This year I’ve set myself the target of donating 5% of my income to some of the most impressive and effective charities in the world.
The desire to improve the world
In 2018 I started to think about how our lives impact the world around us. I initially thought about plastics, then when I became vegetarian (and then vegan) I thought about farmed animal welfare, and then climate change.
It’s a bewildering list, and each problem is psychologically difficult to deal with. But the more that I’ve researched each area, I’ve found many exceptional people working to make a difference.
I’ve been frustrated by how lots of environmentalists are ineffective, and so this led me into seeking a rational and evidence-based approach to charitable giving. And my thinking has been heavily influenced by the concepts of effective altruism.
The importance of effectiveness in our actions
Some ways in which we try to change the world make much more difference than others. The world is big and complex and it’s hard to think about how the small things we do in our own lives contribute to bigger impacts.
Individual actions like reducing the amount of plastic waste we produce, reducing our consumption of animal products (especially those from chickens and fish), and reducing actions that contribute to climate change (like big cars, red meat, and air travel) are ways we try to influence the world.
Thinking about all of these topics is really tough. And after a while, I would say that I felt burnt out. I felt like a social activist, but one trying lots of different things, without a sense of whether I was making progress, and without looking after myself.
So I decided to make my life better (see my first article in the series) and focus on what I could do that would measurably make a difference. I realised I can make far more of a difference to the world by donating to effective charities when I read Doing Good Better by Will Macaskill. I still didn’t quite believe it, so I did my own analysis to compare how different actions can reduce the tonnes of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere.
Below is a chart comparing some individual actions we can do, with how much benefit small donations to highly effective organisations can achieve. CATF is a US-based think tank who scale up energy systems, and CfRN work with rainforest nations to establish trading agreements that protect crucial areas acting as a carbon sink. A $1.50 donation to CATF likely reduces carbon-equivalent emissions by more than switching your home to green energy.
The key point of this is that if we think analytically about solving problems, and find the points with the highest leverage, many non-profits offer truly outstanding benefits on the marginal dollar (or pound) donated, far in excess of what we achieve through changing our own consumption. (More on this below.)
Making difficult choices
There are many worthy causes: homelessness in London, LGBTQ+ equality, global poverty, inequality, plastic pollution, soil degradation, climate change, improving the welfare of farmed animals, improving the resilience of civilisations and many more. It is quite a tall order. I felt disoriented and stressed. I didn’t sleep much, and I felt emotively drained by what I’d seen about factory farming, and how concerned I was about climate change.
I decided I needed to prioritise and use some critical thinking to grapple with the problems of the world. I found it useful to prioritise them using the scale, neglectedness, tractability framework explained here.
My conclusions were:
- We need to measure and use evidence in order to make sure we’re making a difference
- Some philanthropic causes are much more important than others
- Neglected areas offered the chance to promote pioneering improvements
Over the past year I’ve learned some important points about the world and some of its most worthy causes:
- One billion people live on less than $2 per day
- At least sixty billion animals are factory farmed each year
- The effects of climate change will continue to accelerate
- The future could be large and positive, but some risks could cause human extinction
From a philanthropic perspective,
- Governments, large donors (e.g. Gates), NGOs, universities, and other researchers spend billions of dollars tackling a range of issues
- Poverty continues to reduce globally, though inequality appears to be increasing within countries
- Around 99% of animals used by humans are farmed, but only 0.8% of donations to animal charities go to farmed animals
- Globally around $500bn (and increasing) is spent on addressing climate change, but only $6bn is spent on risks such as biosecurity, and a tiny $10m on AI safety
So while there is lots of money sloshing around in philanthropy, from a global perspective, it’s poorly allocated across different causes. When you take an outcomes-based approach, this offers opportunities to make a difference in neglected but important areas.
Dealing with uncertainty
Despite all the research I’ve done, I can’t work out a single cause which is unambiguously more compelling than all the others, let alone a single organisation to support.
This uncertainty is because of several black boxes of knowledge: the difficulty of research on sentience in non-human animals, moral uncertainty, unpredictability over future technological developments, and also the problem of crucial considerations. I doubt we’re going to get answers to these problems any time soon, so I think a hedged position makes sense.
A few intuitions about different causes
- Global poverty will continue to attract more funding because we relate to other people and we can understand them
- Plastic pollution is a nuisance and a harm to ecosystems and people, but does not pose as much of a threat as climate change
- Animal agriculture will reduce as our technological capabilities increase (and as the effects of climate change increase), because animals are an efficiency bottleneck
- Climate change is reasonably easy to conceptualise, because we can perceive increasing weather variability (e.g. heatwaves), and get good data on emissions, so funding will increase
- By comparison, ‘sudden’ risks like nuclear war and biosecurity will by systemically neglected, because we can’t directly experience the rise in risk until it’s a big problem, and it’s much harder to model, so donors can have more of an impact
I set up a recurrent monthly donation summing to a total of 5% of my pre-tax monthly income, which was the minimum meaningful amount that I thought I could commit to donate. This felt like the right number for me — it wouldn't be for everyone, and I do come at this from a position of privilege. Even 1% I think would still be meaningful.
Based on the thinking above, I then allocated the donation to different causes in the proportions below.
These donations go to managed funds where analysts work out highly effective charities, look for when they have funding gaps, and then allocate the amounts raised by people in each fund. It’s a bit like an ETF for charity. You can find out more about the funds: animal welfare here, long-term future here, EA meta here, ALLFED here, and CfRN here and here.
I don’t think this is perfect, but I think the hedged bets approach probably does quite a lot of good overall. Most of the donations are also tax-deductible, so the actual cost to me is more like 4% of my post-tax income. I’ll review the portfolio in six months and will probably change it.
(I also impulsively donated £100 one-off to Climate Outreach when they had a month offering matched donations)
Sidepoint: lifestyle changes and moral consistency
An easy charge against this approach is that I’m paying my way out of my own comfortable western life. If I constantly flew around the world and tried to pay my way out through carbon offsets it does smack of moral inconsistency, as George Monbiot likes to argue.
But we should be caring about effectiveness rather than sticking to our principles. Let’s say I flew to New York (1.5 tonnes CO2) to collect a $1,000 cheque which I immediately donated to an effective charity that sped up the shutdown of a coal plant (negating 1,000 tonnes), then on balance it’s clearly a net gain. Arguably, to not take that choice would mean that I hold back the opportunity to reduce emissions by a net 998.5 tonnes. Should we vilify the delegates who flew to COP24?
But overall as a society I think we should have a norm to be sparing with air travel and general resource usage. We should be conscious of the devastating impact of aviation.
My donations to CfRN more than offsets any travel I do by a factor of thousands. In my own lifestyle, I am vegan and I try to live simply. I travel by public transport, and on future holidays I plan to take the train rather than fly as much as possible.
Philanthropy is hard and there are lots of problems. But I think that by supporting high-impact organisations to work on the most pressing areas, I am able to make a measurable difference.
Now I have thought carefully about how to tackle the biggest problems in the world, and found effective ways to make progress, I feel much more peaceful and happy than when I was a stressed freewheeling activist not making much difference. Now I have clarity and calm.
This is my best attempt at positively influencing the lives on this pale blue dot, drifting through space, that we call home.
If you enjoyed this article, feel free to share it with your friends. You can find out more about effective altruism here.