Why and how to earn to give

Would Bill Gates have done more good if he’d worked at a small non-profit? We don’t normally think of software engineering as a path to doing good, but Gates has saved the lives of millions of children by funding vaccines. That’s a huge amount of good, even if you’re not keen on Microsoft.

Bill Gates has had a huge humanitarian impact through philanthropy, which we think more than makes up for the blue screen of death.
Bill Gates has had a huge humanitarian impact through philanthropy, saving the lives of more children than the population of Scotland, which we think more than makes up for the blue screen of death.

What do we mean by earning to give?

We often meet people who are interested in a higher-earning job, like software engineering, but are worried they won’t make a difference. Part of the reason is that we don’t usually think of earning more money as a path for people who want to do good. However, there are many effective organizations that have no problem finding enthusiastic staff, but don’t have the funds to hire. People who are a good fit for a higher earning option can donate to these organizations, and make a large contribution indirectly.

Earning to give is not just for people who want to work in high paying industries. Anyone who aims to earn more in order to give more is on this path.

Consider the story of Julia and Jeff, a couple from Boston with two children. Julia switched from non-profit admin work to social work at a prison. Jeff used to work as research technician. He decided to train up to become a software engineer, and eventually got a job at Google. The couple were able to earn more than twice as much, so started to donate about half their income to charity each year.

Jeff and Julia have tried to find the best way to make a difference
Quartz: Jeff and Julia have tried to find the best way to make a difference

By doing this, they probably have had more impact than they could by working directly in a non-profit. Compare Jeff’s impact to that of the CEO of a non-profit:

 Google software engineerNon-profit CEO
Money to live on$125,000$65,000
Direct impact
of work
PositiveVery positive

Jeff can live on about two times as much as he would have earned in the non-profit sector, and still donate enough to fund the salaries of about two non-profit CEOs.1 On top of this, he may also have some positive direct impact too, since Google has developed valuable innovations like Google Maps and Gmail; and he thinks he’s happier in his work because he enjoys engineering.

Moreover, Jeff and Julia can switch their donations to whichever organizations are most in need of funds at any given time based on their research, whereas it’s harder to change where you work. This flexibility is particularly valuable because we don’t know which problems will be most pressing in the future.

This opportunity exists because we happen to live in a world with huge income inequality – it’s possible to earn several times as much as a teacher or non-profit worker, and vastly more than the world’s poorest people. At the same time, hardly anyone donates more than a few percent of their income,2 so if you are willing to do so, you can have an amazing impact in a very wide range of jobs.

Any college graduate in a developed country can have a major impact by giving 10% to an effective charity. The average graduate earns $68,000 per year over their life, and 10% of that could save almost 100 lives if given to the Against Malaria Foundation for example.

If you could just earn 10% more, and donate the extra, then that’s twice as much impact again. And if you think there are better organizations to fund than Against Malaria Foundation – perhaps working on different problems, or research or advocacy – the impact is even higher.

Since we introduced the concept of “earning to give” in 2011, hundreds of people have taken it up and stuck with it. Most give around 30% of their income, and some more than 50%. Collectively, they’ll donate tens of millions of dollars to high impact charities in the coming years. In doing so, they are funding passionate people who want to contribute directly, but who otherwise wouldn’t have the resources.

One of the people we advised in 2011, Matt, has donated over $1m while still in his 20s, and was featured in the New York Times. He finds his job more enjoyable too.

Another quit his job as a software engineer and founded a startup. He has pledged all of his income above minimum wage to charity. If his startup’s current valuation is accurate, then he’ll give millions of dollars to charity in the next decade. His startup also reduces paperwork for doctors, and so it has direct impact too.

“Without 80,000 Hours' research, I wouldn't have started this company; and without their community, I wouldn't have made it this far.”

Read Ben's story

Ben portrait photo

Should you earn to give?

Earning to give has been our most memorable and controversial idea, attracting media coverage in the BBC, Washington Post, Daily Mail and many other outlets.

For this reason, many people think it’s our top recommendation. But it’s not: it depends on your situation.

We think earning to give is an option worth considering when:

  • You’re a good fit for a higher-earning option. Don’t become a consultant if you’d hate it – you’ll be more likely to burn out and put your career in a worse long-term position, and you won’t earn that much anyway. Even if you only care about your impact, it’s important to be good at your job.
  • You want to gain skills in a higher earning option (for use in more direct work later on), and earning to give could help you to stay engaged with social impact while you do so. (In the next article we explain why it’s important to gain “career capital”.)
  • You’re very uncertain about which problems are most pressing. Earning to give provides the most flexibility because you can easily change where you donate, or even save the money and give later.

