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Newsworthy EventMy wife and I donate half of what we earn to charity, $400k+ since 2008, AMA!

Oct 16th 2015 by cbr • 16 Questions • 126 Points

Julia Wise and I donate half of what we make to the most effective charities we can find. Since 2008 we've donated over $400k:

  • 2008: $10,706 (27.7%)
  • 2009: $28,309 (32.9%)
  • 2011: $35,056 (36.9%)
  • 2012: $49,933 (49.1%)
  • 2013: $98,950 (40.5%)
  • 2014: $128,556 (50.2%)
  • 2015: $55,000 so far, going for 50%

(full details)

We mostly follow GiveWell's recommendations because the depth of their research is just super impressive. There's no one else who comes anywhere near to answering "if I want to do as much good as possible with my money, where should I donate?"

We were recently in Quartz, the Guardian, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and the Daily Mail, and did an interview on CBS Boston.

So: ask me anything, and if you have questions for Julia (/u/jdennon) post those too!

(proof)

Q:

Thanks for doing the AMA! How do you choose the fraction of your income to donate? Under what circumstances would you change that "on the fly" (e.g. sudden expensive medical bills)?

A:

We used to disagree on how much to donate, where Julia wanted to donate more and I was wary of giving away too much and saving too little for our future. We had a complicated system where we would each choose a fraction of our income to donate and then live together on the non-donated portion of our incomes, but this got to be too much of a hassle, so starting last year we agreed to just do 50% of our combined income. We like the symmetry: one for us, one for the world.

This year we did have a large unexpected expense but we had some savings and are still trying for 50% for the year.


Q:

What cause areas and specific organizations do you donate to, and why?

A:

My favorite charity right now is probably the Against Malaria Foundation. Malaria is one of the biggest killers of children worldwide, and bednets are both cheap and effective.

Have a look at their GiveWell review (warning: long!) for a very thorough description of how they're one of the best giving opportunities out there.


Q:

In your giving, how important do you find it to make sure you've maximized your earning potential? How have you weighed this against your enjoyment/satisfaction with your work?

A:

Consider someone who's earning $50k: the most they could even in theory donate is 100% or $50k. But if they could find a higher paying job where they could earn $150k they might be able to give $75k and still live on more than they earn now. If you're in a position where you could be earning more, you can get a lot of mileage out of that. On the other hand, being in a position where you could earn substantially more is relatively uncommon: most people are already trying to earn as much as they can.

In terms of satisfaction, I do think it's important to find satisfying work. But mainstream advice here is often really bad: people say "follow your passion" but this doesn't actually work especially well at finding a satisfying job. I think the don't follow your passion article is pretty good.


Q:

I saw an article about this concept - if you want to help the world and can make a lot of money the best thing to do is to make a lot of money and donate it.

You could work at a non-profit for $30k a year. Or you could make $150k a year and donate $60k to pay for the non-profit to hire 2 people.

A:

I saw an article about this concept

Perhaps this one? "Join Wall Street Save the World"?

the best thing to do is to make a lot of money and donate it.

It depends what your skills and talents are. Earning to give is definitely a strong option, and it gets stronger the more you're capable of earning, but like Julia I'd recommend looking over 80,000 Hours to see some other great choices.


Q:

Why?

A:

When you look at the level of poverty in the world, it's pretty overwhelming. There are so many people living on so much less than I would even have thought was possible! I figure I earn more than I really need to live on, and I should try to make do with less so others can have more.


Q:

Do you enjoy all the attention you are getting for being so kind hearted?

A:

It feels kind of weird having lots of journalists asking us detailed questions about our lives and then seeing lots of public discussion, but it's also really exciting how many people have told me that they're going to be trying to make giving a bigger part of their lives.


Q:

[deleted]

A:

I have a Bachelors in Computer Science and Linguistics. Julia has a Masters in Social Work.


