- I’m sharing the below as part of the EA Strategy Fortnight. I think there’s value in discussing what the role of effective giving in the EA community should be, as (1) I expect people have quite different views on this, and (2) I think there are concrete things we should do differently based on our views here (I share some suggestions at the bottom of this post).
- These claims or similar ones have been made by others in various places (e.g. here, here, and here), but I thought it'd be useful to put them together in one place so people can critique them not only one-by-one but also as a set. This post doesn’t make a well-supported argument for all these claims and suggestions: many are hypotheses on which I’d love to see more data and/or pushback.
- Full disclosure: I work at Giving What We Can (though these are my personal views).
Claim 1: Giving effectively and significantly should be normal in the EA community
More concretely, I think it would be desirable and feasible for most people who currently self-associate with EA to give at least 10% of their income to high-impact funding opportunities (e.g. by taking the GWWC Pledge) or to be on their way there (e.g. by taking the Trial Pledge).
- I think this is desirable for three reasons: (1) effective giving is — in absolute terms — an incredibly efficient way for us to convert resources into impact, (2) even for individuals who may have more impact directly through their careers, giving effectively is often highly cost-effective on the margin and is not mutually exclusive with their direct impact (so worth doing!), and (3) there are many positive effects for the EA community as a whole from having effective giving as a norm.
- I also think this is feasible. There are good reasons for some people to not give at some points in their lives — for instance, if it leaves someone with insufficient resources to live a comfortable life, or if it would interfere strongly with the impact someone could have in their career. However, I expect these situations will be the exception rather than the rule within the current EA community, and even where they do apply there are often ways around them (e.g. exceptions to the Pledge for students and people who are unemployed).
Claim 2: Giving effectively and significantly should not be required in the EA community
I think we should positively encourage everyone in the EA community who can give effectively and significantly to do so, and celebrate people when they do — but I don’t think that this should be an (implied) requirement for people in order to “feel at home” in the community, for a couple of reasons:
- EA is about using one's resources to try to do the most good, and its community should be accessible to people who want to use different types of resources to do this (e.g. money, time, network, expertise).
- Moreover, we don’t want the EA community to intentionally or unintentionally select only for people who have significant financial resources: we would be missing out on many (if not most) of the people we need to achieve our ambitious goals, including a large part of the global population that isn’t in a position (yet) to give significantly.
Claim 3: Giving effectively and significantly should be sufficient to be part of the EA community
I think giving at least 10% to high-impact funding opportunities (or being on the path there) should be "enough" for someone to fully feel part of the EA project and community, regardless of their career. For example, people who give effectively should feel respected and included by other people in the community, feel represented by community leaders, and feel welcome at general EA-themed events. I believe this because:
- Giving effectively may be the highest-impact action to take on the margin for many people at any particular point in time. In my experience, many people in the community believe that career change nearly always trumps effective giving in terms of the impact of an individual’s actions. But I think this is at least an open question, given (1) the very high bar effective giving sets in terms of absolute impact (see footnote 2), (2) there may not be enough high-absorbency career paths that outcompete giving effectively in terms of impact, and (3) not everyone is in a position to make a high-impact career change at every point in their lives. (I’d love to be challenged on this point and to see more research into this question.)
- For many people, I think effective giving has been and will continue to be the most accessible on-ramp to become a part of the EA community, and a way for them to engage that ultimately increases their chances of making a high-impact career change as well. I know of quite a few anecdotal examples of this — including some of the arguably most productive people in the EA community — but I’d love to see this hypothesis properly tested and/or see more data on this if it exists.
Claim 4: Giving effectively and significantly should not require one to be part of the EA community
I think effective giving has the potential to initially reach a much larger group of people than just those who immediately resonate with the values and ideas of the broader EA community, and (as alluded to above) may be an accessible on-ramp for people to engage with EA principles without applying these to their lives more broadly (yet).
As a result, I think it’s helpful to have separate effective-giving-focused communities and organisations that don’t strongly self-associate with the larger EA community, which provide accessible effective giving resources to people who aren’t yet on board with EA more broadly. This is what various organisations (e.g. GiveWell, Founders Pledge) have been doing for a while, and I’m glad to see many new initiatives in this space emerging.
A few recommendations based on these claims
- Probably most importantly: let’s all individually give effectively and significantly and advocate for it!
- Consider taking the GWWC Pledge or (if you’re not ready) the Trial Pledge (this is how I personally got into effective giving); discuss your donation decisions openly with others; and advocate for effective giving among your friends and fellow EA community members (in a positive, constructive, non-forceful way).
