12 December, 2015

Charitable Contributions

For most of my life, I've been fairly selfish, at least when it comes to charity. For my first 21 years of life or so, I'm not sure if I ever gave to charity. Had I been asked about it, I might have said that it was a nice thing to do, akin to helping someone cross the street, but to give any substantial amount would be something only a sucker would do.

Thankfully, my undergrad really woke me up to ideas about fairness, equality, charity, and many other concepts that previously weren't fully formed in my mind. Thinking back, I was stunted in my philosophical growth before college, even though I was a fairly successful autodidact when it came to mathematics. I owe a lot to Spring Hill College, not because they taught me math or science, but because they taught me to grow as a person. (Interestingly, my reason for going to them was the math/science stuff -- I had no interest in philosophical growth before attending.)

One way in which I grew was to realize the importance of charity and to better understand my place in the world economy. It wasn't long before my career path switched to the non-profit industry in 2008. By 2011, I joined the then-burgeoning effective altruism movement. In 2013, I started working directly for effective altruism organizations. Today, in 2015, I split my time between charitable work for EA orgs and earning to give.

But cognitive dissonance is a thing, and I've always been a bit slow at keeping up with my ideals. For example, I can remember thinking that eating meat was wrong for years before I made the switch to vegetarianism. And despite the above timeline, I think it may have been 2010 before I made my first $100+ donation to charity. It was 2012 before I gave above 1% of income. I didn't take the Giving What We Can pledge until the very end of 2014.

So my actual donations have lagged 2-3 years behind my thoughts about what I should be giving to charity. I don't feel too bad about this; progression is powerful, even when it is slow, because it can build upon itself. I'd much rather slowly grow than to burn out quickly. I learned this lesson firsthand when I tried working 60-80 hour weeks for months on end. Some people can do it, but I got so tired of it after two years that at this point I'm completely unwilling to work over 45 hours, almost regardless of circumstance -- and my norm is closer to a 30 hour workweek.

So I really didn't want to make the same mistake when it came to charitable contributions. In 2012, I made a plan to work up to 10% of income, try it out for a while, then ramp up to 15%. I made a public commitment on Twitter that I'd donate 10% by 2014 and 15% by 2016.

But the more I worked and interacted around effective altruists, the more I thought I was moving too slowly. In 2013, I went ahead and just tried to hit what was then my end goal of 15%. I ended up donating 14.6% that year, and I honestly couldn't feel the loss at all. So in 2014, when I took the GWWC pledge, I set my sights higher and pledged 25%, ultimately giving 25.7% that year. Amazingly, I still couldn't feel it. So at the beginning of 2015, I decided to just give more and see what happens.

It's now the end of 2015 and I'm on track to hit 35% of income in donations -- but this time, I can feel it. There have been multiple times throughout the year when I've had to restrict my buying choices because of money I'd donated. To be fair, this probably happened at lower giving levels, too, but it was never something promoted to conscious thought. Previously, I'd just acted as though my income was lower than it actually was, and I never felt any pain from the donations I gave. But this year, I could feel it.

So, as I move into 2016, I have a decision to make. Somewhere between 25% and 35% is a level of donations where I can give easily with no harm to myself. Should I attempt to find that level and stay there indefinitely? Or should I challenge myself and actually try to give more, even if it causes me some pain? Some people might claim that it isn't even 'real' charity unless it harms me to give it. Others might claim that the small amount of discomfort I feel when I give 35% is worth the help that money brings to poorer persons. But I am ever cognizant of the time I once burnt out on working too much, and I really don't want to do that with my donations. I think that, given my akrasia, I should aim to do as much as I can without feeling discomfort consciously, but to not pass that threshold. Maybe this means I am not as good at being an effective altruist as others in the community, but given my past life experience I honestly feel that this is the best I'll be able to do in terms of earning-to-give for the near future.

So, for the first time since becoming an effective altruist, I plan on reducing my donations in 2016 to somewhere between 25% and 28% of income. I'll reevaluate in December 2016 to see how this plan turns out.

1 comment:

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