Common objections to earning to give

Can people actually stick with it? Won’t people end up being influenced by their peers to spend the money on luxuries rather than donating? We were worried this would happen when we first introduced the idea, but it hasn’t. Hundreds of people are pursuing earning to give and while some have left because they thought they could do more good elsewhere, no-one we know has simply given up their plans to donate. In part, this is because many people pursuing earning to give made public pledges of their intentions to donate, often through Giving What We Can. The existence of a community that earns to give also makes it much easier to stick with today.

Don’t many high earning jobs cause harm? We don’t recommend taking a job that does a lot of harm in order to donate the money. For example, here are 10 jobs we recommend avoiding. In practice, most people who earn to give work in the fields of technology, asset management, medicine or consulting, and we think these positions do a small amount of good, or are neutral. For instance, many (but not all) financial traders make profits at the expense of other traders, so they’re moving money around, mostly from rich people to other rich people. Of course, there are some people who cause harm in these industries, but that’s true of any industry.

More broadly, there are lots of ways to earn more money, and we doubt all of these are harmful. What about medicine, engineering or private tutoring? There is also the option to make the industry better from the inside. If you’re socially motivated and you replace someone who doesn’t care about the harm they do, that may well be better for the world.

What if I wouldn’t be motivated doing a high earning job? In that case, don’t do one. We only recommend earning to give if it’s a good fit. Just bear in mind that you can become interested in more jobs than you might think.

Couldn’t I have more impact doing something else? There’s a good chance that you could, as we cover later in the article.

(To go into the ethics of earning to give in more depth, see this paper we published.)

What’s the best way to earn to give?

If you think you might be interested, here’s a list of some of the best options we’ve found so far.

These two paths are among the highest earning and build your skills, although they are very competitive.

Some other promising options taken by plenty of people we’ve advised include:

In all of these, you could earn far more than the average for a college graduate, while also putting your career in a better position for the future.

Law, investment banking and medicine are other obvious high earning options, but we think they’re a bit worse than the ones above based on their weaker combination of flexibility, growth of the area and direct impact.

We also think the following have promise and are a little easier to enter:

Bear in mind there are many other options we haven’t yet reviewed, and a huge variety of ways to earn money. One way to think of other ideas is to ask yourself what the big economic trends will be over the next two decades, and how you might get involved with them.

If you don’t have a college degree, programming or sales can be good options. Some trades are also highly paid. For instance, the top 10% of plumbers earn over $89,000 per year,3 more than what the average college graduate earns.

There are many paths we haven’t reviewed yet. Someone can earn to give in any career so long as they’re earning more than they would have otherwise in order to donate more. Remember the example of Julia working as a social worker.

As a final note, some companies match charitable donations 1:1, or even more. By choosing an employer that does this, you may be able to double your donations with no effort.

Which charities are most effective?

Many social interventions have no proven impact, and many other charities are poorly run black boxes. So if you give to the wrong organization, you won’t achieve much.

On the other hand, so long as there’s at least one highly effective organization to fund, then earning to give can be high impact. You don’t even need to limit yourself to funding charities – you could fund research, political advocacy or for-good for-profits instead.

Learn about which charities are most effective here:

Where to donate

Should you give now or later?

Is it more effective to invest money now (or pay down debt), so you can give more in the future, or to start giving right away? We consider this here:

Give now or later?

You can also read more about personal finance and giving:

Continue with the career guideWhich jobs put you in the best position for the future?

Continue →

If you’re new, go to the start of the guide for an overview.

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Notes and references

  1. The 2012 Watkins Uiberal Report found that (LINK): The median salary for executive directors/CEOs is between $50,000 and $75,000. CEO salaries correlate with organizational budget size. For small organizations, the median salary is between $30,000 and $50,000. Among medium-sized organizations, 36% of CEOs have salaries between $50,000 and $75,000, while 50.5% earn more than $75,000 and 13.5% earn less than $50,000. Among large organizations, 14.2% pay salaries of $100,000 or less; 38.1% pay between $101,000 and $150,000; and 47.7% pay more than $150,000. Note that this is significantly lower than the median figures reported by the prominent Charity Navigator Annual Survey. This is because Charity Navigator focuses on “mid to large” US charities, which pay substantially higher salaries.
  2. This study showed that in the UK the rich only give about 1% of their income to charity, and the figures seem to only be slightly higher in the US e.g. Ken Berger claims they give 1.3%.
  3. The median annual wage for plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters was $50,620 in May 2015. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $29,680, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $89,720.
    BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook, Archived link, retrieved 13-June-2016.