No matter which career you choose, anyone can make a difference by donating to charity or volunteering. Unfortunately, many attempts to do good in this way are ineffective, and some actually cause harm.
Take for example sponsored skydiving, which has become a popular way to raise money for charity in the UK. Every year, thousands of people collect donations for good causes and then throw themselves out of planes to draw attention to whatever charity they’ve chosen to support. This may sound like a win-win: the fundraiser gets an exhilarating once-in-a-lifetime experience while raising money for a worthy cause. What could be the harm in that?
Quite a bit, actually. A study of two popular parachuting centres found that, over a five-year period (1991 to 1995), approximately 1,500 people went skydiving for charity and collectively raised more than £120,000. That seems pretty impressive until you consider a few caveats.
First, the cost of the diving expeditions came out of the donations, so of the £120,000 raised, only £45,000 went to charity.
What’s more, because most of the skydivers were first-time jumpers, they suffered a combined total of 163 injuries, resulting in an average hospital stay of nine days.
In order to treat these injuries, the UK’s National Health Service spent around £610,000. That means that for every £1 raised for the charities, the health service spent roughly £13. Ironically, many of the charities supported focused on health-related matters.1
What about volunteering? The problem is that volunteers need to be managed. If untrained volunteers use up the time of trained managers, it’s easy for them to cost the organisation more than the value they add to it. The reason many volunteering schemes persist is that volunteers are more likely to donate in the future. When FORGE cut their volunteering scheme to be more effective, they inadvertently triggered a big drop in donations.
That said, in our research, we’ve found that any college graduate in a rich country can do a huge amount to improve lives. And they can do this without changing jobs, or making big sacrifices.
We’ll cover three examples: donating 10% to an effective charity, advocating for important causes, and helping others be more effective.
Table of Contents
- 1 1. Donating effectively
- 2 2. What if you don’t want to give money? How to help through effective advocacy
- 3 3. Do good by helping others be more effective
- 4 Conclusion: how anyone can make a difference
1. Donating effectively
How can you take whichever job you find the most fun and personally rewarding, and do a huge amount of good?
Give 10% of your income to the world’s poorest people. It really is as simple as that.
How much good can donations do?
Since 2008, GiveDirectly has made it possible to give cash directly to to the poorest people in East Africa via mobile phone.
As we saw in part one, the more money you have, the less additional money will improve your life. For instance, in the US, a doubling of income is only associated with about half a point gain in life satisfaction, on a scale of one to ten.
These surveys have been extended across the world. There are examples in the chart below. (See more detail on this research.)
The poor served by GiveDirectly in Kenya have an average individual consumption of about $500 per year.2 This figure is based on how much $500 could buy in the US, meaning it takes account of the fact that money goes further in poor countries. The average US college graduate roughly has an annual, individual, working income of about $77,000 in 2017, or $54,000 post-tax.3 This means a dollar will do about 108 times more good if you give it to a Kenyan rather than spending it on yourself.4
If someone earning that average level of income were to donate 10%, she could double the annual income of 11 people living in extreme poverty each year. Over the course of her career, she could have a major positive impact on hundreds of people.
Grace, 48, is a typical recipient of donations from GiveDirectly. She’s a widow who lives with four children:
I would like to use part of the money to build a new house since my house is in a very bad condition. Secondly, I would wish to pay fees for my son to go to a technical institute….
My proudest achievement is that I have managed to educate my son in secondary school.
My biggest hardship in life is [that I] lack a proper source of income.
My current goals are to build and own a pit latrine and dig a borehole since getting water is a very big problem.
GiveDirectly conducted a randomised controlled trial of their programme, and found that recipients experienced significant reductions in hunger, stress and other bad outcomes for years after receiving the transfers. These results add to substantial existing literature showing that cash transfers have significant benefits.
How much sacrifice will this involve?
Regardless of which career you choose, you can donate 10% of your income.
Normally when we think of doing good with our careers, we think of paths like becoming a teacher or charity worker, which often earn salaries as much as 50% lower than jobs in the private sector, and may not align with your skills or interests. In that sense, giving 10% is less of a sacrifice.
Moreover, as we saw in an earlier article, once you start earning more than about $40,000 a year as an individual, any extra income won’t affect your happiness that much, while acts that help others like giving to charity probably do make you happier.
