Tis The Season

For the last year, while Jay wasn’t working and I was rebuilding my emergency savings, we did not make regular charitable contributions. Sometimes, I would sign up for charity races. Other times, we’d make one-off donations based on specific requests, like a Thanksgiving canned food drive. Overall, it was infrequent and unorganized.

Since the election, however, a lot of people have been asking, “How can I help?” The short answer –

Put your money where your mouth is.

Jay and I try to be rational and utilitarian in our philanthropic endeavors. We follow an increasingly popular ethic of effective altruism, which comes down to doing your homework. Figure out which causes provide the greatest benefit to society and support those causes. In principle effective altruism encompasses all aspects of life, from business to scientific research, but most discussions center on charitable giving. In the non-profit sector, GiveWell exemplifies this approach. They do the homework for us.

Jay and I arrived at this approach through related but slightly different channels. I took Peter Singer’s course “Practical Ethics” in college. Based on the book of the same name, the class basically makes you feel bad about every decision you make every day. Singer relentlessly calls your attention to the many, many ways we prioritize personal comfort over the greater good, often in direct conflict with our stated values.

Singer’s class is the reason why I often ask myself, “Instead of trying and failing to make my actions match my values, what if I restated my values to match my actions? What would that say about me?” Shortly followed by, “Oh crap. That’s awful. Wow. I really need to get my shit together.”

Jay didn’t take Singer’s ethics course. One of the most influential classes he took in college was “Psychology of Decision-Making.” The book form of this would probably be Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. This class revealed many of the cognitive biases we experience in our day-to-day lives. Jay developed a healthy skepticism towards our ordinary assumptions. The course encouraged him (and by extension me) to be more thoughtful about “good” decision-making.

These lessons informed the way we structured our charitable contributions for the coming year. Jay and I took different approaches because of our different incomes.

The Grad Student

My grad student stipend is about $35k before taxes or $28k after taxes. Compared to most people I know from college who have entered the job market, that’s pretty low, but it still puts me (as a household of 1) firmly in the middle-income bracket (not to be confused with “middle class” which has a host of other implications).

I’m incredibly fortunate that, with Jay’s new job, he covers most of our groceries and our rent, so I can put more of my income towards retirement savings and other pursuits. Two factors influenced my charitable contributions. First, I still feel pressured by the relative scarcity of the last year ($30k is low-income for a household of 2). Second, I want to donate to causes that strengthen democratic institutions, which does not align with the “number of lives saved” mentality of the effective altruism movement. I recognize that these are, in some respects, logical weaknesses in my current approach. The plan is more of an on-ramp to effective giving than a perfect expression of utilitarianism. The goal is to systematically increase the amount I give, while periodically reevaluating the effectiveness of each cause with respect to my values.

I selected five non-profit organizations to support based on my personal experience and understanding of social issues –

Mother Jones, an independent news organization that features some of the best investigative journalism I’ve come across. In today’s world of 24-hour breaking news and social media frenzy, peppered with outright fabrications, good investigative journalism is more important than ever. This is not a donation that “saves lives” in the conventional sense, but I do think it has a large net benefit to society.

ProPublica, another independent news organization that focuses on issues of public interest. I started reading ProPublica after watching a John Oliver segment on ways to respond to the election. To be honest, because ProPublica is less politically charged than Mother Jones, the reading is somewhat drier and less interesting to me. Donating to ProPublica, having a stake in its work, is also a way to encourage myself to read more of what they produce.

American Civil Liberties Union, a non-profit dedicated to protecting individual rights guaranteed under the US Constitution. This is another cause that doesn’t strictly save lives, successful ACLU court cases impact policy and protect many people across the country. The ACLU has helped win a number of major victories for equality , most recently Obergefell v. Hodges for marriage equality. If the incoming administration acts on its campaign promises, the ACLU will play an important role in defending the most vulnerable citizens.