Q:

We've never tried to change their course. We figure it's their full-time job to run their charity, so they're probably better at it than we are.

A:

We did do this a little early on, though, when we donated to Oxfam America and earmarked it for "monitoring and evaluation". The idea was that people who work at Oxfam were generally in favor of doing more research to figure out what approaches worked best so they could focus on those, but they were worried that the general public didn't see the value of this. By earmarking our donation we were saying "we do think this aspect is important", and in a sense helping vote on priorities for the organization. Though of course we were pretty small relative to their total budget.

Since then, however, we've decided that it generally makes more sense for us to support organizations that are already very close to our views than to try to convince ones to adjust their priorities.


Q:

The charities we fund are doing things like: - Against Malaria Fund: distributing mosquito nets. - Deworm the World: providing program support (helping with planning) to local governments providing deworming medication to schoolchildren. - GiveDirectly: giving $1000 cash transfers to poor households in Kenya. I'm just not that concerned about any of those efforts accidentally funding a warlord, etc. If I were trying to create peace in the Middle East, I would feel much less sure about how to help without accidentally making things worse (and that's why I'm not trying to create peace in the Middle East, because I have no idea how to go about it).

Ultimately, it's hard to know exactly the outcome is of any transaction - when I buy something at a store, the store owner could use the money to do something I don't like.

No, we don't fund political parties. The system where friends of candidate X donate $1 million and friends of candidate Y donate $1 million is a zero-sum game that wastes $2 million to get back to the starting point. Whereas there is no pro-malaria faction.

A:

What are your political leanings?

For me: http://www.jefftk.com/p/policies


Q:

Why do you feel the need to get public recognition for your "charitable" good works?

A:

I'm happy to try to do the right thing without public recognition, but I actually think it's really important for people to give publicly. If everyone gives privately then if you look around you have no idea whether everyone is giving a lot or a little. Should I give 3%? 10%? 30%? By letting people know that you give you help make giving more normal.


Q:

The most effective way to minimize development in endangered areas is almost certainly related to changing building codes in large cities to make them more built-up, and therefore reduce urban sprawl.

A:

I'm not as sure as you are here, though less sprawl is definitely better.

I suspect you mean "zoning" instead of "building codes".


Q:

What are your thoughts on veganism?

A:

Let's say you care about animals a lot. Like, you think that giving a human an extra year of healthy life (DALY) is about as good as a cow spending a year on a dairy farm is bad. This is pretty extreme: most people think humans matter more and that while dairy cows don't lead great lives they're not terrible. But let's stick with 1:1 because it is conservative and makes the numbers easier.

The AMF is somewhere under $100 per DALY; how much good does giving up dairy do? A cow produces a lot of milk, 6-7gal a day, so one cow can supply the dairy needs of about 20 people. Which means each person who gives up dairy reduces the number of cows on dairy farms by about 1/20th.

If you think 1:1 is reasonable, then giving $100 to the AMF does about as much good as giving up dairy for 20 years. And as I said, 1:1 is pretty extreme; if you think the cow life is 100 times less valuable than the human life then $1 to the AMF is equivalent to the 20 years without dairy. I suspect most people would rather donate the money.

EDIT: I expanded this into a blog post.


Q:

A more direct comparison than one with the AMF's work is the cost of actually funding vegan advocacy campaigns.

I live on similar principles to Kaufmans and I eat meat because it lets me save a little bit of money on a budget diet which I plan to donate either to animal advocacy charities or to other organizations if I deem them better uses of money. I think abstaining from meat is admirable, I did that too for a semester or so, but I've found this a more productive way for me to live.

A:

the cost of actually funding vegan advocacy campaigns

The cost estimates of vegan advocacy campaigns are really really rough. We'll know more soon once the veg ads study results are released, but my current prediction is they'll find a change too small to detect.

I eat meat because it lets me save a little bit of money on a budget diet which I plan to donate either to animal advocacy charities or to other organizations if I deem them better uses of money.

