Why I’m giving 10% of my income away

This week I took the Giving What We Can pledge, signing myself up to give away 10% of my income, now and in the future. It wasn’t a flippant decision, and I though I’d share some of my reasoning for anyone interested, or for anyone considering doing the same. So here it is, in what might be this blog’s first listicle.

I’m rich

Just about everyone subscribes to the notion that rich people should be generous and compassionate and pay at least some attention to the plight of people less rich. Most people also define rich in a selective, relative way that puts it just beyond their grasp. In my circle of friends – comfortably middle class in an Australian kind of way – I’ve heard people refer to a million dollars as “not exactly a life changing amount of money”. Bollocks.

Depending on the calculator I choose my post-tax income puts me in either in the top 1% or top 2% of global income earners. My personal wealth – ignoring my family and friends and their money and property and all the social capital that comes with it – puts me in the top 15%. Sure I’m not the 1% (yet) but I’m far from poor. And that’s after a year overseas and 15 months out of work.

Shave 10% of my income and nothing changes. I’m still in the top 1% or 2%, depending on the calculator I choose. If I start to feel the pinch I could always drink a bit less beer.

I want my money to count

I’m not one to make apologies for the development sector or the aid world. I’ve seen a lot of bad charity work, met a lot of mediocre expats collecting donor-funded USD salaries in impoverished places, and spent a lot of time questioning why we get international aid so wrong. Rich countries are inherently self-serving and aid via our governments is minimal and usually designed to further our own interests. Our aid ‘partners’, with few exceptions, are unreliable, ineffective or corrupt.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a point to it, or that it can’t be done better. By taking the pledge I’m not committing just to giving, but to giving as effectively as I can, to the organisations that I believe will make the most difference. The effective altruism community is pretty nerdy, meaning there is an ever-increasing evidence base for what works and what doesn’t. I’ve long been a fan of giving money directly to people who need it with as little overhead as possible, and I’m not surprised to see that approach find favour along with things like mosquito nets and deworming tablets. The work of the various effective altruism organisations will guide, but not dictate, where I chose to direct my money.

We can be heroes

Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffett, Michael Bloomberg et al are regularly feted as the world’s “greatest philanthropists”. Nothing wrong with that, but is the greatness of one’s philanthropy really measured by how much personal wealth they managed to accrue first?

Maybe a better measure is how much you’re willing to live on, or how much you have left once you’ve given what you’re prepared to give.

Giving away 10% of your income is hardly making a sacrifice on the same level as, say, nuns who take a vow of poverty, but maybe there’s some room for some middling heroes in the panthoen?

What about climate change?

The pledge requires that you give as effectively as you can to the organisations that you think will make the most difference. If you think that’s something to do with climate change then the pledge gives you full permission – in fact, it requires you – to put your money where your mouth is and support the most effective climate initiatives you can find.

There won’t be a better time

Unless you’ve defined and committed to a concrete plan, the idea that you’ll give away a meaningful chunk of your income at a more suitable point in the future is nothing more than a cop-out. I should know, because this has been my attitude for the past few years. I avoided taking the pledge earlier because of two assumptions that turned out to be lies: that I’d get close enough with ad hoc donations to worthwhile causes, and that as I earned more I’d naturally give more. Neither are true unless you commit to making them true.

Think about it. What would make the future more suitable than the present? Which percentile of global wealth/income would you have to be in before you considered yourself rich enough? How much evidence would you have to see before you considered a cause worthwhile? What would you need to know about the world and your place in it that you don’t know now? And do you really think you’ll be in a better position once you have a mortgage / kids / a retirement to think about?

And if and when you got to that hypothetical day, how many years of philanthropic practice would you have missed out on?

Will you join me?

It’s one thing to do something like this yourself, but it’s even better to do it with others. If the pledge sounds like a big step (and it is) Giving What We Can also let’s you make and track a custom commitment through its Try Giving page. I’d be delighted if you’d try giving with me.

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