To take just one example, one study found that in 122 of 136 countries, if respondents answered “yes” to the question “did you donate to charity last month?”, their life satisfaction was higher by an amount also associated with a doubling of income.5 In part, this is probably because happier people give more, but we expect some of the effect runs the other way too.
(Not persuaded? Read more on whether giving 10% is better or worse for your happiness than not donating at all.)
How to have a bigger impact than being a doctor
The reason donations can be so effective is that it’s possible to send your money to the neediest people in the world, through the most effective organisations. So, although many charities aren’t effective, the best are.
And while GiveDirectly is certainly an effective charity, there are others that, some experts argue, are even better. The leading independent charity evaluator, GiveWell, estimates that the Against Malaria Foundation can prevent a death for every $7,500 in donations it receives.6 In addition, this provides other benefits that come with the treatment of malaria – such as overall quality of life and increased income – and this causes further ripple effects over time.
Donating 10% to the Against Malaria Foundation, therefore, could save more than one life every year.
These kinds of proven, cost-effective health programmes offer such a good opportunity to do good that even the most prominent aid sceptics have offered few arguments against them.
One life saved per year would amount to 40 lives saved over a 40-year career. In the previous article, we estimated that a typical doctor in clinical medicine saves five lives over their career. So by donating 10%, you could achieve 8 times as much impact.
And, we’ve just used Against Malaria Foundation and GiveDirectly to provide a concrete lower-bound on what you can achieve. We actually think there are many charities that are even more effective, working on higher-leverage approaches, such as research and advocacy, or on less conventional areas, such as pandemics. We write more about these areas later in the guide, and you can read more about which charities are highest-impact in a separate article.
If everyone in the richest 10% of the world’s population donated 10% of their income, that would be $3.5 trillion per year.7 Just 4% of that would be enough to raise everyone in the world above the $1.90/day poverty line. We could then provide universal education, double scientific research spending, fund a new renaissance in the arts…and still have much more left over.8
How is this possible?
It’s astonishing that we can do so much good while sacrificing so little. Why is this possible?
Consider one of the most important graphs in economics, the graph of world income:
The x-axis shows the percentage of people in the world who earn each level of income (as indicated by the y-axis). Income has been adjusted to indicate how much that specific dollar amount will buy in a person’s home country (i.e. purchasing power parity). If the world were completely equal, the line would be horizontal.
As Westerners, we know we’re rich, but we don’t think of ourselves as the richest people in the world – we’re not the bankers, CEOs or celebrities, after all. But actually, if you earn $54,000 per year after taxes and don’t have kids, then globally speaking, you are the 1%.
Find out how rich you are by using the quick calculator at the bottom of this page (which uses the same data we use in the chart, adjusted for inflation up to 2013).
These numbers are approximate, but it’s still the case that if you’re reading this, you are very likely in that big spike on the right of the graph (and perhaps even way off the chart), while almost everyone else in the world is in the flat bit at the bottom that you can hardly even see.
There’s no reason to be embarrassed by this fact, but it does emphasise how important it is to consider how you can use your good fortune to help others. In a more equal and intuitive world, we could just focus on helping those around us, and making our own lives go well. But it turns out we have an enormous opportunity to help other people with little cost to ourselves – and it would be a terrible shame to squander it.
Take action right now
All of us at 80,000 Hours were so persuaded by these arguments that we pledged to give at least 10% of our lifetime income to the world’s most effective charities. We did it through an organisation called Giving What We Can, with whom we are partnered. Our co-founder, Will, actually went a bit further and pledged to donate any income he earns above $35,000 a year to charity.
Giving What We Can enables you to take a public pledge to give 10% of your income to the charities you believe are most effective. They also provide research-backed recommendations on where to give.
You can take the pledge in just a few minutes. It’s likely to be the most significant thing you can do right now to do more good with your life.
It’s not legally binding, you can choose where the money goes, and if you’re a student, it only commits you to give 1%. You’ll be joining over 2,500 people who’ve collectively pledged over a billion dollars.
And if you’re not quite ready yet, Giving What We Can allows you to pledge 2% for one year to see how it goes before making any long-term commitment: try out giving. If you’d like to learn more about how to pick an effective charity, read our article.
