Here’s a little quiz:
Suppose you are living an extremely happy life – all your material needs and wants are met, and there is still money to spare. Then suddenly, you get even more money. Do you:
a) Try to think of even more stuff you could buy for yourself with that extra money?
b) Try to find more efficient things to do with the surplus?
For many people, this might seem like a trick question. After all, needs are cheap but how could you ever have all your wants met?
I mean sure, you might already have a Honda, but you obviously still want a Tesla, right? And if you could afford it, why would you not forego ground transportation altogether and have a private helicopter on call, with a Gulfstream G6 waiting on the airstrip? Perhaps at that point you could be satisfied – you’re sensible and not one of those greedy people who needs a yacht. But that still leaves a long, long climb to full life satisfaction.
For me, the point of full satisfaction is also pretty high – not just basic food but fancy stuff from around the world. A glorious modernist house on a park in one of the country’s most expensive counties, and unlimited, bikes, music, computers, and whatever else happens to appeal. Hell, I even have a brand new electric car just to see what the buzz is about. The tab for this lifestyle – a little over $25,000 per year – is not quite at Gulfstream elevation but it still puts my family in the top 2% of the Global Rich List.
Since I hit my consumption ceiling a little earlier than a proper rich person, I have been thinking about option (b) above for a number of years now. And if you care about trying to be logical when dealing with surplus money, your research will very quickly lead you to the Effective Altruism movement, and indeed I wrote about it as far back as 2012 with a review of Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save. As with most useful things I’ve learned in the last five years, it was readers of this blog who clued me in to the idea.
Effective Altruism is an attempt to answer one simple question: where can our surplus money do the largest amount of good? When buying something for yourself has only a neutral or small positive effect, funding charitable causes in a relatively rich country can be a way of getting more happiness for your dollar. But meeting even bigger needs in a much poorer country can measurably outperform either of those options by a huge margin.
Taking an example from the video below, $40,000 can raise and train one beautiful golden retriever to help a blind person in the US – undeniably a good thing. Or it can pay for simple trachoma operations to permanently cure about 2000 people from preventable blindness in Africa – quite a strong argument to allocate at least some of your generosity there.
Watch: Peter Singer’s moving TED Talk explaining the ideas behind Effective Altruism in about 17 minutes. Or you can read the same ideas on his The Life You Can Save website.
Even way back in 2012 I knew the idea was solid, and yet somehow the MMM family has managed to give away only relatively small amounts of money each year relative to our income, and thus other money has continued to accumulate.
I have been stuck in an analysis paralysis, wondering if I should give individually to conventional charities, or use wider reach of this blog to do something cooler that would make news headlines and thus create a multiplier effect. For example, what if I could:
- Personally fund some critical bike path in my town, drawing attention to the highest-returning investment any city can make?
- How about hiring some creative geniuses with an appropriately bizarre sense of humour to help me run a brilliant and educational YouTube channel?
- Could we collectively buy up a few blocks of a neighborhood and permanently shut down the roads to cars, keeping a few shared vehicles in a lot at the periphery and tearing up the pavement to become a little woodland/garden for our kids, and our utopian living space? Imagine how much the US would change if this became the new model for town planning?
These are great ideas, but they all take work, and my power to get stuff done is quite finite. So by holding out for them, I am falling in to the classic trap of Perfection is the Enemy of the Good. Why not try something I know is good, right now?
So I resolved to start with a donation amount that feels big enough to be meaningful to me, but not so big I am afraid to do it, and just do it. For me, that number was $100,000.
It sounds big if you think of it as “Four years of the family’s spending!”, or “An entire University education for a kid!” but only medium if you consider it’s only a mid-range Tesla. And downright small at less than a quarter of what this blog earned last year (before tax at least), which I managed via only the occasional typing of shit into the computer.
By keeping our lifestyle* at the previous already-glorious level we set at retirement, we have found that 100% of the extra income and windfalls we’ve encountered in these subsequent 11 years has been a pure surplus.
Effective Altruism is based on the principle that All Human Lives have Equal Value. Thus, they suggest that you simply give to the charity has the largest effect on improving and saving human lives, per dollar. The intellectual headquarters for the movement is a website called Givewell.org
According to them, this is currently the Against Malaria Foundation – a very minimalist organization that distributes protective Mosquito nets in Africa – efficiently and with a focus on measurement.
