Why and how to earn to give
I was earning more money than I ever had, I was earning more money than my parents. It was like “Wow — I just graduated from college, and I’m able to earn a lot of money.” So to give 50% seemed like the least I could be doing.
— Jeff Kaufman on WBUR
One of the ideas for which 80,000 Hours has become most known is called ‘earning to give.’
Table of Contents
- 1 What is earning to give?
- 2 Why earn to give?
- 3 Common objections to and reasons against earning to give
- 4 Should you earn to give?
- 5 What’s the best way to earn to give?
- 6 Get updates on our research on how to do more good with your career.
Earning to give is the idea that instead of working directly to tackle a pressing problem, you take a job where you earn more money than you would have otherwise and donate much of the extra to fund others doing effective work on those problems.
The basic case in its favour is that if you’re a better fit for a higher-earning job than one directly working on, say, preventing catastrophic pandemics or fighting global poverty, you might be able to make a bigger contribution to these same causes via donating.
This isn’t usually seen as a canonically virtuous career path. But we think there’s a lot to be said for it, and despite some serious potential downsides (which we’ll discuss how to mitigate), we believe it should be on the shortlist for some of our readers to consider.
For an idea of how it works in practice, consider the case of Jeff Kaufman who, along with his wife Julia Wise, is a parent of three children in Boston.
Through his relationship with Julia, Jeff became interested in using his career for good. He got a job as a software engineer at Google, earning a very generous salary that enabled the couple to give an unusual amount to charities they believe do exceptional work, particularly those recommended by the organisation GiveWell.1
They have publicly pledged to give away 30% of their income every year, though they have typically aimed to give away as much as 50%. The couple publicly shares their annual income and the donations they’ve made, for transparency and as part of their advocacy for others to donate to effective charities.2
“Over the past 13 years, my wife and I have donated about $2 million to charity — about half of that to GiveWell’s recommendations,” Jeff told the radio station WBUR in December 2022. “GiveWell’s estimate of cost per life saved has varied over this time, but if you put it sort of conservatively at around $5,000 per life, then 1 million divided by 5,000 is something like 200 [lives saved].”
“I feel very proud of that.”
What is earning to give?
We say someone is earning to give when they:
- Work a job that’s higher earning than they would have otherwise but that they believe is morally neutral or positive
- Donate a large fraction of the extra earnings, typically 20-50% of their total salary
- Donate to organisations they think are highly effective (i.e. funding-constrained organisations working on big, neglected global problems)
In practice, many people earn to give in standard professional jobs. Some found companies or work in higher-paid finance careers in order to donate even more, but these paths do not represent the typical case.
These ideas aren’t wholly original to us or the effective altruism community. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, preached about a version of earning to give in the 18th century. He advocated the principles: “Gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” And he even caveated this advice with sensible constraints, saying in a sermon that we shouldn’t work so hard that we hurt ourselves and that we should “gain all we can without hurting our neighbour.”3
And famously, Friedrich Engels worked in textile manufacturing management in order to have enough money to support Karl Marx as he was writing Das Kapital. Since Engels viewed Marx’s writing as particularly important and potentially highly impactful, this decision is closely aligned with the ideas behind earning to give.
Why earn to give?
Earning to give has been the most memorable and controversial part of our advice, 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. Whether you should choose earning to give depends on your situation. For example:
- Earning to give might be your highest-impact option if you’re an excellent fit for a high-earning path and don’t have other equally great opportunities on the table.
- Earning to give can also be your top option if you really want to work in (or are already working in) a higher-earning path and don’t want to switch, or if you haven’t been able to find a job working directly in a high-impact area that suits your needs.
There are a lot of advantages to earning to give.
It gives you flexibility.
The first major advantage of earning to give is its flexibility. You can use donations to support any cause.
We recommend focusing on more neglected global problems, but because these areas are small, it can be hard to enter them. Many people don’t see an easy route to working on something like preventing catastrophic biorisks, nuclear war, or AI alignment.
By earning to give, however, it’s possible to convert your skills (whatever they are) into additional work on big, neglected global problems.
Even better, you can switch where you donate over time. This is very valuable because which problems seem most pressing is going to change, both as more research is done and as the situation evolves. Likewise, which solutions are most effective and which organisations are doing the best work are going to change.
Many other career paths involve taking a bet on a specific approach, and it’s hard to know how promising that will seem ten or twenty years in the future. But donations can more easily be targeted towards the biggest areas of need at the time.
You may be able to have a greater impact through earning to give.
