(Cross posted from my blog. I think EA's have internalized a lot of this, and the post is intended for a more general audience, but thought it would be good to post here as well.)
While there are many factors that go into how to donate, I want to emphasize that charitable giving must be sustainable in order to be effective. By this I mean that donating money should be something you can continue indefinitely as part of a healthy lifestyle; it must not incur large personal costs or risk burnout. In other words, philanthropy should be rewarding and lend support to your pursuit of a good life.
While it might seem obvious, this point has important implications. Giving sustainably is an essential component of giving effectively.
On a purely practical level, giving sustainably can help maximize your total contributions to charity. This is because people who give excessive amounts to charity can burn out or face financial ruin. These events cut future contributions to virtually zero, counteracting the benefit of giving more in the present.
Crucially, giving sustainably also promotes charitable giving, potentially inspiring others to donate. If philanthropists donate sustainably while living happy and fulfilled lives, others will follow suit. But if philanthropists suffer under the financial burden of their generosity, few will want to emulate them.
So how exactly does one give sustainably?
Perhaps paradoxically, giving sustainably starts with helping yourself. Simply put, if you cannot take care of yourself, you are not in a position to help others. Ignoring your physical, mental, relationship, and career health is just as unsustainable as donating too much. Beyond promoting giving and maintaining donations long term, your happiness is just as important as the happiness of those you seek to help. A person who focuses on charity at the cost of making themselves miserable is counteracting most if not all of the good they do.
I believe that giving sustainably also entails giving regularly. This has a few important effects. First, giving regularly obtains many of the benefits of giving now . Second, it better promotes charity to others when you are regularly donating to a cause; your giving serves as a regular reminder and demonstrates some skin-in-the-game. Third, it makes it easier for you to build a habit of giving and grow your donations in the future. Finally, it’s easier to adapt financially when you are giving regularly as you can adjust how much you give to ensure that it is sustainable.
Giving sustainably also supports giving a little bit to causes that give you meaning, even if they are less effective. Donating to less-effective-but-meaningful charities can help you feel fulfilled and keep you involved. If donating to these other causes keeps you motivated, they are well worth the cost.
People might worry that spending on less-effective causes reduces effective giving. But there is not a fixed amount of money people will spend on charity, and giving to meaningful causes can inspire giving elsewhere. For example, local disasters can induce more charitable giving without reducing donations in other areas. On top of this, religious people spend more on non-religious charities than secular people in addition to spending on religious causes. This suggests to me that people’s altruism is something which can be grown and expanded upon, inspired by having new opportunities to give. Allowing yourself to donate to feel-good causes makes donating more sustainable and can help convince others to give, especially when they see people already giving to diverse causes they support.
Giving sustainably can help ensure that philanthropy is a consistent, fulfilling part of your life. Combined with the fact that it sets a good example for others, sustainable giving is both a personal and moral imperative.
- Giving regularly doesn’t preclude “giving later” as people can save part of their money to donate later, can give to donor advised funds, and can donate to longer-term causes.