Why I stopped Earning to Give

I have earned to give for 2.5 years as an Analyst and then Associate in the mergers and acquisitions team of an industrial conglomerate in Sweden. I stopped in mid-2014, and I do not plan to earn to give again. Instead, I am now writing a master’s thesis in philosophy, and I aim for a career in that field. In this post, I will describe my primary reasons for not earning to give with a focus on my main thought—that it seems easier to perform in work that one loves. My aim is not to argue against anyone earning to give; I think it is good that there is more awareness these days that earning to give is an option and others may find that it suits them better than it suits me. My purpose is rather to share my experience in case it might be of interest to people considering earning to give. Also, the recommendation from 80,000 Hours is only earn to give if you have good personal fit with the career, which fits my impression.

This post is just Simon K’s own views and doesn’t represent the views of 80,000 Hours.

My background

I received a bachelor’s degree from University of Gothenburg in Sweden in philosophy, also taking courses in economics and international relations. I enrolled for one year in the master’s program in philosophy at New York University. I then interned for the FAO in Stockholm and studied more economics and statistics. I volunteered for GiveWell leading to a position as a full-time Research Analyst. After GiveWell, I moved back to Sweden and earned a master’s degree in economics. After the economics degree, I started working for the industrial conglomerate mentioned above and became Chair of the Animal Charity Evaluators board of directors. I also chaired the board of the political party for animals in Sweden. I am currently also involved with the Foundational Research Institute.

My three main reasons for not earning to give are:

  1. I seem to perform much better when I work directly on issues that that I think are most important from an altruistic perspective. I feel that it is difficult to be enthusiastic enough about the work in business.
  2. I see few giving opportunities that I would like to support through earning to give.
  3. It is challenging to have different values from one’s colleagues.

1. Performing in business

Say that you work for a company that produces a printed magazine focusing on interior design. You are faced with a typical business challenge: competing magazines have launched online versions in addition to their printed versions. Should your company also launch an online version, and if so, how? My spontaneous attitude to such challenges is that it is kind of fun to solve problems, I want to do a good job, and since I will donate a large share of my earnings, it is important that I perform. But, in the big scheme of things it hardly matters whether this business challenge is solved well or not. And most business challenges are mundane. Maybe your company is producing parts for a machine used in the construction industry, and you are responsible for aftermarket support and warranties. You may be faced with the challenge of improving customer satisfaction. I find it difficult to mentally attack such problems with nearly as much energy and effort as I do when faced with something that I find to be extremely important, such as how to make progress on the most altruistically important issues. My experience over the last 15 years with challenges that I feel this different about, in school, volunteer work, and paid work, is that there is a large difference in my performance. This has lately led me to think that I can essentially only be successful if I get work on what I think are the most important tasks. Because otherwise, I will not be dedicated enough to be able to compete.

It also makes sense theoretically that someone who is more passionate about a job for reasons other than money would perform better, even if the person is ultimately motivated by the altruistic impact that the money can have. And it seems to be generally accepted that someone selecting a job more because of the money performs worse than someone with more intrinsic motivations. In my experience, recruiters typically do not want to hear that money is the motivation for applying for a job. Rather, recruiters want to hire people who think that the position in question would be a dream job in itself. I expect that recruiters would react similarly even if the candidates aim was to give the money away, although that is probably rare for them to hear and I do not have any data on it.

One could phrase the question that we are dealing with as follows: Is the indirect link between the work and the altruistic impact strong enough for one to stay motivated enough? Although this plausibly varies depending on the person and the details of the situation, some mechanisms are probably common. One argument for that it is possible to be very motivated by indirect benefits of work is that migrant workers earn money to provide for their families. But it is seemingly important to distinguish among different types of work. For me, it was easy to stay motivated to put in hours and to try to do routine tasks efficiently and with the appropriate quality. What I found challenging was to be enthusiastic enough when faced with difficult tasks that require creativity, imagination, and thorough thinking and understanding. For example, to understand a market and figure out what product to develop, coming up with suggestions of companies to buy and figure out which ones to buy. (According to Benjamin Todd, this lines up with the literature on intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation works best for routine tasks and less so for creativity. This is covered in books such as Drive by Dan Pink.)

Here are some examples of the kind of work where I would guess it is most difficult to perform well when one has less intrinsic interest in the work than one’s competitors, even if successful work in these fields would have great payoff in terms of earning to give: becoming a professor, a professional hockey player, or a musical composer. Other less extreme examples may include starting a company or being an industry analyst. It is easy to imagine that an analyst of the telecom industry who is motivated by earning to give would have a difficulty performing as well in the long run as someone with a passion for such technology.

2. Lack of giving opportunities

My second reason for not earning to give is that I see few funding gaps to fill. I can think of only a couple of small organizations that I would give to rather than saving my money. But these organizations all have less than five full-time staff and small budgets. So these funding gaps may be filled and then I would not know what to do with my money if I earned to give. The main reason for why I am so hesitant to give is that differences in values and basic ideas can make efforts backfire. I know many talented people working hard that I could fund but I am not confident that their fundamental approach is on the right track.

3. Different values from one’s colleagues

Some jobs are more social than others. Most of the private sector employers that I have worked for and applied to find it important that one fits well with the team. When working on a team, differences in values can be quite challenging. For example, as someone who cares about animal suffering, it is a challenge to interview for and work with others who think of animals very differently. I have interviewed and worked for people whose hobbies are hunting and fishing, and I write publicly about the moral problems with such practices. Similarly, each lunch involves others consuming animals; lunch conversations usually include how the flesh tastes; and the after work activities that I have been involved with almost always involve dinners, barbeques, or even cooking. I would not say that these differences in value need to be detrimental, but they are in my experience at least a challenge. It simply appears that people get along better with others that have similar values, and getting along in that way seems important for career progression.

These are the three main reasons I am leaving my earning to give career. I’m excited to work directly on the issues I think are most important. I feel earning to give can still be a good option for others and encourage them to consider these potential issues.

I am grateful to Jacy Anthis and Benjamin Todd for help with this text.