Second, if you’re a good fit for a higher-earning path, it’s sometimes possible to have a bigger scale of contribution through your donations than through your labour.
Jeff’s story is one way to illustrate this idea.
By working at Google, Jeff was able to earn enough to pay for the salary of several non-profit CEOs at the time.4
|Google software engineer||Non-profit CEO|
|Money to live on||$125,000||$65,000|
We can’t simply conclude from this that Jeff was having more impact than he could have had by working in the non-profit sector. For one thing, there may not have been be any good non-profit CEOs around who needed additional funding in Jeff’s areas of interest.
And in fact, in 2022, Jeff left Google and earning to give to do direct work at the Nucleic Acid Observatory, which is developing a wastewater monitoring system in the hope of catching future pandemics earlier. He and Julia still donate a significant fraction of their family’s income, but the total amount is much lower than when Jeff was earning to give, and they now expect most of their positive impact to come directly from their work.
But the table does illustrate that there’s the potential to make a similarly large contribution via earning to give compared to more direct ways to contributing under certain circumstances.
One way you can think about how to gauge this more precisely is to ask the organisations you think are doing the best work in the problems you think are most pressing whether they’d value your future work or your donations more highly. For instance, if you think you could donate, say, $30k per year, you could ask whether they’d prefer that or for you to join their staff and not donate anything.
The worse your fit for the more directly impactful job and higher your earning potential, the higher the relative contribution you can make via earning to give, and vice versa.
It’s not always possible to ask the trade-off question between giving and directly working so explicitly in practice. And if you’re early in your career, it’s hard to assess your long-run potential in the direct path. But thinking about the question helps to structure how to think about the choice.
There’s an odd thing that happens in the non-profit sector where someone might typically work, say, as a corporate lawyer as their day job with an hourly rate of $1,000/hour. But then when they want to do good, they will volunteer to do minimum wage labour at a charity. This can be seen as especially generous and giving.
But if that lawyer had instead worked an extra hour and donated their earnings, they could fund 100 people to do that labour instead. If they enjoy their work as a lawyer, this choice might be much less of a personal sacrifice than doing difficult minimum wage work, but giving the money is likely far better for the charity and its beneficiaries.
Earning to give may allow you to work in a field that’s more personally fulfilling compared to other paths.
A third advantage of earning to give is that you might have a strong personal preference for a career that isn’t directly relevant to one of the problems that seem biggest and most neglected to you. Jeff, for instance, just happened to really enjoy his software engineering work at Google. Having an impact isn’t the only goal in life, and earning to give can help to open up options that might better meet your personal preferences while still having a lot of impact.
For example, if you have to support dependents, it might not be feasible to take a low-wage non-profit sector job. By earning to give, you can have a higher income than you would have in the non-profit sector and still do a lot of good.
In rare cases, it could be a very high-impact career.
For some people, earning to give might not only be their best option — it could be an extraordinary option. It’s possible some people who aim to earn to give could become very wealthy, and if they really are committed to using their fortune to address pressing world problems, their impact could potentially be greater than everyone else who is earning to give combined.
If done right, this kind of earning to give would be an enormous achievement. But doing it right is a huge caveat here, and there are serious perils in this kind of ambition. We’ll discuss the potential downsides in the next section.
Common objections to and reasons against earning to give
Might you do harm in a high-earning career?
Yes, some high-earning careers can do a lot of harm. We don’t recommend taking careers you think might be harmful in order to donate.
First, if the harm done by the work offsets the good done by your donations — including both direct and indirect harms — then that’s clearly overall negative for the world and bad by any lights.
But even if you think the donations might outweigh the costs of a harmful career, we think doing harm “for the greater good” is almost never a good idea. And if you think you might be the exception, you’re almost certainly not. This is for many reasons, so we’ve written a separate article about why not to take a harmful career in order to do more good.
An illustration is Sam Bankman-Fried, who founded the cryptocurrency exchange FTX with the stated goal of earning to give.5 We previously featured him on this page.
Sam is now charged with fraud, FTX collapsed into bankruptcy, and billions of dollars of customer funds went missing.
This has done a lot of harm to individual depositors and society, both through the money lost and the indirect harms of criminal activity. It may have also harmed the reputation of the causes he was supporting and even the idea of earning to give in general.
It now seems clear that even if Sam told himself that the rewards justified the risks, that was totally wrong on any view.
For our part, we felt betrayed and shaken when we found out what had happened and ashamed about our past promotion of him (see our mistakes page).
