I don't think the 10% norm forms a major part of EA's public perception, so I don't believe tweaking it would make any difference. - RobertJones
10% effective donations has brand recognition and is a nice round number, as you point out. -- mhendric
These two comments both received agreement upvotes on my recent post Further defense of the 2% fuzzies/8% EA causes pledge proposal, and although they're differently worded and not irreconcileable, they seem basically to stand in contradiction with each other. Is the 10% Giving What We Can pledge, in which participants commit to donating 10% of their annual income to an effective charity, part of EA's brand or reputation?
- The Giving What We Can 10% pledge is often featured in prominent coverage of EA
- Broader notions of earning to give, giving specifically to effective charities, and donating a 10%+ fraction of one's income are even more common themes
- Giving What We Can is widely mentioned within EA, sees itself as "one of the shop fronts" for the movement, the pledge itself gets mentioned fairly often, and it's an important driver of EA participation.
- Giving What We Can is a core part of the EA movement and the pledge is core to GWWC.
- Criticism of EA often focuses on specific aspects of the GWWC pledge:
- Can we really draw a line while maintaining intellectual rigor?
- Is 10% the right line to draw?
- Should 100% of what we donate be specifically to what EA deems to be effective charities, or is it OK to also donate to pet causes like the arts?
- More broadly, is EA too focused on its own ideas - a failure of moral cosmopolitanism? Does EA need to incorporate or make some concession to the values of other cultural, moral, or political movements?
This does not resolve the question of how core the specific idea of a 10% pledge of one's income to effective charities is to the EA movement or to its reputation. But the pledge is provocative and the fact that so many EAs commit to it seems clearly to play a role in the media's interest in the movement, and both its appreciation for EA and its criticism of it. Based on the couple of hours I put into looking through this material, here is my model of the role of a 10% GWWC pledge in EA and in outward-facing reputation:
- The GWWC pledge is critical in giving concrete form to the ideas of earning to give, and the fact that people do it defines EA in the public eye and gives the movement serious credibility
- Non-EAs who take EA seriously often focus on the specific details of the pledge, without necessarily mentioning it by name. In particular, they question whether 10% is the right amount (for everybody, or for specific income brackets), and they question whether making 100% of one's donations to charities deemed effective is the right call. Criticism of EA for being too absolutist is pretty common.
- Media coverage of EA is typically either critical of the ideas and culture and its relationship with FTX and Sam Bankman Fried, or it is in a positive mode of introducing the movement in a broadly sympathetic light to readers who might not have heard of it before. Sometimes, that criticism seems to fail to understand that EA is presenting itself to them in an oversimplified manner because we know that journalists won't fit every layer of subtlety that we've considered into their limited column space. But this seems to lead some journalists to assume we haven't considered the criticisms that they raise, or that we don't have an answer for them.
Clearly, a 2%/8% or 2%/10% fuzzies/utilons standard for an earning to give pledge would be a concrete way to show we've taken onboard some of these critiques. It would be an example of making allowance for people's multiple loyalties, showing that we are not absolutist, and taking action in response to valid criticism.
I think that non-EAs who hear about the 10% pledge may sometimes find its clarity compelling, but others will be alienated by the perceived absolutism. It may not be clear that you can also donate more, or that it's probably fine (and at the very least a huge marginal improvement) if you donate a little less to EA causes and the rest to the opera.
Reaffirming My Position
Overall, I conclude that the notion of earning to give 10% to effective charities is a core part of EA's brand, and that its simplicity is often a source of criticism. These are good reasons to continue arguing for a shift to a 2%/8% or 2%/10% pledge.
What is the Giving What We Can pledge and how popular is it within EA?
On its about page, GWWC says it was founded by Toby Ord and Will MacAskill. Its vision statement says:
Giving What We Can's mission is to make giving effectively and significantly a cultural norm. We mean this quite literally: our goal isn't just to marginally increase the amount of money going to effective charities — we're aiming to make meaningful cultural change.
