General note: The bulk of this post was written a couple of months ago, but I am releasing it now to coincide with the Effective Giving Spotlight week. I shortly expect to release a second post documenting some observations on the community building funding landscape.
Way back in 2010, I was sitting in my parents' house, watching one of my favourite TV shows, the UK's Daily Politics. That day's guest was an Oxford academic by the name of Toby Ord. He was donating everything above £18000 (£26300 in today's money) to charity, and gently pushing others to give 10%.
"Nice guy," I thought. "Pity it'll never catch on."
Two years later, a couple of peers interned at Giving What We Can. At the same time, I did my own internship in finance, and my estimate of my earning potential quadrupled. One year after that, I graduated and took the Giving What We Can pledge myself. While my pledge form read that I had committed to donate 20% of my income, my goal was to hit far higher percentages.
How did that go?
Earning To Give was one of EA's first ideas to get major mainstream attention, much of it negative. Some was mean-spirited, but some of it read to me as a genuine attempt to warn young people about what they were signing up for. For example, from the linked David Brooks piece:
From the article, Trigg seems like an earnest, morally serious man...
First, you might start down this course seeing finance as a convenient means to realize your deepest commitment: fighting malaria. But the brain is a malleable organ....Every hour you spend with others, you become more like the people around you.
If there is a large gap between your daily conduct and your core commitment, you will become more like your daily activities and less attached to your original commitment. You will become more hedge fund, less malaria. There’s nothing wrong with working at a hedge fund, but it’s not the priority you started out with.
At the time, EAs had little choice but to respond to such speculation with speculation of their own. At this point, I can at least answer how some things have played out for me personally. I have divided this post into reflections on my personal EtG path and on the EA community.
First, some context. Over the past decade:
- My wife Denise and I have donated £1.5m.
- This equates to 46% of our combined gross incomes.
- The rest of the money is split 550k / 550k / 700k between spending / saving (incl. pension) / taxes.
- We have three children (ages 13, 6, 2) and live in London.
- I work as a trader, formerly at a quant trading firm and now at a hedge fund.
Many critics of EtG assume that we really want to be doing something meaningful, but have - with a heavy heart - intellectually conceded that money is what matters.
I want to emphasise this: This is not me, and I doubt it applies to even 20% of people doing EtG. If you currently feel this way, I strongly suspect you should stop.
I like my work. I get to work with incredibly sharp and motivated people. I get to work on a diverse array of intellectual challenges. Most of all, I've managed to land a career that bears an uncanny resemblance to what I do with my spare time; playing games, looking for inconsistencies in others' beliefs, and exploiting that to win.
But prior to discovering EtG, I was wrestling with the fact that this natural choice just seemed very selfish. As I saw it, my choices were to do something directly useful and be miserable but valuable, or to work in finance and be happy but worthless. So a reminder that the money I have a comparative advantage in earning is itself of value was a relief, not a burden.
My career pathway has not been smooth, with a major derailment in 2018, which has had a very large impact on my income and donation potential. I may one day tell this story in a standalone post, as my wife has done for her case. But for now, I would make the following observations, targeted towards people who are relatively young or new to EA:
- Burnout is extremely expensive, because it does not just cost time in and of itself but can move your entire future trajectory. If I were writing practical career tips for young EAs, my first headline would be "Whatever you do, don't burn out."
- Plenty of people in the EA community have burned out. A small number of us talk about it. Most people, understandably, prefer to forget and move on. Beware this and other selection effects in (a) who is successful enough that you are listening to them in the first place and (b) what those people choose to talk about.
- Despite the fact that the EA community talks about (other people's) burnout a lot, many incentive gradients do in fact push people to burn out at what appear to me to be higher-than-baseline rates.
- This distinction between 'what does the community incentivise?' and 'what does the community say?' comes up in a lot of my conversations, especially with EA leadership. As befits my profession, I tend to think talk is cheap and incentives are what count, but not everybody agrees!
