How to donate without losing your mind

My salary as a social worker, while not a lot by US standards, still makes me richer than 99% of the world’s people.   So I’ve always figured I could spare some.  (Calculator)

Giving to effective charities is an important part of my life, because I care about making the world a better place.  But it’s also not the main focus of my life — Jeff and I have our system working smoothly enough that we donate about half our income and don’t really worry about money.  Which is nice.

Why donate?

If you want to make a difference, it’s not the only way to go. You could work on some other project: do first-hand work on a problem, research something that will help people do things better, or work on persuading other people about ideas you think are important.

But it is a pretty simple way to help.  You can apply it to practically any cause you care about. You don’t have to move to Kenya or become a medical researcher.  Donating to well-chosen charities lets you work whatever job you want, live wherever you want, and still have an impact wherever you choose to give.

Of course, it matters where you give — choosing effective charities means your money will actually accomplish something.

Why don’t people donate more?

People in the US donate around 3% of their income on average.  Considering how much richer Americans are than most people, that’s not much.  Some reasons I think people don’t take giving more seriously:

The world’s problems are endless, and if you’re going to try to fix things you have to go all-out and sacrifice everything. Rather than start an impossible task, it’s easier to never start the task at all. 

Nobody does this perfectly. I don’t give my all. I’m not sure I know anybody who gives their all. And if anybody really did give every ounce of their energy and every penny to saving the world, the rest of us would probably feel so bad we’d go home and hope they had it all taken care of.  Helping some is a lot better than being too overwhelmed to start.

Charities are mostly corrupt anyway.

So don’t give to the corrupt ones.  There’s a movement toward transparency and better data that makes it more possible to find good charities than it used to be.  GiveWell is my favorite research source.

Having less money makes you poor.

But voluntarily giving up some of your income is not the same as involuntary poverty. Actual, unchosen poverty sucks. It is scary, humiliating, and stressful. Choosing to reduce your income does not have to be any of these things. I still have lots of privilege even with less cash: I’m a white, college-educated American from an upper-middle-class family. Those things let me move in society in a way that’s pretty much unrelated to my bank account.  You would not know from my quality of life that I live on less money than I could.

Research on happiness (and my personal experience) indicates that good social relationships and a positive attitude are the most important factors in having a happy life.  Money plays some role, but once you have the basics it’s not that important to how happy you are.  When it comes to your own happiness, focus on having good relationships with friends and family, not material things.

So how do you do it?

It’s fine to spend some time in the checkout line asking yourself “Do I really need this sandwich, or should I be giving the money to someone who needs it more?”  But doing that every day is a good way to make yourself crazy. You should not be negotiating your budget minute by minute, at least not long-term.

So make a budget and try it out.

Decide how long you’re going to stick to each budget. Maybe try giving 5% for a month. Then make a budget for the next 6 months or year. Maybe 5% was easy and you want to step it up, or maybe it was too ambitious and you try something lower.

The nice thing about deciding on a budget is that you don’t have to constantly divide money between your own needs and other people’s needs. You’ve already decided how much to give and how much to keep. Then you just have to ask, “Do I really want this sandwich, or would I rather spend the money on an ebook or some postage stamps?” Which is much less crazy-making.

If you try it out, I think you’ll be surprised at how much you can help without cutting your own quality of life in any significant way.


Feedback?  Counterarguments?  I’d love to hear them.


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