Just over a year ago today I took a lifetime pledge to give 10% of my pre-tax income to whichever organisations I believe can most effectively use my money to improve the lives of others.
It wasn’t an easy decision but a year on I am absolutely confident it was the right one.
I wanted to write this post to anyone who’s thinking about whether or not to donate a significant portion of their income to effective causes. Before taking the pledge I had a lot of questions and doubts. I speak to many people with the same questions I had so I wanted to try and answer some of them honestly and openly so that people can decide for themselves.
Let’s jump straight into the questions. Some of them are about my own experiences and others are questions and concerns people may have.
This post is assuming you have some prior knowledge of effective altruism and are thinking about whether or not to start donating a proportion of your income to help others. If you’re not even sure what I’m on about why not check out some of my earlier blogs posts like why effective altruism?
If your question is not listed please post it in the comments and I’ll come back to you with an answer.
1. What inspired you to give 10% of your income to charity?
I think I’ve wanted to do something to make a difference since I was a teenager and started getting involved in issues of equality around LGBT and women’s rights. I’ve gone through various iterations of what I personally could do that would really improve the world. Some have stuck, some haven’t. It always felt particularly hard to know how to choose. It’s so hard to know what you can do that will actually help.
Which charities help the most people? How much better is it to buy this product over that? Do I have the skills to really make a difference?
The key arguments that really affected me were that if you can potentially save someone’s life by donating the money you would otherwise have spent on coffee or shirts you should. And that if you believe all people have equal value, equal right to life and happiness then you should choose the charities that will help the most people, not necessarily the charities that will help those closest to you.
Some charities can be hundreds of times more effective than others so by choosing where to donate we can have much more positive impact with our money.
Just living somewhere like the UK, I am incredibly fortunate and comparatively pretty wealthy so I have the opportunity to do something really meaningful with my income.
Give Well, one of the best-known charity evaluators, estimates that it costs approximately $2,838 or £1,977 to save a life donating to the Against Malaria Foundation. What could I possibly buy for myself that would be more valuable than that?
But some charities advertise that £3 donated would save a child’s life, so isn’t the Against Malaria Foundation less value for money?
We hear different definitions of “saving a life” from charities. The GiveWell calculation takes into account the number of nets required to protect someone from malaria from childhood to old age in that country, factoring in the likelihood that they would contract and die from malaria in the first place. This is a lot to explain in a short advert and understandably charities need to grab attention, so they often quote the cost of buying one medicine for example.
Preventing death for many years and may not sound as inspiring as “you can save a life for £3” but the reality is that is someone who gets to live a full life that they otherwise may not have, thanks to you.
2. What have you achieved?
Full disclosure here for those who do not know, I now work for Giving What We Can although I did not when I started this blog, then I was just starting as a volunteer. The views on this blog are my own, although I do work there because I share their vision.
So far this last year I’ve donated just over £3,000 to charity, mostly to the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative as they were one of the most highly rated charities by GiveWell and Giving What We Can when I first started giving.
Here’s a screenshot from my own My Giving page so you can see what this has funded. My payment via the Giving What We Can trust also went to the Against Malaria Foundation and the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative.
It’s great to be able to see exactly what my donations have funded. That’s one of the reasons charities like the Against Malaria Foundation and Schistosomiasis Control Initiative are rated so highly; they are so transparent in where the donations they receive go. The Against Malaria Foundation can even tell you exactly which specific distribution, to which country your money is paying for. This really gives me faith that my money is going where it is needed.
I’m now donating £75 a month to the Against Malaria Foundation, £75 to the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative and £75 to Animal Equality so in just over 2 years, 2 months I will have prevented a death as well as dewormed thousands of children and saved an estimated 32,690 animals from a life in animal agriculture.
For me, that’s a wonderful achievement.
3. How do I decide where to donate?
I chose the above charities because the Against Malaria Foundation and Schistosomiasis Control Initiative are the top recommended charities for Giving What We Can and Animal Equality is one of the top charities to help animals, as recommended by Animal Charity Evaluators.