- I’ve been positively surprised in my personal life by how easy it seems to be to have an impact by advocating for effective giving: so many people who are ready to give effectively seem to just need a small positive nudge or reminder to take a pledge — which makes providing that nudge a highly cost-effective action (and very rewarding too!).
- EA community-building organisations and local groups can promote and celebrate effective giving, e.g. include it in introductory courses as a highly cost-effective use of resources (which doesn’t need to trade off with career change), host an effective-giving-themed event now and then, and foster a culture in which people are encouraged to discuss and celebrate their effective giving openly. (See also this post by Jack Lewars.)
- When discussing a problem area in a presentation, interview, or a podcast, people in the EA community can by default highlight giving effectively as a course of action by recommending a relevant place to donate if audience members want to help.
- Earning to give as a career path can make a bit of a comeback, e.g. communities or organisations around this could be set up. Given past mistakes we should obviously tread carefully here: I’m not suggesting it should be pushed hard, but my impression is that earning to give is currently more underrated than overrated (in part due to overcompensation for past mistakes).
- There can be clearer places to go in the EA community for people who give effectively and significantly but aren’t currently in a position to change careers. For example, EA Global could feature more relevant content for them, or be more explicitly career-focused itself to make space for a separate conference/event for this group.
- We could set up more group-specific or local effective giving communities (such as the recent Tien Procent Club in the Netherlands), and figure out the best ways for these communities to collaborate and coordinate with the broader EA community.
As should be clear from the above, I believe effective giving to be a powerful tool, and that figuring out how to use it well within the EA community can make amazing things possible, both in terms of indirect and direct impact. I invite you to disagree with me on any of the above claims and to share your thoughts and suggestions in the comments. And where we do agree, let’s use this tool and make those amazing things happen!
- Thanks to Jacintha Baas, Devon Fritz, Gert van Vugt, Luke Freeman, Michael Townsend and Katy Moore for their input and feedback on earlier drafts of this post.
- Preview image by Micheile Henderson on Unsplash
The last data I was able to find on how much members of the EA community give is from the 2020 EA survey, in which only 20% of people who answered the question on donations reported donating 10% or more of their income in 2019. The same survey also found a median of 2.92% of income donated by full-time-employed non-students who earned more than $10,000. I expect we’ll soon have data from the 2022 EA survey on this.
I think there’s both a strong theoretical case for this (e.g. as money is fungible, the philanthropic market is fairly inefficient, and expertise on high-impact funding opportunities is centralised and accessible) and a strong empirical case that current marginal funding opportunities are extremely cost-effective (e.g. GiveWell having a 10x cash bar and Open Phil increasing its bar for funding longtermist efforts). I think this case becomes even stronger if you consider the cost-effectiveness of advocating for others to give effectively as well (including that being easier when you give effectively yourself).
For most people, giving 10% of one’s income seems like much less of a sacrifice than changing one’s career (and requires a lot less effort to do well, as generally applicable advice is available).
Even if you can have more impact in total by changing your career, it may still be worth giving 10% as well. See also Luke Freeman’s recent comment on the narrative within the EA community around effective giving at some point having gone from “yes, and” to “no, instead”.
For example, in diversifying funding sources, to foster a “practice what you preach” culture, and as a recruitment and educational resource (as everyone can apply EA principles and learn about high-impact causes through effective giving).
E.g. the 2022 EA survey found that ~50% of respondents were full-time employed and ~38% had attended top 100 ranked universities globally.
My impression (largely based on anecdote) is that this is currently not always the case, and that there is a sizable group of people in the community who don’t think it’s a priority for it to be.
Paradoxically, it could be true that most of the EA community’s impact will come from a few high-impact career changes, but that within the community, most individuals’ highest-impact contribution will be effective giving. I’m not claiming this is the case, but want to highlight the distinction between what may be the highest-impact options for any EA-inspired individual and for the EA community as a whole.
I think this view may stem in part from discussions around the value of earning to give versus direct work as career paths, but (1) those discussions often only apply to a small minority of people at the top end of earnings potential (so not to the majority of people in the EA community), (2) I don’t think the answer is always that direct work is more valuable (see also my suggestion below to revive earning to give), and (3) those discussions are importantly different from the question “What is the best thing I can do as an individual?”, as not everyone is in a position to (immediately) change career paths.
And of course, again, for people where career change is the most important thing to focus on, this doesn’t exclude them from also considering effective giving (taking a “yes, and” attitude).
I’m referring to explicitly choosing one's career in order to maximise your donations, not “just” donating 10% in one’s current career.
If you are interested in starting something yourself, please get in touch with Grace Adams at email@example.com, as GWWC may be able to support you.