Considerations against pledging donations for the rest of your life

I think donating to charity is great, especially if you make more than \$100k per year, placing you well past the threshold where your well-being depends heavily on income (somewhere around \$70k, depending on who does the analysis). I’ve been in that boat before, and donated more than 100% of my disposable income to charity. However, I was also particularly well-positioned to know where money should go at that time, which made donating particularly worth doing. I haven’t made any kind of official pledge to always donate money, because I take pledges/promises very seriously, and for me personally, taking such a pledge seems like a bad idea, even accounting for its signalling value. I’m writing this blog post mainly as a way to reduce social pressure among such folks who earn less than \$100k per year to produce donations, while at the same time encouraging folks who earn more to consider donating more seriously.

Note that I currently work for a charitable institution that I believe is extremely important. So, having been both a benefactor and beneficiary of donations, I hope I may come across as being honest when I say “donating to charity is great.”

Note also that I believe I’m in a somewhat rare situation relative to humans-in-general, but not necessarily a rare situation among folks who are likely to read my blog, who tend to have interests in rationality, effective altruism, existential risk, and other intellectual correlates thereof. Basically, depending on how much information I expect you to actively obtain about the world relative to the size of your donations or other efforts, I may or may not like the idea of you pledging to always donate 10% of your income. Here’s my very rough breakdown of why:

Consider future variance in whether you should donate.

If you either (1) make less than \$100k/year, or (2) might be willing to make less than that at some future time in order to work directly on something the world needs you to do (besides giving), I would not be surprised to find myself recommending against you pledging to always donate 10% of your income every year.

Moreover, if you currently spend more than 100 hours per year investigating what the world-at-large needs, I would not be that surprised if in some years you were able to find opportunities to spend \$10k-worth-of-effort (per year on average, rather than every year) that were more effective than giving \$10k/year. Just from eyeballing people I know, I think a person who spends that much time analyzing the world (especially one who is likely to come across this post) can be quite a valuable resource, and I expect high initial marginal returns to their own direct efforts to improve themselves and the world.

Example: during my PhD, I spent a considerable fraction of my time on creating a non-profit called the Center for Applied Rationality. I was earning very little money at that time, and donating 10% of it would have been a poor choice. It would have greatly reduced my personal flexibility to spend money on getting things done (saving time by taking taxis, not worrying about the cost of meals when I was in flow working with a group that couldn’t relocate to obtain cheaper food options without breaking productivity, etc.). I think the value of my contribution to CFAR during those years greatly exceeds \$4,000 in charitable donations, which is what 10% of my income over two years would have amounted to. In fact, I would guess that it exceeds \$40,000, so even if I thought things were only 10% likely to turn out as well as they did, not donating in those years was a good idea.

In other years when I made much more money, I’ve chosen to donate 100% of my disposable income. You might want to do that sometimes, too, and I would highly recommend considering it, especially if you’re spending a lot of your time investigating where that money should go. But I still might recommend against you pledging to keep donating, unless you expect to stop investigating the world as much as you currently do and will therefore be less likely to discover things in the future that should change your plans for years-at-a-time.

Sometimes you should trust your own future judgement.

You might think that you should just defer all your decisions about where money or effort should go to the investigations of a larger group like GiveWell, OPP, GPP, or GWWC, who spend more time on investigation than you. Such a position favors donating as a way of impacting the world, because your impact gets multiplied by the value of someone else’s investigation. This is a highly tenable position, but I believe it becomes less tenable as the ratio of [value of time you spend investigating cause prioritization] to [value of money or effort you spend on your top cause] increases. E.g., if you’ve spent 100 hours this year identifying and analyzing arguments about what the world needs most, I would not be surprised if you could find a way to spend \$10k worth of money or effort on some important and neglected cause that was more valuable than donating to something with more mainstream support.

On the other hand, it would take more convincing for me to think it was also worth you spending \$1mm worth of money or effort on that cause, since that would represent a larger inefficiency in the charity market that should have been easier for others to have identify, and someone spending $1mm has plenty of incentive to have investigated (or hired investigation) for more than 100 hours. That would be a case where I think it makes more sense to depend on (or even better: pay for your own!) more centralized analysis of what’s needed.

Expecting variance + respecting your judgement = not pledging

The combined effects of

  • expecting variance in whether you should donate, and
  • respecting your own judgement for donations valued comparably to the time you spend investigating,
leads me to recommend some folks against pledging to always donate 10% of their income. If you expect low variance and/or low time-ratio-spent-investigating relative to the examples I’ve given, I’m less likely to discourage you from taking such a pledge, because it helps you signal to the world that donating to charity is extremely important.

Having said that: you can donate lots of money without ever pledging do so for the rest of your life, and if you can afford it, I totally think you should do it 🙂

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