Two Wrongs

Why Donate to Charity

Why Donate to Charity

I do high-leverage work. That is finance speak for “I know which keys to press on the keyboard in the next week that will slightly improve the lives of 20,000 people for a few years.”1 And I’m very happy I currently work on a product that allows me to say this with a straight face.

I’m not unique in this – software development is a high-leverage job. It’s really cool. It also means we get paid a lot for it. I used to think that high-leverage workers deserve to be more generously rewarded for their time, but I’ve come to wonder how true that actually is.

To some extent, the system we live in is shaped around this structure. I want to provide nice things and financial stability for my family, so I can’t just give away most of what I earn. And I don’t know what the right fraction to give away is.

But I do know it’s not 0.0 %. So I picked a number slightly higher than that to get started. If you’re well paid, you should too. I’m not trying to advocate any particular type of charitable donation – any donation is better than no donation. But I will say that the people at GiveWell make it very easy to donate to high-impact organisations.

Don’t think. Just start. Pick the first charity that pops into your head and set up a monthly donation. If you don’t know how much to give, start with 0.1 % and feel your way up from there.

Starting is the difficult bit. You have plenty of time to think about details after you have started.

Okay, so you you have started now?

Oh, not yet? Stop reading and start now. Then come back.

Once you’ve started (but not before that), there are some details that are worth thinking about:

The consequences of the last point aren’t obvious, and deserve elaboration. We aren’t used to evaluating the effectiveness of organisations because the market (i.e. institutional investors chasing high returns) tends to quickly take out the low-hanging fruit. This is not true for the business of helping the world.

In terms of charitable activities, this might mean looking for charities that are

These are some of the criteria GiveWell uses when evaluating charities, so if you agree they are meaningful criteria, you may want to go with GiveWell’s recommendations.

However, if these criteria are not meaningful to you, I suggest thinking up which criteria are meaningful to you, and evaluating charities on your own. Whatever your criteria are, there is a huge difference between good and bad charities! Take advantage of that and make your donation count.

But, again, the first step is starting to donate. For that, no evaluation is needed. Pick something and go. Optimise later.