activism generosity

What’s the most good you can do?

A growing number of the world’s richest people are pledging to give away their fortunes, with some of them able to aim game-changing quantities of money at pressing global problems. But what about the rest of us? How much of a difference could our own giving make?

Benjamin Todd has a theory, which he has described on 80,000 hours. He believes he has struck on a method to maximise the amount of change we can effect in the world. Sure, you might choose to work for a charity, or teach – but his idea is for everyone, whatever their skill set. Here’s the idea:

  1. Take whichever job you’d find most personally fulfilling.
  2. Give 10% of your income to the world’s poorest people.

First of all, you can probably stretch to giving away 10%. It’s going to be as much about being organised and intentional as it will be about sacrifice. So plenty of us could do it. And it can be easy too. He recommends GiveDirectly, which I’ve written about before. They cut out the middle man and the expensive logistics of charity services and just do cash transfers – and they have masses of evidence to show that it works.

Giving that 10% to the poorest makes a bigger difference in the world because the money will mean so much more to them than it will to you, Todd argues. We know that once we hit a general threshold of income, additional income has much less effect in making us happy. £100 spent by a poor household in a low income country is a life changing sum, where it really wouldn’t be for most of us in the West. You can even calculate it, if you’re so inclined. Read Todd’s post for the sources, but he suggests that “giving some of your income to GiveDirectly has over 45 times as much social impact as spending it on yourself.”

It’s not like you’ll be missing out, either. While spending the additional 10% may or may not improve your life to any great degree, giving it away could prove richly rewarding in itself. Altruism is positively correlated with wellbeing, so “giving 10% will probably increase your happiness more than decrease it.”

Give Directly isn’t the only option, but it is worth giving some thought to how we can give creatively and effectively. While it can get a bit weird around the fringes, the Effective Altruism movement is worth exploring if you want to do the most amount of good with your donations. Check out Peter Singer’s book The Most Good You Can Do, and give with your head as well as your heart. And who knows, you may find that 10% is only a starting point.

Personally, I haven’t done what Todd suggests. I don’t have a salary-paying job, and tend to give through my time and my writing more than through what I earn. But what I like about Todd’s idea, and 80,000 hours as an organisation, is that it is widely accessible. Not everyone can or should go and work for a charity, or work part time and volunteer. If you’re good at something, and you enjoy it and find it fulfilling, then do it. Pursue it, and that doesn’t mean for a minute that you can’t make a difference. There are some jobs and industries that are bad for society of course, but generally speaking we can all create change in the world by doing what we love, and living generously.

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