A concern I felt keenly was that it would be difficult to keep a lid on spending. If your colleagues are talking about their latest fancy vacation or showing off an expensive phone, aren't you going to feel compelled to keep up?
I think this was a case of being right but for the wrong reasons.
Note that trying to assess lifestyle inflation over time is challenging for a few reasons, foremost in my case is how to think about housing costs after buying property. In the below I take a rental equivalence approach.
Here is my household spending over time, by UK tax year (April - March), current year projected:
Quite the increase! But of course, there has been some inflation over the past decade. So let's adjust everything into today's money:
Less clear is whether and how to adjust for household size. As mentioned above, I am now married with 3 kids, but that first year of data tracks my spending alone. Statistical agencies sometimes deal with household size effects via the concept of equivalised income; in the methodology used here head of household counts for 1, each additional person over the age 14 counts for 0.5, each young child adds 0.3, and then divide income by ‘household size’.
This last chart does the best job of tracking my subjective experience; I made no effort to watch my spending in my first few years of work, sharply tried to get more careful in 2018, and have been gradually letting things expand back in the past 2-3 years. To put the equivalised figure of £40k/yr in context, that is the expenditure of 85th - 95th percentile UK households, depending which dataset I use.
In summary, my household does spend a lot more money than it used to, but probably because it is larger than it used to be. More generally, our household income puts us in the top 1% of UK households but we opt to spend as if we are around the 90th percentile, a comfortable level that nonetheless creates a large gap between income and expenditure. That gap can be routed into donations or savings.
During my first few years of work, I saved up for a house deposit and made employer-matched pension contributions, but did not otherwise make a strong effort to save money. In the last few years, I have made much more of an effort to save. There were a few reasons for this:
- Strong messaging from the core about talent constraint, combined with my observation that I would not feel comfortable taking a >>50% pay cut without a strong buffer of liquid savings.
- My episode of burnout in 2018 increased my sense of how many months' runway I should aim to have.
- As our spending has risen, any given number of months of runway is now a larger £ figure.
In the next few years, I would like to tilt back towards donations:
- As my episode of burnout recedes into the past and recent stressful events fail to come even vaguely close, it seems more likely that:
- This was a one-off created by something of a perfect storm of personal and professional problems.
- I have gotten better at balancing my motivations.
- We have made a lot of progress of medium-term financial goals:
- A year ago we bought what we hope and expect will be our forever home.
- I feel comfortable with our provision for retirement.
- We are now a dual-income household, rather than the effectively-single-income one we were until 2020.
- Really a lot of things I would think should be fully funded are not fully funded, in a way that was briefly less obvious in 2022.
Our largest donation recipients have been:
- Giving What We Can
- 80,000 Hours
- Funds managed by Givewell, most recently the Top Charities Fund
As it happens each of the above four has received close to £250k from us, accounting for two thirds of the £1.5m total. This is also roughly representative of our cause area split, which is overall around 50% Global Poverty / 45% Community Building / 5% Other. This is not representative of our donations in any given year, where our Community Building donations in particular have been responsive to changes in the funding landscape.
Some people struggle to work out what the EA community is supposed to do for them, or what the point of it all is. For what it's worth, my experience has been that this confusion extends to all levels of seniority within the community. But for me, participating in the community was the obvious way to counter the attrition Brooks warned of. I tend to agree that you will tend to become more like those around you, but that applies to people other than your colleagues, and you can choose who those people are! Maybe those 'EAs' even find what you are doing praiseworthy, but a lot of the power is just in feeling less weird for trying.
I often feel like people working at core EA orgs forget how valuable this is for the vast majority of EAs, who do not work with other EAs. Almost everyone I know outside EA, from my parents to my colleagues to my neighbours, is not seeking to improve the wider world with any significant fraction of their resources. They're just getting on with their lives and trying to do right by the people they meet. To the extent they are aware of my giving, their attitude is one of curious fascination.
I am not qualitatively different! I know that the world would be a better place if I gave more. I just choose not to. It's not my (only) priority. I feel similarly fascinated by the types of people profiled in Strangers Drowning, who seem much more purely selfless or even saintlike.