You need to decide for yourself which charities you think are going to do the most good in the world.
Ask yourself some of these questions:
- How much do you think animal suffering matters?
- How do you feel about donating to charities with potentially huge benefits but which involve a lot more risk?
- How much should we think about future generations?
Then—unless you have a very large amount to donate or your own expertise in the area—look to the charity evaluators for those types of charities for their advice.
Personally, I am quite risk-averse and prefer to donate to charities with concrete outcomes that we can measure today but it is plausible that some more speculative charities could end up having a much higher impact in the long run.
I also believe it is important to try and address the suffering of creatures who do not have a voice. Almost 60 billion animals are bred and killed for food each year worldwide and many of them suffer immensely in the process. By donating effectively and choosing a vegan lifestyle I hope to avert the suffering of thousands of animals each year.
For these reasons I donate to Giving What We Can and Animal Charity Evaluators top recommended charities. For more speculative causes check out somewhere like the Open Philanthropy project or feel free to message me in the comments requesting more resources.
4. What made you finally decide to commit to the pledge?
If I’m honest the final push was a mixture of pride and practicality. I was writing more and more about the importance of giving effectively, our duty to others and had even started the Brighton Chapter to meet other people interested in giving effectively. It was starting to feel hypocritical of me to tell so many people how important I thought it was to be more altruistic and yet not be pledging 10% myself.
Then, in my previous job I was given a pay rise and this seemed like the perfect chance. It’s much easier to commit to donating more when you first get more money, before you have the chance to start adjusting your spending upwards to meet you pay.
This is why I think students taking the pledge is such a great idea. It’ll always be easier to start donating when you first start working full-time, before you get used to the money. You’ll be amazed how quickly you get used to spending the amount of money you have. This is why there is a 1% pledge for students, to help you get into the habit of giving even before you have an income.
5. Can I really afford it?
This was probably the thing that gave me the most pause before I decided to take the pledge. 10% is a lot of money, especially when you’re young and it feels like there are so many things to save for.
It is important to make sure you look after yourself. You need savings for a rainy day (the advice is often three months of salary saved up) and for long term investments like buying a house, which can save you money in the long run.
Try and work out a budget of what you can reasonably save and see where you end up. Also have a think about what things are really not worth spending money on.
I’m still saving up for a deposit for a house, for car insurance and repairs, repaying my student loan (albeit a small amount straight from my wages) and paying for my wedding this September whilst keeping my pledge. So it is possible.
I recommend doing Try Giving first. It was reassuring to try giving 5% of my income and find that it was manageable before making a life-long commitment.
6. What if I lose my job?
This is another question I hear a lot and is a very valid concern. What if I lose my job or need to take time out for any reason?
The pledge is a lifetime commitment and a lot can happen, but you’re pledging to give 10% of your wages. If you’re not earning a wage you just donate 1% of any money you have for personal spending. Because you’re giving to some of the most effective charities your money still goes further. Long-lasting, insecticide-treated nets from the Against Malaria Foundation only cost £1.76/$2.50 so every little really does help. Even when you add in distribution and running costs £3.70/$5.31 gives someone a net for 3 – 5 years.
7. It’s a huge commitment. How can I promise to do something for the rest of my life? What if things change?
I admire the people I speak to who are concerned about taking a pledge because they don’t ever want to ever end up breaking a promise. It shows they are taking it seriously and have integrity.
Our priorities in life will change. Who knows what we will be like in the future. I can only suggest spending some time thinking about what your priorities and hopes for your life are. If, like me, you value all lives and think it’s important to help others, especially when it comes at a comparatively small cost to ourselves, then this may be a commitment worth working hard for. I may well waiver but making this public commitment will help me in those moments.
Lots of things in life involve commitment and risk, like choosing a job or getting married. The latter is, understandably, on my mind a lot. I don’t know what is to come for Joe and I but I know I care about him enough to really invest in working on our relationship and our life together for a long time. And I know I care about helping others enough to keep pushing myself to do more.