2. What if you don’t want to give money? How to help through effective advocacy
Just as we happen to be rich by virtue of where we were born, we also happen to have political influence for the same reason.
Rich countries have a disproportionate impact on issues like global trade, migration, climate change and technology policy, and are at least partly democratic. So if you’d prefer to do something besides giving money, consider advocating for important issues.
We were initially sceptical that one person could have real influence through political advocacy, but when we dug into the numbers, we changed our minds.
Let’s take perhaps the simplest example: voting in elections. Several studies have used statistical models to estimate the chances of a single vote determining the US presidential election. Because the American electoral system is determined at the state, not individual, level, if you live in a state that strongly favours one candidate, your chance of deciding the outcome is effectively zero. But if you live in a state that’s contested, your chances rise to between one in ten million and one in a million. That’s quite a bit higher than your chances of winning the lottery.
And remember, the US Federal Government is big. Really big. Let’s imagine one candidate wanted to spend 0.2% more of GDP on foreign aid. That would be about $144 billion extra foreign aid over their four year term.10 One millionth of that is $144,000 dollars. So voting could be the most important hour you’ll spend that year. (The figures are similar in other rich countries – smaller countries have less at stake, but each vote counts for more. Read more about these estimates.)
The key with political advocacy is that, although your influence is extremely small, the stakes are extremely high. So a single vote, letter to your Congressperson, or question at a town hall can have a big impact. This is even more true if you’re careful to focus on the most important issues, which we cover in the next article.
3. Do good by helping others be more effective
Suppose you don’t have any money or influence. What then? One option is to go and get some. We cover how to invest in yourself, no matter what job you have, in a later article.
That aside, you probably know someone who does have some influence. So you can make a difference by helping them be more effective.
For instance, if you could enable one other person to give 10% of their income to charity, that would have as much impact as doing it yourself. The same is true for mobilising support for other important causes, such as persuading people to give up factory-farmed meat, or vote in an election. Many of our readers have persuaded others of things like this by leading by example.
We know someone who set up 1% payroll giving at their company, and in the process, raised far more money for charity than they could have given themselves. We know lots of people who have raised hundreds of dollars for effective charities by donating their birthday presents.
Volunteering can be effective, so long as you’re volunteering for effective organisations, and doing so in a way that uses your skills, or will help you learn to be more effective in the future.
Or consider Kyle, who became the assistant to a researcher he thinks is doing world-changing work. If he can save that researcher time compared to the next best assistant, then he’s enabling the scientist to perform more research, and also contributing to the world-changing work.
We’re reminded of an old (most likely fictional) story about a time when President John F. Kennedy visited NASA. Upon meeting a janitor, Kennedy asked him what he was doing. The janitor replied, “Well, Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon”.
Conclusion: how anyone can make a difference
So, good news: you don’t need to throw yourself out of a plane to do good. In fact, there are far easier (and safer) ways to have an impact that are much more effective.
Due to our fortunate positions in the world, there’s a lot we can do to make a difference without making significant sacrifices, whatever jobs we end up in. We’ve covered three examples:
- Giving 10% to the world’s poorest people, or other effective charities.
- Using your political influence, such as by voting.
- Aiding others in having an impact.
You might like to consider taking the 10% pledge right now.
Or take a moment to consider how else you might be able to make a big impact with little sacrifice. There are many more options.
What if you want to make a difference directly through your career? If you can achieve so much with such little sacrifice, then what you could achieve with your entire job could be huge. That’s what we’ll cover in the next three articles.
Notes and references
Of 174 patients with injuries of varying severity, 94% were first-time charity-parachutists. The injury rate in charity-parachutists was 11% at an average cost of £3751 per casualty. Sixty-three percent of casualties who were charity-parachutists required hospital admission, representing a serious injury rate of 7%, at an average cost of £5781 per patient. The amount raised per person for charity per person was £30. Each pound raised for charity cost NHS £13.75 in return.
“Parachuting for charity: is it worth the money? A 5-year audit of parachute injuries in Tayside and the cost to the NHS.” CT, Lee, P, Williams and WA, Hadden. (1999). Archived link, retrieved April-2017.