Eating meat while donating to charities that, say, help people, makes sense to me. Eating meat while donating to organizations that try to convince other people to give up eating meat seems like a bad idea, though.


Q:

Sorry, I don't have an interest in arguing about this. If you are a utilitarian then you shouldn't make accusations of non sequiturs when I've pointed out how I'm maximizing utility, and if you want to help animals then you should occupy yourself with gathering support for effective animal advocacy campaigns rather than trying to shame the people who support them. You can read a fuller discussion of my diet choice here and here.

A:

My initial response was from the perspective of someone who was considering whether the suffering of the cows was a good reason to stop eating dairy. Let's look instead at the environmental argument.

The carbon footprint of a gallon of milk is equivalent to about 18lb CO2 (mostly methane). That is 123 gallons per ton CO2-eq. That's very close to the average consumption of a dairy eater I was using above, so a year's worth of dairy is about 1 ton CO2.

You can avert the emission of a ton of CO2 for about $2.

These are all pretty small numbers.


Q:

This is an inadequate way of trying to calculate the impact on the climate in ways that are important and meaningful. It is much more accessible to start from a top down calculus

Taking the figures revised from the frequently cited Food and Agriculture Report 51% of greenhouse gas emissions come from animal agriculture. The consensus from climate change scientists is that current levels are already high enough to prove conclusively that causes of climate change are anthropocentric and demand for animal products increases with rising income levels seen in the developing world.

Your link to payments to offset an individual persons fraction of that figure is based on suspect heuristics. The charity naively thinks (or perhaps you do in relying on them) that trying to talk locals out of cutting down their rainforests with various proposals will respond to and anticipate growing demand for animal products and the profit incentive attached to that.

In addition carbon dioxide isn't the only greenhouse gas of concern. There's also methane and nitrous oxide which has magnitudes more greenhouse effect and also gets in and out of the atmosphere more quickly so is important strategically to reduce what's already in the atmosphere.

A:

causes of climate change are anthropocentric

Definitely. I agree that there's climate change and that we're causing it.

The charity naively thinks (or perhaps you do in relying on them) that trying to talk locals out of cutting down their rainforests with various proposals...

There are real offset projects. For example, many farmers in the US use a pit for animal waste to decompose in. You can install a system that converts the methane this gives off into co2, decreasing it's potency as a greenhouse gas by 25x, but it's not legally required and costs money. So paying the cost for farmers to install these really does reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

carbon dioxide isn't the only greenhouse gas of concern

The numbers I posted were based on CO2 equivalents (I wrote "equivalent" and "mostly methane") and so already take this into account.

figures revised from the frequently cited Food and Agriculture Report 51% of greenhouse gas emissions come from animal agriculture

I see 18%: http://www.fao.org/agriculture/lead/themes0/climate/en/


Q:

I generally agree with the aims of effective altruism, but the shaming that some of its proponents use is off-putting. Yes, I care about the suffering of people in the developing world, but I also care about my own well-being and the well-being of those around me. Should I feel guilty when I take myself out to dinner for a $15 meal? After all, I could have survived by spending less than a dollar on rice instead and donated the rest to a GiveWell-approved charity.

Did you buy the computer that you're using to conduct this AMA? Are you wearing reasonably comfortable clothes right now? Have you ever bought a present for your wife or child that could have gone to a child in Kenya instead? Did you both try to become Wall Street bankers before settling for engineering and social work (not one of the most lucrative careers out there), respectively? Why not donate as much of your salary as possible until you only have enough left to live just above the poverty line for a family of three? You'll still be fine by global standards.

When you've committed yourself to an extreme form of altruism, what you give will never be enough. There's probably a child somewhere who died tonight because you once bought yourself a pizza instead of donating to a charity to fight malaria in Africa. How could you have been so thoughtless? Congratulations, you're a moral monster.

A:

You're really letting perfect be the enemy of good here.