like across the philanthropic sector, at least, in the United States, for sure, we've been talking a lot about trust-based philanthropy. And that's the idea that funders can create unnecessary barriers for nonprofits, that some of the power dynamics may be out of balance, or that funders could stand maybe to loosen their grip or provide funds with more trust and transparency, focus on relationship building. What's your response to trust-based philanthropy? 

LUKE FREEMAN: Yeah. Well, at the end of the day, it all starts with asking what's best for the beneficiary. And when it comes to trust, I think-- when it comes to organizations, I think trust is something it's earned. I'll look at this example of PlayPumps. So they were a charity that advertised themselves as an innovative way to provide drinking water in impoverished rural communities by using the energy created by children playing to operate a water pump a little bit like a merry-go-round, like they run around and it should keep spinning. They received a ton of accolades and funding. People trust them a lot and love the idea that playtime with kids can result in access to water. The only problem is it didn't end up working out as planned. 

They needed to spin all day long in order to provide enough water for a community, but it meant because it didn't have the feature of, if it actually is a toy, it keeps spinning and spinning. Whereas if it's actually pumping water, it requires constant pressure. So you ended up, unfortunately, most of the kids didn't want to play with it, so the women who were currently using hand pumps had to push this awkward merry-go-round thing around to pump water. 

And then they ended up breaking more regularly than hand pumps and it was a complete mess, but people loved the idea and they just trusted the organization to run with it. So I prefer to start with a process of building that trust. So look at organizations that are doing great work, and work closely with a funder. You don't want the funder to put their thumb on the scale too much, but it is important that we use science and reason to find these really important causes and charities that are actually doing good work. 

You can operate in a really high trust environment once you know that they have earned that. And then, to be honest, at Giving What We Can we have funders to do our work, and we work closely with them. They trust me to run the organization, but I really value the input as to how I go about it. The questions they ask make us better at what we do. However, when it comes to individual recipients of aid, I default to trust. One outstanding organization is GiveDirectly. 

They provide cash directly to the world's poorest and they operate on a very high trust model that people know what they need most for themselves, and that works for many things. However, sometimes you can have even more impact by doing things at scale, providing public goods such as school-based deworming programs or vaccination programs. These are all types of things that people are unlikely to buy for themselves or they have strong diffuse public benefits. So if I'm vaccinated, that not only protects me, but it protects you as well. 

RACHEL MINDELL: Right. So there are critics of effective altruism, and I'd love to hear your thoughts. Does effective altruism address the root of major global problems? 

LUKE FREEMAN: Well, I wish that we all understood the exact roots of all major global problems. It's something that we actually care about finding. 


LUKE FREEMAN: If you know, tell me. So just to reiterate, effective altruism isn't a set of interventions. It's all about using the best tools available to us to do the most good we can. So we care about being open minded and following the evidence where it leads. This means that it's always responding to the world as it is and changing as the world changes around us. So in practice, that means that we have many different approaches to working on some of the world's most pressing problems. 

You have things, like I mentioned, cash transfers, which are really high trust to the beneficiary, giving people a lot of autonomy in what they do. Poverty is often the cause of poverty. You try to help people get out of the poverty trap. Similarly, health can often be a major barrier to getting out of poverty. For example, we've seen this with COVID. If you're sick and unable to go to work or you've lost a parent or guardian, your life is going to be a lot worse off. 

So if you can solve a lot of the health issues, you get people to be able to go to school, able to go to work, and things like that. So those are actually root problems in many places. And then there's other things. Like if you're looking at climate or animal welfare, a lot of the most impactful interventions are going to be policy based. Same with things like nuclear proliferation. You're trying to figure out which organizations do a really good job at changing policy, again, which is a kind of systemic change. 

So effective altruists love systemic change when you can find those things, but we do care about being really specific about what you mean when you think of systemic change. A lot of the time people might throw their hands up and use some ideological, like this is all stuff, blah, blah, capitalism, or blah, blah, socialism. It's like, OK, well, let's look at the details. What are we talking about? Is this something that could be solved by certain aid or philanthropic giving, or is this a policy problem? Really trying to get quite practical and quite detailed what we think when we are talking about problems. 

RACHEL MINDELL: When you mentioned capitalism or socialism, are those-- when people bring those up as ideologies, are they saying that they are problematic? 

LUKE FREEMAN: I think a lot of people like to have social and political identities that they haven't necessarily thought through, to a large extent, what that means for policies and actions, and they like to point to like words that they hear and label it. At the end of the day, I think that being too-- leaning too much into labels can sometimes create more confusion than it actually creates clarity. 

I can explain what Giving What We Can is. We're a global community of individuals who've come together to voluntarily redistribute for many people in higher incomes to those who need it most, working together alongside experts to find the most effective ways of improving lives. We draw from across the political spectrum, across almost a hundred countries. We're only united by our commitments to put our money where our mouth is and to do as much good as we can when we try to help others. 

Yeah, people can approach that from many different political or religious, even, perspectives. We have people who have religious motivations for doing that. So yeah, I wouldn't say that we fit neatly into any particular political ideology. At the end of the day, we care about the lives of others, and whichever ways we can find that help, I think, are the ways to go about it. 

