Monday, March 11, 2013

It doesn't have to be hard

I worry that the effective altruism movement scares people off because it seems hard.  As one friend put it, "It sounds very dreary, living on rice and beans and never going out to a movie."

Wait, guys.  That's not it.

I have been guilty of some cheaper-than-thou, more-self-sacrificing-than-thou posting.  But at this point, I don't think that's what we should focus on.  There are easier ways.

If you want to help more people, I would suggest the following order:

1. Give some money.  
Maybe not that much.  $50 a year?  That would treat 63 kids with parasites.

Why money rather than volunteering? Depending on your skills and income, it's probably easier to accomplish good with your money than your time.  $50 is about two hours of my workday.  I would be hard-pressed to volunteer two hours of my time in a way that would accomplish anything close to deworming 63 kids (which doesn't just make them healthier, but increases school attendance as well).

2. Choose carefully where to give. 
Assuming you're giving any money at all, the next thing you can do to increase your impact is not to give more  it's to choose where you give.  Some interventions just work a lot better than others, and picking a good organization will help your money go a lot farther.

I think GiveWell's charity recommendations are a good starting point.  They take a concrete, better-safe-than-sorry approach, but there are more theoretical options out there if you want.

3. Earn more.
If you want to donate more, this might be the easiest way to do it.  There's a lot of "You should become a banker so you can donate a lot" rhetoric going around among some effective altruist types.  I'm not sure this is a good example, because most altruist-identifying people gag when they hear that.

Personally, I considered the higher-earning careers I had any interest in (doctor, entrepreneur, lawyer) and they still made me gag.  So I stuck with social work, which I enjoy.  I do wish I had given more consideration to being something like a nurse practitioner, and maybe I'll change careers at some point.

But I think some idealists lean away from high-earning careers that they would actually enjoy because they feel they should be doing something more hands-on.  I grew up with the hippie teaching that high salaries were suspect and low salaries mean you're doing something virtuous.

But money is a tool that you can use for good.  If you're working in a preschool for low-income kids and you get a great idea for a business, you might do more good by pursuing the business.  Or maybe you're actually interested in law or medicine or computer science.  Go for it!  You might be able to accomplish far more for the world as a computer programmer than you could as an organic grocer.

4. Spend less.
This is the one that seems most radical to some people.  Especially for people who grew up without financial stability, the idea of having less money can be scary.

But you don't have to decrease your current spending.  You can stay at your current spending level even when your income increases.  Most young people can expect their income to rise with time.  Over the five years since Jeff and I finished college, our cost of living has stayed pretty much the same - we haven't moved to a bigger place, haven't bought a car, haven't really changed our spending pattern.  But our incomes have increased, so we're now donating about three times as much as we used to.  That's pretty exciting, and it didn't feel hard because we never had to cut back.


You can push your limits.  You can give until it hurts.  If you have the energy for that, great.

But you don't have to.  You can give where it's comfortable, and that will still be so much better than ducking away from the question of what you can do to help.


  1. Wonderful advice as always Julia, though I must say that a meal of rice and beans and a night free of movies/TV isn't so bad! Thanks for the terrific posts.

    1. I'm glad that's not the only kind of night I have, though. :)

  2. Hello Julia,
    I have found your posts really interesting, and very much along my own way of thinking. As you say, giving 10% can actually be quite pleasurable, and giving even a modest amount to recommended efficient organisations can help a great number of people. I also don't feel deprived - connections with others, deciding where my money will go, and seeing evidence of the good it can do makes it all a really positive thing for me.
    Thanks for writing about it all here. - Heather