Giving What I Can

2021-01-01

Starting today—January 1st, 2021—I’m giving 10% of my income to causes selected according to the philosophy of Effective Altruism: I’m taking the Giving What We Can Pledge to donate 10% of my pre-tax income to whichever organizations can most effectively use it to improve lives.

I’m sharing this to publicly commit myself to this, and to nudge you, the reader, in the direction of doing the same.

Effective Altruism

In for-profit companies, the people who pay for the product and the people who benefit from the product are generally the same. The best products gather more money for their builders, and allow them to build more of the product, satisfying market demand. The same is not true for charities.

For charities, the people providing funding and the people benefiting from that funding are not the same people, and the feedback that directs money to one charity or another is much less direct. There are plenty of charities that have marginal—sometimes even negative—impact on the people they seek to help, but because they advertise well, the equation doesn’t balance out and they continue to collect donations. Charities don’t fail in the same way that for-profit companies do.

Effective Altruism is fundamentally an attempt to rank charities according to the amount of good they do in the world per dollar, and to give preferentially to those, regardless of any emotional connection one does or does not feel to those particular causes.

In the past, I’ve struggled to determine which charities were actually doing the most good, and often this analysis paralysis led me to simply not give. The philosophy of Effective Altruism—and, in particular, the actualization of it in GiveWell—makes this much easier.

The Pledge

It’s difficult to find a moral framework that can clearly indicate a particular fraction of one’s income to donate to charity. Consequentialism points to a world where we donate absolutely everything that doesn’t reduce our potential to earn more (in order to donate it). This doesn’t feel right, but it’s difficult to navigate the space between this extreme and the opposite extreme—donating nothing—in a principled way.

Attempting to navigate this space (“how much should I give?”) is yet another way in which it’s easy to fall into analysis paralysis and wind up with inaction. The Giving What We Can Pledge is a simple hack for this, pending future discovery of the One True Framework of Moral Philosophy.

The Giving What We Can Pledge is a pledge to give 10% (or more) of one’s (pre-tax) income, for life (or at least until retirement) to charities selected explicitly for their impact per dollar.

While this is far from a perfect answer to the moral question of how to behave as a relatively lucky citizen of a relatively wealthy country, it’s a far better approximation than inaction.

Charity in Canada

I’m Canadian. While some of the charities indicated by GiveWell have presences in Canada, many do not. And, while money paid as taxes to the government isn’t wasted per se, it can likely be put to better use (for example, in rationalizing a higher rate of giving). Without compromising on the effectiveness of the charities, it’s useful to find charities that can issue Canadian tax receipts.

RC Forward solves this nicely. They accept donations as a registered charity in Canada, and forward these donations to charities selected according to Effective Altruism principles (in some cases, simply mirroring GiveWell’s choices). They keep a 4% cut of these donations, however, helping RC Forward to grow is beneficial in itself: Their 2019 Annual Report estimates that each dollar spent on their operations allows them to move six dollars to these evidence-based selections that otherwise would likely have gone to less-impactful charities.

Join Me

So, why write this? Well, though I’ve been mulling for a while how I should think about charitable giving and how I might go about it better, it was only after listening to a podcast on this topic recently that I decided to take this leap, and I’m aware of how speaking openly about this is an effective way to encourage more people to take this pledge, or at least to engage with the topic in a more principled way.

Posting this publicly also makes it much harder to change my mind later!

So, here goes:

I, Burke Libbey, recognize that I can use part of my income to do a significant amount of good.

Since I can live well enough on a smaller income, I pledge that from now for the rest of my life or until the day I retire, I shall give at least 10% of my income to whichever organizations can most effectively use it to improve the lives of others, now and in the years to come.

I make this pledge freely, openly, and sincerely.

What will you do?