They define their community primarily in terms of its donating members:
At its heart, Giving What We Can is a community. We are a group of like-minded people who are committed to make a meaningful positive impact on others’ lives by donating to highly effective charities.
The wording of the GWWC pledge is:
"I recognise that I can use part of my income to do a significant amount of good. Since I can live well enough on a smaller income, I pledge that from __ until __ I shall give __ to whichever organisations can most effectively use it to improve the lives of others, now and in the years to come. I make this pledge freely, openly, and sincerely."
GWWC says that 9,217 of its members have taken the pledge, and it's this number that they refer to in defining their size:
We’ve got over 9,217 members across the world
In addition to recruiting and supporting donors in maintaining a substantial level of charitable giving, GWWC also does research to identify charities they consider effective, and run a donation platform.
Among EA forum posts, a search for "giving what we can pledge" returns 417 results, with 230 for "GWWC pledge," 819 for "giving what we can," and 2638 for "GWWC." Note that GWWC puts out a monthly newsletter that has "GWWC" in the title, and they have a dedicated EA Forum account; this accounts for a few dozen of these entries. I briefly skimmed a few of the top posts that pop up when searching for "GWWC," and they are, no surprise, typically focused at least in part on motivating charitable giving.
"Earn to give" gets 1515 results.
For comparison with various cause areas, "vegetarian" gets 399 results, while "vegan" gets 1338 results. "Pandemic" gets 1471 results, "x-risk" gets 1016 results, and "ai safety" gets 1985 results.
Among EA-related organizations, "GiveWell" gets 1984 results, "GiveDirectly" 573 results, "EA Forum" gets 4544 results, "MIRI" gets 5291 results, and "Future of Humanity Institute" gets 495 results. "OpenPhil," "Open Phil," and "Open Philanthropy" respectively get 1532, 2661, and 1846 results.
Giving What We Can's 10% donation pledge was prominently featured in one of Scott Alexander's most popular slatestarcodex posts, Nobody is Perfect, Everything is Commensurable. It gets plenty of mentions on LessWrong. Overall, I think it is fair to say that GWWC is identified pretty strongly with its 10% pledge, that it's among the most prominent EA organizations, and that it is enacting one of the most prominent, visible EA ideas, earning to give.
How does the media think about the idea of earning to give and the GWWC pledge?
The most I can offer here is an hour or two of searching the internet to find references to GWWC and see how the media portrays it in relation to Earning to Give.
The first thing I searched for was Will MacAskill's 12-minute interview on The Daily Show, which is the biggest pop culture moment for EA that I know of.
The first time in the interview that Trevor Noah digs into the topic of charitable donations is just after the 3:30 mark, talking about the magnitude of MacAskill's giving, how it ties into issues of privilege. He specifically mentions the idea of giving away 10-20% of one's income, and MacAskill reinforces it (along with the idea of donating to effective nonprofits) at about the 10:55 mark. About 75% of the segment revolves around the idea of earning to give. Giving What We Can and the GWWC pledge are not mentioned in the interview, but Will's book is. Giving What We Can and its pledge are mentioned several times in the book.
The EA Forum has an Effective Altruism in the Media tag. The highest-relevancy post covers the podcast between Sam Harris and Will MacAskill. This podcast resulted in Sam joining GWWC after two episodes, driving a spike of about 600 GWWC memberships, and according to Aaron Gertler, the post's author:
An extremely engaged community builder told me in February 2021: "I feel like most new EAs I've met in the last year came in through Sam Harris."
So just a couple years ago, an extremely well-received Sam Harris podcast was an extremely important influence in driving EA membership, and it was a big promoter specifically of the GWWC pledge.
The Joe Rogan podcast also featured MacAskill and specifically mentioned the GWWC 10% pledge. You can listen to it here.
holds that taking a high-paying job is worthwhile if the end goal is to give much of the income away.
