Cross-posted to my blog.
The Giving What We Can pledge serves as a useful way to commit to donating 10% (or more) of your income, and probably also helps show by example that donating this much money is a reasonable and achievable thing to do. I believe it serves as a useful way to commit yourself to donating if you suspect that your commitment might waver. But there are some considerations against signing the pledge, and these considerations look particularly persuasive if you already have a strong commitment to helping the world.
Some of this might be obvious, but I think it’s worth discussing—people often talk about why you should take the pledge but rarely talk about under what circumstances you shouldn’t, and the pledge isn’t the right choice for everyone. These counterpoints I raise don’t cover everything; I’m mostly drawing on my own personal experiences, and I’m sure other people have experiences that I haven’t had.
The more you donate, the less money you have to spend on other things, and the tighter your budget becomes. Maybe you’re earning more money than you need, in which case you can donate all your spare income with no trouble.
But it’s important to remember how your money needs will change over time. Maybe you will have no problem keeping up your donations for the next few years, but things could change. You might decide to have children, which will dramatically increase your expenditures (although some people with kids still donate a lot). You might start a startup or a non-profit, or take a job at a non-profit where you won’t be making much. Many people consider pledging in college, when it’s hard to anticipate your expenses as a young adult, and anyone at any age can have unexpected medical expenses or life-changing circumstances. Before you commit to donate some amount of money, make sure you will still be able to afford it in the future.
Most people’s expenditures increase throughout their lives but their income increases as well, so they shouldn’t have a problem keeping up the same rate of donation. That said, do consider whether you expect your income to increase as much or more than your spending.
People might be reluctant to take a job doing direct work if that would compromise their ability to fulfill their pledge. Since there are a lot of opportunities to do good in direct work that may be more valuable than donating 10%, we wouldn’t want to discourage the former in pursuit of the latter.
I recently caught myself following this chain of reasoning:
- I would like to donate a sizable chunk of my income in 2017 because donating money helps the world.
- I pledged to donate 20% of my income, so I need to donate at least $25,000.
- Therefore I will donate $25,000, because I pledged that I would.
- If I donate $25,000, max out my 401(k), and exercise my stock options, I will have negative cash flow for 2017. That is bad.
- Of these three big expenditures, the pledge is the least important, since keeping my word on something like this doesn’t matter as much as being able to retire comfortably. So maybe I should donate less.1
This reasoning obviously doesn’t make sense—I initially wanted to donate because I thought it would help the world, not just because it’s what I said I would do. But after I promised to donate 20% of my income, I forgot my original motivation and only thought about the pledge.
This is a version of the overjustification effect: if you get an extrinsic incentive to do something, it reduces your intrinsic motivation. I saw this happen to myself when taking the pledge reduced my intrinsic motivation to donate. Fortunately, I figured out what happened and reminded myself that donating money has inherent value and it’s not only about keeping a promise.
So even though you give yourself an external incentive to increase your commitment to doing a good thing, sometimes it can paradoxically decrease your commitment by reducing your intrinsic motivation. This could even reduce how much you donate—perhaps you would have donated 15%, but since you pledged to donate 10%, now you only donate the amount that you committed to.
I believe that people usually should take the Giving What We Can pledge. Most people in the effective altruism community donate less than 10% of their income—if more people took the pledge, we would see more donations, which would help the world. If you suspect that your future commitment to doing good may waver, you could take the pledge as a way to keep yourself on track. But before you do take it, consider some relevant factors:
- Are you going to need a lot of money at some point in the future, such that it will become harder for you to keep donating as much?
- Might you want to focus a lot of time on doing good in some way that prevents you from making much money, such as starting a non-profit; and if so, would you be able to continue donating the same percentage of your income?
I expect most people should be able to donate 10% of their income (although I’m not in a great position to judge since I have been lucky enough never to have to live on a low salary). I pledged to donate 20% of my income, and while I expect that I will always be able to donate that much, it does substantially limit me in some ways—most obviously, it makes it harder for me to switch to a job that pays a low salary. I regret pledging to donate this much, and perhaps I should not have pledged at all. I do place high value on keeping my word, so the Giving What We Can pledge could potentially help keep me committed; but I was already committed to donating and probably would have donated as much if I had not signed the pledge, so signing it only imposed limits on me without providing any benefits.
Some readers may be in a similar position to where I was before I signed the Giving What We Can pledge. If so, you should consider what benefits the pledge provides you and how it might hurt you, and decide if it makes sense given your personal circumstances.
For the record, I am not going to break my pledge in 2017 and I have no intention of ever doing so. ↩