Why I changed my mind and took the Giving What We Can Pledge

It costs the Against Malaria Foundation $5 to distribute an anti-malarial bednet, and it’s been estimated that they manage to save one life for about every $2,000 they spend on malaria prevention. * The Schistosomiasis Control Initiative provides deworming treatments for pennies on the dollar. Given this, if you want to make the world a better place, donating money to organizations like these is a strong candidate for one of the most effective things you can do towards that end.

The Oxford-based organization Giving What We Can has taken this line of thought a step further, and asked people to pledge to donate to organizations doing charitable work in developing countries throughout their lives. Here’s the text of their pledge:

I recognise that I can use part of my income to do a significant amount of good in the developing world. Since I can live well enough on a smaller income, I pledge that for the rest of my life or until the day I retire, I shall give at least ten percent of what I earn to whichever organisations can most effectively use it to help people in developing countries, now and in the years to come. I make this pledge freely, openly, and sincerely.

Though I’ve donated to, and blogged about donating to, charities like AMF in the past, until very recently I was hesitant to take the pledge. While the best organizations working on third world health are clearly doing more good than the vast majority of things people donate money to, there might be even more pressing concerns out there.

Plausible candidates include existential risk, animal welfare, and maybe even some political causes. Political issues have the downside that there tend to be powerful forces at work on them already, so the marginal dollar is unlikely to make much impact, but the impact if you do manage to change a policy is often potentially huge. And even if aiding the developing world seems like the best thing to focus on now, in the future new information might suggest otherwise, so why make a lifetime commitment to focus on that one thing now?

That’s the objection I raised back in February when a guy who said he was working with the communications team at Giving What We Can asked me what I thought of the organization. He countered that taking the GWWC pledge “doesn’t stop me from giving money or time to other causes”—which is true, but misses the fact that giving to one cause might mean giving less to a more important cause.

Recently, though, I’ve changed my mind about this, and taken the GWWC pledge. I’m still uncertain about many issues related to comparing different causes, but one thing has tipped the balance in favor of taking the pledge: that it’s a meme that seems really well-designed for being spread, and therefore is worth trying to get widely adopted. Let me explain.

First of all, the 10% figure is really well chosen, especially for use by a ten-fingered species. It’s easy to remember, which contributes to spread-ability. Peter Singer’s book The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty proposes a complicated formula where the percentage goes up with how much income you have. The accompanying website has a calculator to make it easier for you, but it’s still not a terribly infectious meme.

Also, 10% is at roughly the right place to (a) make people feel like they’re really doing something while (b) not being entirely unrealistic. Something like 4% would fail criteria (a), while 50% would fail (b) for most people (though not everyone). 8% or 12% would succeed on (a) and (b), but fail on catchiness.

This would all be highly speculative if not for the fact that the “give 10% meme” is a time tested one, if you consider the religious concept of tithing. It has Biblical roots, and the Mormons (and some other Christian groups) are having great success with it today. Plus, it’s part of the paladin’s code in some editions of Dungeons & Dragons.

So the donating 10% meme has a lot of potential. But why donating 10% to help people in the developing world if other causes might be more effective? Well, I think it’s quite uncertain whether they are more effective, and even they are in fact more effective, I don’t foresee ever having a case for them that’s as straightforward as the case for donating to fight third world poverty, which contributes to the GWWC pledge being a uniquely spreadable meme.

I intend to donate more than 10% of my income this year to charity. I’m not exactly sure how much, and depending on what further investigation into various causes reveals, I may donate some of it to causes other than helping people in developing countries. But I pledge to donate at least 10% of my income to helping the developing world, because I think that meme has great potential and I want to spread it widely.

*Obligatory link to GiveWell’s blog post The Moral Case for Giving Doesn’t Rely on Questionable Quantitative Estimates.

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