But being a flawed human, I wasn’t quite satisfied with such pure logic and decided to spread out my first donation just a bit, according to some of my values. What I came up with is this:
Health and Poverty:
- Against Malaria Foundation: $30,000
- Schistosomiasis Control Initiative: $10,000
- GiveDirectly: $10,000
- Deworm the World Initiative: $5,000
- Doctors Without Borders: (free emergency medical care to those most in need worldwide) $5,000
(note: the first four were done via a single $55k donation through GiveWell.org where you can allocate a single check across the causes as desired)
- Natural Resources Defense Council: (impressive pollution fighter/change-creator in the US): $5,000
- Amazon Basin Conservation Association: (efficient improvements in high-impact Amazon forestry stuff) $5,000
American and Local Causes:
- Planned Parenthood: (helps people control when they have kids, but often under political attack) $5,000
- The American Civil Liberties Union: (uses the law as a watchdog to prevent powerful established groups (whether corporations or religions) from overriding individual rights): $5000
- Khan Academy: (amazing, always-growing great education, free for millions of kids and adults) $9000
- Wikipedia: (via WikiMedia foundation – an independent, hard-to-suppress open source of information for the world) $1000
- Bicycle Colorado: $5000 (works to push bold new bike laws and infrastructure into the fertile ground of Colorado, which are then copied by other states).
- My local Elementary School (just a bunch of good people doing good work for kids): $5000
These are pretty arbitrary numbers, adjusted just to prioritize the Effective Altruism stuff most and still have it all add up to the right amount. My list is not meant to be expertly allocated, just to start putting some money to work, highlight a few causes, and give me a wide range of different things to start feeling good about.
What Does This Feel Like, and Should You Do it Yourself?
In summary, deeply satisfying and happy. I have known for years that I wanted to start doing this, but on the day that I actually dropped all those checks into the mailbox, I felt a great lightness. That night, I fell asleep with the happy peace that comes from letting go of just a bit of selfishness and fear. After noticing not even the slightest regret, I can see that it will become even easier as time goes on.
I get quite a few emails from readers asking if I think charitable giving should be prioritized early in life, or if it’s more efficient to wait until you reach financial independence. After all, certain religions come with the concept of tithing and suggest that people do it even if they are in personal debt.
For anyone with my personality type, this would not work – obligations imposed by others are counterproductive and you must decide for yourself what feels right. Getting out from a stressful situation – whether it is debt or an unsatisfying career, is a good use of your time and may even allow you to be more generous over your remaining lifetime.
On the other hand, if you’re a beginner and are curious, there’s no harm in just trying out the idea on yourself. You might try giving just $100 or so to a few favorite causes and noting the effect on your feeling. If you are financially stable and that amount is too small to cause a thrill, try $500 or $1000. If the practice proves satisfying, you’ll automatically decide to do more.
The thing about money is that even in a country like the US where almost everybody is rich by world standards, the top 10% of us own over 75% of the wealth. As a member of that lucky little slice, I won’t waste time complaining about the system. But I will suggest this: Since we obviously have all the money, and yet building a happy lifestyle for ourselves should not be particularly expensive, we might as well put the bulk of our money to efficient use improving the world – if we happen to enjoy that sort of thing. Meanwhile, since the bottom 90% is sharing the remaining quarter of the earnings, I’d expect a lower rate of philanthropy. How’s that for hardcore capitalist libertarian socialism?
What Other Causes are Worth Supporting?
Since this is just my one round of donations, all the doors are wide open.
If you were assigned to do the most good for the human race with each dollar you had available, what would you spend it on? Please share your ideas in the comments and we’ll keep getting better at this stuff together.
* Actually this part about completely resisting lifestyle inflation is a lie. Since becoming richer than expected I have dropped all restraint in the area of buying myself fancy burritos. Especially on trips. I even pay for my friends’ burritos frequently. Man, have we had some good ones.
Other Helpful Stuff:
Unsure about the value of giving away your hard-earned money? Apathy towards giving ususally comes from believing in various Myths about charity.
Tax Strategy: A further bit of great news is that this $100k round of donations will actually save me about $30,000 in income tax. Contributions like these come off of your taxable income as “itemized deductions”. The limit is 50% of your Adjusted Gross Income, and the deductibility also starts to phase out slowly in certain cases if you make more than $311,000. A few details on my Accountant’s blog (The Wealthy Accountant), and on this Fidelity page.
During research, I wondered about Charity Navigator, which ranks a larger number of charities based on administrative overhead and other stuff. How do they relate to GiveWell?
Freakonomics says the Givewell method is better, because there is much more to effectiveness than this ratio, and the ratio itself can be manipulated. When I saw this Angry Rebuttal by Charity Navigator founder Ken Berger, which resorted to name-calling and based his argument on, “Yeah, but who are YOU to say it’s better to donate overseas than in rich countries? If everybody did that, we’d never help anyone locally!” I felt even more confident about Givewell and Effective Altruism.