15 November, 2012


Ghostwriting for companies, organizations, and people that you don't really believe in is soul-wrenching work. Some of the things I've done for money recently are pieces that I am not at all happy about writing.

When I left as webmaster of one national nonprofit in particular (while it's easy to use Google to find out which, I'll leave them unnamed here for reasons that will become explicit), I had very specific ideas on the kinds of things I wanted to do. I never liked how that organization would use misleading language on the severity of child hunger in America (food insecurity for one day in a year should be prevented, but to call the 1 in 5 statistic for this a "hunger" statistic seems disingenuous to me), and the sheer amount of money it spent on getting high profile celebrities to represent the brand utterly floored me. I was completely flabbergasted when I first saw just how much of people's donations were going toward paying for obscure extravagancies that celebrities insisted on. Yet it's hard to fault them for this behavior, since the celebrities did bring in additional donations that more than made up for the thousands spent on keeping whiny celebs happy. If what matters is getting the most money to spend on the cause, then I suppose they were justified in wasting money on severely overpriced hotel rooms and other shockingly "wasteful" expenditures that celebrities insisted on, such as additional empty hotel rooms next door to theirs. I put "wasteful" here in quotes because, in the end, the organization raised money by catering to such asshole celebrities. So, in a way, these "wasteful" costs were worthwhile. But the fact that these celebrities insisted on spending a child hunger charity's money in this way really made me feel uneasy.

As a consequentialist-style revisionist, I really do feel that outcomes are what matters in the end. So it's hard for me to fault this organization's practices. Their mission is well intentioned, and they do a very good job of raising money for it, but it always felt so slimy when I had to write cop on their website or in their newsletters about the issue of child hunger in America. Every time I made it seem like the issue was more severe than it actually is, I cringed inside. And yet I performed this function for years, drafting language that would best turn into donations instead of language that would best reflect the truth.

After I left, I desperately wanted to work in optimal philanthropy community. I figured I could accomplish some real good if I at least worked in a field that was smart about how it allocated funds. But the job market is tough, and instead I've been ghostwriting ever since. Ironically, I seem to be writing for sleazier and sleazier groups all the time. Maybe it's because I'm good at it, but I suppose it's more likely that I'm just not trying hard enough to do what I really want to do.

[Edit from October 2015: I later came to the field of Effective Altruism mostly due to the negativity experienced at traditional nonprofits discussed in this entry.]

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