We only recommend people earn to give in jobs that are socially positive or neutral. For instance, many of the highest-paid careers are in medicine, which seems unlikely to do much harm and seems usually beneficial in itself.
Within any high-earning career, it’s vital to avoid actions that seem clearly wrong from a commonsense perspective, even if they might help you donate more.
Is there a risk of getting corrupted by a higher-earning career?
Yes, and this needs to be taken seriously.
One risk is that your altruistic goals fade over time, and you don’t end up donating.
This is especially likely if you work in an industry with other people who aren’t very focused on doing good. The people you spend most time with have a huge effect on what seems normal to you – if all you friends are talking about the latest Ferrari, it’s going to be hard to stick to your plans to donate.
Some ways to counteract this are to:
- Make a public pledge of your intentions to donate, such as through Giving What We Can, or Founder’s Pledge if you’re an entrepreneur
- Make sure to spend time with others who are earning to give, donating or focused on social impact
- Work in an industry that’s friendly toward your plans. For instance, lots of our readers work in places with fairly ‘nerdy’ culture, which seems more accepting of earning to give than places with more materialistic, like banking or fashion
- Find other ways to remind yourself of the impact you’re having, like meeting people at the charities you support
We were very worried about people who intend to earn to give simply not donating when we started 80,000 Hours, but over the last ten years, we have seen a lot of people stick to their plans by taking the measures above.
A more worrying risk is that power corrupts. This is a cliche for a good reason.
This is most worrying in paths where you might earn a very large amount of money, like Sam did.
In that case, even if you set out with the best of intentions, it could become very tempting to act unethically in order to protect your fortune.
Having a lot of money also gives you a lot of influence, which makes it very important that you make good decisions about how to use it.
These kinds of concerns are not a big deal for people in regular jobs earning to give — like accounting, private tutoring, engineering or medicine — but apply more to paths where there’s a small chance of making huge sums. They make us more concerned about highly ambitious earning to give as a strategy, i.e. trying to become extremely rich.
Overall, we feel unsure how much to recommend a more ambitious form of earning to give, and it probably depends on the person.
One thing to note is that this problem is not only a problem unique to earning to give. Rather, it’s a feature of all careers in which someone gains power, influence and status. This could include working in politics or government, or running any kind of large organisation, or being a well-known figure in your field. And those positions are often ones where you can do a lot of good.
There will always be a temptation to act unethically in order to protect your power and status, and this temptation might grow the more of it you have. Likewise, it will also become more and more important that you’re able to act wisely with the power you’ve accumulated.
But taking the position that all altruistically minded people should avoid positions where they might accumulate significant influence doesn’t obviously seem better for the world.
And the stakes are high: in the case of earning to give in particular, you may be able to donate hundreds of times more in some paths than others.
What seems clear is that if you’re aiming high, it’s important to set up safeguards. In addition to the points bulleted above, it’s very important to surround yourself with advisors who you trust and are strong-willed enough to call you out if you start to drift.
It’s also important to set up more formal corporate governance structures, as an additional check on unethical behaviour and poor decision making.
And it could be worth making rough plans in advance for how you will distribute the money in a responsible way, ideally delegating or decentralising the decision making in some way.
Doesn’t taking a high-earning job signal support for a bad system?
Maybe. In general, it’s important to consider both the direct effects of your actions, and the indirect effects they might have via changing social norms and influencing others.
If you think the current general economic system is very bad, and that taking the job in question could significantly influence others towards greater support of the system, then that would be a significant negative for taking this strategy.
You’d then need to judge whether that negative was big enough to offset the other advantages of this path. (As did Engles).
Also consider that there are ways that earning to give sends a positive signal. After all, giving away 20% or even 50% of your income, and giving it to neglected issues like helping the global poor or preventing another pandemic, is a very rare thing to do, and so it signals significant dissatisfaction with the results of the current system. And it shows that you’re willing to actually put your money where your mouth is in addressing problems that you see — potentially encouraging others to join you.
If you’re unsure about where you stand on this issue, you should probably spend more time evaluating other options that feel less like they contribute to a system you view as overall harmful.
Isn’t charity ineffective?
Many charities probably aren’t that effective, so it’s vital to think hard about where you donate the money.
However, for earning to give to be impactful, you only need to find one effective charity to donate to. We think there are plenty — you can check out Giving What We Can’s advice on donating effectively.6
Also note that if you think more mainstream charity is ineffective, you could use the money to fund academic research, political campaigns or to invest in socially impactful businesses instead.
You wouldn’t find earning to give motivating.