The EA community, as it existed in 2014, did not bring me into contact with many saints. But it did expose me to a lot of people who were far further in that direction than anyone else I knew, and who responded positively to my giving. It feels very unlikely that I would have given anything like as much without that inspiration and validation.
Correspondingly, there are a number of possible functions of the community that I put little value on, such as:
- EA networking, or connections aimed at scoring an 'impactful' job.
- Learning about how to do good.
- I read through Givewell's work without ever having spoken to another community member, and would mostly recommend things like this if learning is your goal.
- Spending time with other people with good epistemics.
- While justifying this claim is beyond the scope of this post, EA epistemics are generally worse than I have experienced in my job and elsewhere, in my subjective estimation.
As time has passed, such functions have taken up an ever-larger fraction of community efforts. At the same time, I have seen a lot of unsavoury or just plain unacceptable behaviour get a pass. Finally, EAs have treated EtG as increasingly more weird, especially offline, defeating the original argument for engaging. In the face of all this there is more than a slight temptation to throw up one's hands and say 'Fine! You think my money is worthless? I guess I'll keep it then; it's definitely worth something to me'. I think I succumbed to this to some extent around 2021, and needed to put a bit of space between myself and the community to maintain altruistic motivation; a sharp contrast with the early community inspiring me to do more.
That all said, there has been a distinct change of tone in 2023, even from the core, as various places discover that they cannot fill their funding needs, sometimes urgent ones. Time will tell whether this becomes a more permanent shift.
I generally think it is reasonable to subject unusual ideas to unusual scrutiny. Earning To Give is certainly an unusual idea, and it received plenty of scrutiny even before the FTX collapse. I think some level of suspicion and introspection, both around motivations and around sustainability, is warranted.
That said, I would encourage critics to take an honest look at what my reference class - STEM graduates from elite universities and privileged backgrounds - is otherwise doing. When I look, I see a fair amount of frivolous expenditure and minimal attention given to non-financial ways of doing good; the choice is less 'banker who donates' vs. 'doctor' and more 'banker who donates' vs. 'banker'.
Personally, I have never been into most big expenditures, but it is still true that had we not donated £1.5m I would be able to retire today. Had we not donated £1.5m and I not upended my career for EA reasons in 2018, I would have been able to retire multiple years ago. This is not an entirely idle hypothetical; my plan before discovering EA was to focus my career in my 20s and then retire by 30, perhaps doing some volunteer work after that. This would only have become more appealing since starting a family, so I see little reason to think I would have missed on this goal.
Instead, a million dollars went to charities trying to help the Global South, and another million went to building the community that pointed out to me that I should personally be doing a lot more to help the Global South. Much though I might value the personal freedom that comes with early retirement, I struggle to come up with any moral or practical argument that suggests it is worth more than what those donations accomplished.
If you come up with one, give me a shout. Maybe you will convince me! I'm sure my investment accounts will be grateful.
IIRC, from £50k / yr to £200k / yr.
Please note I'm taking some liberties with the rounding here; this is intended as indicative only.
This is also the standard for UK and US inflation indices. In short, I substitute my actual housing costs (mortgage interest, maintenance, etc.) for an estimate what I would have paid to rent equivalent accomodation. Overall this comes out within 10% of my experinced costs but is much smoother year-to-year.
More precisely, events I would have previously found very stressful. My actual felt reaction is highly reminiscent of this quote:
Going through Azkaban had recalibrated his scale of emotional disturbances; and losing a House point, which had formerly rated five out of ten, now lay somewhere around zero point three.
More sad for the world than for me personally; my immediate circles formed in earlier years aren't going anywhere, but it does seem like the ladder has been pulled up behind me.
I wasn't aware of the FIRE movement, but it seems likely I would have come across it sooner or later and that would have helped provide some structure and planning on the objective. As it was I think I first heard the acronym in 2014.
Again, some liberties with GBP:USD conversion rates and rounding. It's about right though; GBP was higher back in the mid-2010s...