8. What has been the best thing about donating to charity?
I feel like the obvious answer here should be the 2,166 deworming tablets and 114 anti-malarial bednets I’ve paid for. That is amazing to me, especially when I think of the people behind the numbers. Like Jean-Baptiste from Madagascar whose intestinal worms infection was preventing him from playing football with his friends and going to school.
If I’m honest though I would say it’s the community I’ve become part of. I’ve got to know so many wonderful people, all committed to making the world a better place and that has been incredible. If I have a question about something, need advice or just want to hang out and watch Game of Thrones there are so many people I can turn to that I might not have met outside of the effective altruism community.
9. What is the most difficult thing about donating?
I do sometimes look at the figures of how much I’ve donated and think wow that would have paid for a big chunk of the wedding or maybe we could have made that trip to New Zealand! Especially when I see friends going away or buying houses it can feel a bit frustrating. But if I think about it, I never saved up enough money for a big holiday even before I was taking the pledge. I still save up roughly the same amount towards those things as I did before. Most of the money for my pledge has come from other economies. I’m more incentivised to just make sandwiches if I’m out for the day or forgo a fancy dinner to save money when it is to meet my pledge. I’ve managed to halve my weekly personal spending over the last year and yet I still go out and buy silly things (Baldur’s Gate Siege of Dragonspear!). I don’t think I would have made the effort to do the same were it just for something fleeting for myself.
10. Why not donate more than 10%? When does it end?
This is probably the other big challenge for me. Even though I donate 10% it often crosses my mind when I buy something I don’t really need that that money could be better spent to help others.
10% isn’t the magic number, the perfect moral amount to give. I could give more. I hope that I will keep pushing myself to do more. But you do have to put limits in place for you own sanity. Julia Wise wrote a brilliant piece on this for her own blog Giving Gladly.
I think if you can set yourself a challenging but doable target and stick to it, then that is all anyone can really ask.
11. Why donate now? Why not save money now and donate later?
For a more in-depth answer to this question, have a look at my previous post Why I Choose to Give Now. For me, it really comes down to two big things. First, the individuals right now at risk of malaria or suffering from intestinal worms. You can help them today. There is also some evidence that this will then have knock-on effects, improving education and future life chances thus contributing to the economy. You can read more on this and the arguments for and against donating now here.
The second which I think is really important is creating a culture of giving.
Let’s be frank, giving away 10% of y0ur income to charity is not normal. But it could be. Being vegetarian used to be difficult and strange, now around 12% of people in the UK following a vegetarian or vegan diet. We need to show what giving to effective charities can achieve, and that will only happen if we do it.
12. But if others are not giving, why should I?
I wrote recently about why we should give even if the very rich don’t. This issue brings up a lot of questions. Who exactly are the rich? Those living on a median wage in the UK are likely to be in the richest 5% of the world.
But even if our closest peers are not donating I do not think this is a get out clause.
If you came across a child drowning and someone stood, closer than you, watching on, doing nothing, would you leave the child to drown just because someone else could do something and was not?
Someone has to be the one to take the first step. Why not us?
13. Will it really make a difference?
In 1990 37% of people in the world lived on less than $1.90 a day, by 2012 that had gone down to 12.7%.
With less than what the world spends on ice cream each year we could meet the basic health and nutritional requirements of the world’s neediest people.
So change is both possible and affordable.
A lot of this does come from bigger structural and economic change but individual donors can make a difference. Not only because with many of us together we have a huge buying power (the Giving What We Can community recently donated over half a million pounds in the first quarter of this year alone!) but also because even small amounts can make a big difference to the individuals in need.
I hope I’ve been able to answer some of your questions and show you why I have found this such a rewarding experience. I still have a lot to learn and more to do but I hope others will join me in trying to change the world for the better.
We have an amazing opportunity to make a difference. Yes, it will be challenging at times but ultimately the old cliche is true: nothing truly worth having comes easy.
Do you have questions about taking the pledge that I’ve not answered? Are you already donating and have tips I’ve missed? Write your questions and recommendations in the comments. We’ve got a great community to share wisdom and support with so let’s use it.