That’s fine. Do something else. It’s really important to find a job you’re good at and that fits with the rest of your life.
You think X is higher-impact.
Great! Do that instead! We think there are lots of other impactful options, some of which we list here. And there are probably many others we’ve missed.
Should you earn to give?
We don’t think earning to give is typically the best way to make an impact, but we think it is worth many people at least considering as an option among others.
We also often think of earning to give as a measurable baseline for how much good you could do: think about the highest-earning career you’d be able to pursue and thrive in that you think is morally neutral or positive; estimate how much you could donate; and then estimate how much good that could do if donated to the best charities you know about.
That’s probably already a lot of impact, which is hopefully motivating.
And then if you’re willing to make bigger changes to your life, you may well be able to find something even more impactful again. You can use the quantity of donations you can make in earning to give as a baseline to compare those other options.
We think earning to give is most worth considering when:
- You’re a good fit for a higher-earning option.
- You want to gain skills and career capital in a higher-earning option to use in other impactful paths later and earning to give could help you to stay engaged with social impact while you do so.
- 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. (Though many other paths are also highly flexible. If you become a great manager at a nonprofit focusing on biorisk, you can probably transfer that to organisation-building in climate change.)
- You want to contribute to an area that is more funding-constrained rather than talent constrained.
Overall, earning to give typically ends up seeming most attractive in the following cases:
- You might be able to take a path that’s morally neutral (or positive) and where you might be able to donate a lot (e.g. in certain parts of tech entrepreneurship, finance, partner-track in professional services etc.), and aren’t aware of other highly impactful paths. In this case, it might be your highest-impact option.
- There’s a particular job you really want to do for other reasons that’s higher-earning than average, or that can be adapted into. This might look like Jeff working as a software engineer, or someone who really always wanted to be a doctor, or a teacher who does private tutoring and donates the extra.
- You’re already in a path with good earnings, it’s going well and you don’t want to change careers right now.
- You’re not aware of other good ways to contribute to pressing problems that seem like a good fit for you right now, or are something you want to do.
If you’re aiming to be really ambitious about your impact, then we think earning to give is probably not the most impactful option you can take — it might be best among perhaps 10% of people we advise.
However, we think earning to give is still well worth considering as a way that many people could make a bigger contribution to pressing problems without making dramatic changes to their lives.
What’s the best way to earn to give?
If you’ve already decided to earn to give, which particular career paths or jobs should you pursue it in?
Look for an option where you have great personal fit — the chance to excel — that satisfies the following:
- Is higher-earning and has a good outlook
- Offers flexible career capital, so you can switch out later if you change your mind
- Doesn’t cause harm
Which jobs are highest-paying?
In short, it’s jobs in finance, management, medicine, law, real estate and technology. You can see a lot more data in this separate analysis.
What are some of the best options overall?
The following offer a good combination of pay, flexibility and outlook. We’ve also already advised people who’ve taken them and been satisfied.
Two particularly high-earning paths are becoming a tech startup founder and
doing quantitative trading; they allow you to build up widely valuable skills while potentially earning millions, but 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 and investment banking 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. Art and entertainment can be highly paid, but the chances of success are so small that the pay is low on average.
The following are somewhat less competitive ways to earn a medium income, though at the expense of less flexibility:
If you don’t have a college degree, real estate, programming or sales can be good options. Some trades are also highly paid. For instance, the top 10% of plumbers earn over $99,000 per year,7 more than what the average college graduate earns.
There are many paths we haven’t reviewed. 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.
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.
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:
You can also read more about personal finance and giving:
Notes and references
- Open Philanthropy — 80,000 Hours’ biggest funder — was spun out of GiveWell, and the two share some leadership; for more information, see here.↩
- In 2012, they donated to 80,000 Hours. They have also donated to related projects such as the Centre for Effective Altruism (where Julia now works) that, like 80,000 Hours, is a project of Effective Ventures group.↩
- Jeff Kaufman discussed this case on his blog.↩
- 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.↩
- Sam Bankman-Fried donated to 80,000 Hours early in his career, and FTX donated funds to Effective Ventures group. 80,000 Hours is a project of the Effective Ventures group — the umbrella term for Effective Ventures Foundation and Effective Ventures Foundation USA, Inc., which are two separate legal entities that work together.↩
- Giving What We Can, like 80,000 Hours, is a project of the Effective Ventures group.↩
The median annual wage for American plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters was $59,880 in 2021. 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 $36,700, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $99,000.
BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook, Archived link, retrieved 13-Feb-2023.↩