RACHEL MINDELL: Have you noticed any difference between how US audiences perceive effective altruism versus an Australian or a global audience? 

LUKE FREEMAN: Yeah. I think that the US is an interesting one of rich countries-- they are one of the richest countries on Earth, depending on how you look at it, but they also have higher domestic poverty and income inequality. So a median income person in Australia could much more comfortably give a significant portion of their income to help others, and they're less likely to come across as much poverty when walking down the street or see as much domestic problems, so it is easier to-- back to when we talked about rational compassion and impartiality-- to think about others abroad or to think about animals or to think about future generations. 

So yeah, I think there is that difference in America. Also America has a lot of really religious driven giving, so Americans give more, but they also give more to things that are religious and also things that would otherwise be provided by the state in many other countries. So people in the US donate to their local public schools or hospitals and stuff like that, which happens a lot less in other places in the world. So bigger philanthropic center in the US, but it's very domestically focused and a lot of it is on public goods or-- or not even public goods, more club goods, so things that help people immediately around the corner. 

And you also see there's a big problem in the US with things like because you can fund public schools with private money and also things like council rate-- land rates, or whatever it is, you end up with a system that is public that has very differential outcomes. So yeah, it is different in the US. That being said, the idea that, in whatever we're doing, it's good to be effective, no moral system and very few people actually have a problem with that in the abstract. And a lot of the time when it comes to actually implementing that, if we can help more people or help people more, that's generally a good thing and many people take to that. So yeah. 

RACHEL MINDELL: Absolutely. I'm curious how you feel that the pandemic has impacted the movement for effective altruism. 

LUKE FREEMAN: Yeah. So it is an interesting one. Pandemic preparedness is actually something that we had been making a lot of noise about for several years, for many years before the latest pandemic came. And COVID, in historical terms and relative to other things, is actually much, much less severe of a pandemic for the types of ones that are actually worried about. 

So the community, on the biosecurity and pandemic risk stuff, was able to respond in many ways. I think we could have done better, but we've done some thinking about it already-- things like people who are working on things like challenge trials or other technologies or estimation-- doing predictive work. I think that it shows that there was this issue that we cared a lot about, that we thought was really neglected, and now that people are aware of it, hopefully has some chance of being more tractable. 

In terms of things like the global philanthropic sector we saw when there are tough economic times, you get the effect where sometimes the rich can even get richer and the poor can get poorer, so people who had more actually gave more, which was good to see that they were sharing those riches that came from weird things like the stock market and crypto and things like that, rallying at times when they were tough. But we also saw that people who had less were able to give less as well, but that's also reasonable. 

In terms of the movement, it has been also just correlating with the time that we've had a lot of growth. So I don't think it was necessarily driven by this, but that being said, during the pandemic a lot of people had time when they were at home, a chance to read, to really reflect. And I did speak with a lot of people who had been aware of some of these ideas and then finally got the chance to read a book or listen to a podcast or go online and kind of go, what am I doing with my life? 

And we're seeing this also with things like the great resignation. There are-- people have been triggered to think about what they're actually doing with their life, and I think that's a good thing. And in our case, it's led to a lot of people going, OK, what's my legacy going to be? Am I just going to get to my deathbed having done a bunch of things myself, or am I going to have helped a lot of people through my money, my time, and what do I stand for, and that's been really good to see. 

LUKE FREEMAN: In spite of all that's gone on. 

RACHEL MINDELL: Yeah. Absolutely. So what's on deck for Giving What We Can in the next few years? 

LUKE FREEMAN: Yeah. So coming immediately, and we've soft launched this, is the ability to donate via us so that people can find some of these really high impact charities, and even just a cause and pick a cause that they care about and we can help find the best charities for them. So that's being released quietly and will soon be more prominent just as a way of helping people to follow through with their desire to help others. We're continuing to build out our research on various different cause areas. 

We have a new climate change report coming out very soon, which I'm very excited about. And yeah, one of our founders, Will MacAskill, he's releasing a book in August which is available for preorder, What We Owe The Future. And that is about the far future and future generations and the actions we're taking now that can really affect the lives that they have, and why it's quite important and significant that we don't screw that future up and that it can be as good as possible. 

So yeah, that I'm very much looking forward to. I'm fortunate to have read an early manuscript and it's a fantastic book, so yeah. And our community continues to grow, and that's really exciting. I hope we're seeing the effects more broadly of just more people thinking about impact and more people thinking about others, and that's super exciting And it just makes me really, really happy to see, in a world where there's a lot of things going on, people taking a moment to think about others and doing so really intentionally. 

Thanks for listening. Check out our episode notes to learn more about effective altruism and to access great resources focused on social impact and CSR. 

Impact Audio is edited and produced by Jordan Marvin, Laura Steele, and yours truly. Submittable is a cloud-based social impact platform designed to help your team make better decisions and have a bigger impact. We’d love to partner with you to maximize social good and create lasting change through smarter technology—find out more at Submittable.com. And until next time, take good care. 

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