Southern Poverty Law Center, another legal advocacy organization. The SPLC focuses exclusively on issues of hate speech and discrimination. I added this group because of the Hate Map which tracks hate groups across the country and verifiable instances of hate-inspired violence and crimes. It’s all too easy for Trump-apologists to say that it’s just a few bad apples discriminating against blacks, immigrants, and Muslims. The SPLC provides the data to combat those claims.

Lastly, Planned Parenthood, the single largest provider of reproductive heath care services in the US. I am firm believer that access to reproductive health care and accurate information about sexual health helps women break the cycle of poverty and provide better opportunities for their children in the future. PP is therefore doubly valuable for what it does to improve the daily lives of women and for the long-term benefit its work accrues to society.

Each of these organizations allows you to make a one-time gift or set up a monthly recurring donation at a fixed value (that cannot be changed online, and must be cancelled or amended by calling them directly). I decided to start by contributing $10 to each group as a one-time online donation. The goal is to increase my donation by $1 each month until my total charitable contributions exceed my personal (fun) spending. The equal division between organizations was the simplest way to go, but is subject to change if new information becomes available.

The Real Job

Jay didn’t want me to discuss the specifics of his salary because society has a whole lot of hang ups about income. Suffice it to say his earnings are typical of an entry-level data scientist, adjusted down a bit because Chicago is less expensive than the coastal cities where most data science jobs are found right now.

His donation structure is simple: total donations of 5% of his current pre-tax salary, 4% to GiveWell and the additional 1% to be donated at his discretion in monthly installments.

He set up a fixed, recurring donation directly to GiveWell to spend on its internal grants. They constantly updates their allocations based on the charities effectiveness and current fundraising goals. The discretionary fund will go either to a cause recommended by a friend or colleague over the course of the month or, at the end of the month, to a cause we decide on together. This gives us another opportunity for reflection, to learn about new charities and their effectiveness.

Jay doesn’t have a fixed plan for growing his contributions regularly. We have talked about directly donating any future raises, which aligns with our minimalist lifestyle goals and also helps avoid lifestyle creep. We have yet to work out the details on this front.

Beyond Money

As much as I like to think that giving time and effort are the most important things we can do, research on effective altruism proves me wrong. The social ills that effect society, both locally and globally, are increasingly complex and require dedicated experts to address them. Often, the best we can do is to donate to a good cause. (One of my classmates from Princeton took this approach to its logical extreme: he believes the most ethical choice for someone of his background and education is to make an obscene amount of money donate most of it.)

Though I respect that logic, I still find it comforting to think of other ways I can help create the kind of society I want to live in, if only as a personal exercise in cultivating compassion.

A few other things I want to do:

  • Only participate in running races or CrossFit competitions with a charitable component. There are plenty of these around, so it’s a small sacrifice on my part, and it ensures that my personal spending overlaps (in part) with my charitable giving.
  • Subscribe to newspapers. Not exactly charity in the strict sense, but I’ve already discussed my belief that good journalism is important to a free society.
  • Be a mentor. Socioeconomic inequality effects poor kids in a lot of ways. One of them is lack of informal and formal mentors. One of the few things an individual can directly do for kids in socioeconomically disadvantaged communities is be a safe, reliable adult presence in their lives.
  • Be informed. The more I learn about the world, whether chemistry or neuroscience or history, the less comfortable I feel making quick decisions and snap judgments about “right and wrong.”
  • Challenge my beliefs. Get into discussions that make me uncomfortable. It’s easy to sit at home and think myself terribly clever. It’s much harder to let myself be yelled at and criticized.

I’m really glad Jay and I had this discussion this weekend. It’s not a topic that will ever be finalized, but it’s a start.

Update: Far from being finalized, we are already thinking of better ways to approach this question. Next up, how can we adjust our budget to meet the 10% baseline pledge for Giving What We Can? Then, how can we amp things up career-wise through advocacy and entrepreneurship a la 80,000 Hours?  Highly recommend these resources if you are interested in effective altruism! 


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