giving what we can pledge

Jan 10, 2021 – Leo Robinovitch

This is a bit of an uncomfortable public post for me. Talking about money in general can be uncomfortable, and talking about giving money can just come off as self-congratulatory. But I think it’s an important topic that will have positive impact when talked about more often.

I’ve been excited about GiveWell for a while now, and am interested in exploring the idea of doing the most good with money, time and effort. This post focuses on doing good through giving money. Many of these ideas are ellaborated on in Sam Harris' recent podcast with Will MacAskill.

The discussion of where, how, and how much to give isn’t particularly new. The Jewish scholar Maimonides discussed the levels of charitable giving, assigning moral weight to different classes of giving. Some of his metrics aren’t great - donor emotional state, anonymity, and reciprocity don’t intuitively seem like reliable indicators of better or worse giving. Other metrics, like amount, context, and necessity seem reasonable.

Philosophers Peter Singer, Will MacAskill, and others continue the conversation around doing the most good possible these days. While I claim very few of the answers to large and important problems, I tend to skew Utilitarian when thinking about them. Effective Altruism’s goal of “using evidence and reason to figure out how to benefit others as much as possible” seems like the right one to me.

I currently have limited ability to determine the most effective things to throw money at. I don’t research it full-time and I’m not particularly educated in the field. Lucky for me, people with lots of experience that do work on this full time publish their findings, like myths about aid, “index-fund” like aggregations of effective charities, and spreadsheets of cost effective analysis'.

If this stuff sounds kind of boring, that’s because it can be boring. It’s genuinely harder to get excited about deworming programs or malaria bed nets than it is about tearing down an evil person or supporting something cute.

Given that effective stuff can sometimes be unexciting, less effective stuff highly attention grabbing, and the massive difference the impact your money has depending on where you give, I’ve decided to be ok with my giving being boring as long as it’s effective.

My financial situation is good. I’ve been working full-time now since 2017 with a brief pause last year. I’m making more than enough to take care of my essential needs, undergo financial setbacks without dire consequence, and sock some away for retirement. I’m well above the $58k USD/year salary required to be in the top 1% income bracket globally, and have pretty much in every way won the birth location, family, and opportunity lotteries.

Reflecting on this over the years, the reality of my vast riches and privilege on a global scale became intimidating as it set in. What responsibility comes with relative wealth? I have a responsibility to myself and my future dependents, but it’s very likely that I’ll get by in that area. There’s almost surely more I could do with money to influence the world in a positive direction. It’s certain that people with much less than me are giving more - how can I justify this? Will I ever be in a position where giving just feels easy and obvious, or will I have to inevitably push through some emotional discomfort to make it happen?

As these thoughts became louder, I ramped up my giving slowly. I gave about 1-2% of my pre-tax income in 2017/18/19, which wasn’t great but started to set the tone and made it less intimidating. I did a decent job upping this in 2020, ending the year with 7.25% of my pre-tax and 12.9% of my post-tax income donated to effective causes.

Today, I signed the Giving What We Can Pledge to donate at minimum 10% of my pre-tax income to effective causes. I’ll be donating to GiveWell’s Maximum Impact Fund for the forseeable future, as I trust this organization to funnel cash to the desired extremely effective (albeit possibly unstimulating) causes I’d like to target.

I encourage others who find themselves fortunate enough to give without serious detriment to their well-being to take the pledge as well. If you’re uncomfortable with jumping right to 10%, strategies for increasing giving incrementally could include:

I also encourage others to talk about giving habits more with others in similar positions. If you get only one other person excited about giving, you may have doubled your own impact (!), as well as pointed them in the direction of a more rich, fulfilling life.