But it doesn't cover the GWWC pledge or the idea of specifically donating 10% of one's income. It does mention that Jane Street contains a lot of people who practice earning to give and are into effective altruism or similar ideas. The article links to Nicholas Kristof's glowing coverage of Matt Wage, another practitioner of earning to give and effective altruism who donates half his income, and also mentions that Peter Singer donates a third of his income. Kristof describes EA as:
... a new movement called “effective altruism,” aimed at taking a rigorous, nonsentimental approach to making the maximum difference in the world.
Despite the very positive coverage of EA, one of Kristof's main concerns is specifically about the level of an earning-to-give commitment (% of income) and the idea that 100% of that donation should be focused specifically on effective charities:
First, where do we draw the line? If we’re prepared to donate one-third of our incomes to maximize happiness, then why not two-thirds? Why not live in a tent in a park so as to be able to donate 99 percent and prevent even more cases of blindness?
I want to take my wife to dinner without guilt; I want to be able to watch a movie without worrying that I should instead be buying a bed net. There is more to life than self-mortification, and obsessive cost-benefit calculus, it seems to me, subtracts from the zest of life.
Second, humanitarianism is noble, but so is loyalty. So are the arts, and I’m uncomfortable choosing one cause and abandoning all others completely.
For my part, I donate mostly to humanitarian causes but also to my universities, in part out of loyalty to institutions that once gave me scholarships.
Another NY Times article on the FTX collapse describes EA as:
...a philosophy that advocates applying data and evidence to doing the most good for the many...
In a New Yorker article covering the collapse, the author articulates the tension at the heart of EA:
On the one hand, what makes the movement distinct is its demand for absolute moral rigor, a willingness, as they like to put it, to “bite the philosophical bullet” and accept that their logic might precipitate extremes of thought and even behavior—to the idea, to take one example, that any dollar one spends on oneself beyond basic survival is a dollar taken away from a child who does not have enough to eat. On the other hand, effective altruists, or E.A.s, have recognized from the beginning that there are often both pragmatic and ethical reasons to defer to moral common sense. This enduring conflict—between trying to be the best possible person and trying to act like a normal good person—has put them in a strange position. If they lean too hard in the direction of doing the optimal good, their movement would be excessively demanding, and thus not only very small but potentially ruthless; if they lean too hard in the direction of just trying to be good people, their movement would not be anything special...
The broader culture is marked by neither a widespread sensitivity to misery nor a pervasive sense of obligation to do something practical about it, and for all of its faults the culture of E.A. was. One didn’t have to agree with everything they did to believe that they created a worthwhile role for themselves and acquitted themselves honorably.
Although this doesn't mention the 10% GWWC pledge, it is digging into the dilemma that the pledge is meant to address - setting a substantial but manageable standard for what it means to do an adequate job of earning to give.
For the author, one of the problems with EA's culture that enabled Sam Bankman Friend to pull the wool over our eyes is an attitude among the leadership that he attributes to Rob Wiblin:
In other words, it seems as though the only thing that truly counts for Wiblin is the inviolate sphere of ideas—not individual traits, not social relationships, not “she said” disagreements about whether it was wise to throw in one’s lot with billionaire donors of murky motive, and certainly not “traditional liberal concerns.” (Wiblin told me, “I wasn’t talking about articles that focus on personal virtue, integrity, or character. I was talking about, for example, a focus on physical appearance, individual quirks, and charisma.”) Effective altruism did not create Sam Bankman-Fried, but it is precisely this sort of attitude among E.A.’s leadership, a group of people that take great pride in their discriminatory acumen, that allowed them to downweight the available evidence of his ethical irregularities. This was a betrayal of the E.A. rank and file, which is, for the most part, made up of extremely decent human beings.
Again, we find that one of the critical themes about EA is its resistance to compromise with extant moral and cultural ways of parsing issues.
Luke Freeman, the Executive Director at Giving What We Can, said in 2022 that:
We are aware that we are one of the "shop fronts" [of the Effective Altruism movement] at Giving What We Can.
A Times Article on MacAskill and EA specifically mentions the Giving What We Can 10% pledge.