We’ve been told by skydivers that safety has improved significantly from the 1990s, so it might not be as bad an idea these days. Nevertheless, it’s still an example of ineffective do-gooding that was pursued by over 1000 people.↩
Overall, mean and median daily per capita consumption among eligible households are $0.65 and $0.55 at nominal rates, and 74% are below the Kenyan poverty line, indicating a very poor population.”GiveDirectly, Offering Memorandum (January 2012), Pgs 23-24., as quoted on GiveWell's report on GiveDirectly, Archived link, retrieved 8-April-2017.
To convert USD0.65 per day to a ‘purchasing power parity’ figure, we use the nominal KES to USD exchange rate used in the relevant GiveDirectly study (62.38:1) to convert this to 40.55 Kenyan Shillings.
We then use the World Bank’s PPP conversion factors for 2011 (the year most of the study was conducted), which indicates that 34.30 KES buys the equivalent of $1 in the USA. This suggests an effective consumption level of $USD1.18 in that year.
We then inflation adjust that figure using the US Consumer Price Index from 2011 to 2017, arriving at a figure of $US1.28 per person per day in 2017.
1.28 * 365 = $467.2
This figure is, of course, imprecise. It's difficult to compare the purchasing power of people living in different countries and circumstances. We discuss some of the problems in here. There are reasons in might be both too low and too high, however, we'd be surprised if it were out by more than a factor of five. Moreover, all the official estimates we've seen of the income of the bottom billion agree that they are about 10 times poorer than almost everyone living in a rich country, and about 100 times poorer than someone living on an upper middle class salary.↩
- Carnevale, Anthony P., Stephen J. Rose, and Ban Cheah. "The college payoff: Education, occupations, lifetime earnings." (2011). https://cew.georgetown.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/collegepayoff-complete.pdf
"The mean (average) earnings of those with a Bachelor’s degree is $500,000 higher than the median ($2.7 million)"They are using a 40 year career to calculate annual working income:
"Overall, the median lifetime earnings for all workers are $1.7 million, which is just under $42,000 per year ($20 per hour). Over a 40-year career, those who didn’t earn a high school diploma or GED are expected to bring in less than $1 million, which translates into slightly more than $24,000 a year ($11.70 per hour)."So 2.7 million / 40 = $67,500
The paper was released in 2011, but wages have grown since then. In Jan 2011, average wages per hour in the US were $22.85 and were $26 in Jan 2017. That’s growth of 14%, which suggests that the average college graduate now earns $77,000. This is likely an underestimate, because college graduate earnings have been growing faster than average earnings. Source: FRED Economic Data, “Average Hourly Earnings of All Employees: Total Private (CES0500000003)”, retrieved 5-Feb-2017. This growth only matches inflation, which was also about 14% over the period.
If you're trying to predict what you'll earn in the long-term, then you should also take into account future wage growth, but we're ignoring that.
To calculate post-tax income, we plugged $77,000 into the Smart Asset online income tax calculator for someone living in California, and it came out at $54,000 post-tax. This includes federal income tax, FICA, and state tax, working out at an effective rate of 28%. California generally has higher taxes, so this is an upper bound. (As of 3 April 2017.)
If you choose to have a child, then you would also need to support them for 20 years. This would reduce your effective income by about 25% during that period. We explain more here.↩
- If the relationship between income and wellbeing is logarithmic, then doubling someone's income increases their wellbeing by a constant amount. That means if someone has an income of $54,000 and another has an income of $500, you'd need to increase the first person's income by $54,000 to increase their wellbeing as much as you would if you increased the second person's income by $500. $54000/$500 = 108. We explain why we think the relationship is logarithmic (or perhaps even weaker) in our evidence review on income and happiness.↩
- This is the study we quoted: Aknin, Lara, Christopher P. Barrington-Leigh, Elizabeth W. Dunn, John F. Helliwell, Robert Biswas-Diener, Imelda Kemeza, Paul Nyende, Claire Ashton-James, Michael I. Norton (2010). “Prosocial Spending and Well-Being: Cross-Cultural Evidence for a Psychological Universal.” Harvard Business School Working Paper 11-038. http://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Publication%20Files/11-038.pdf.
Though there is some evidence that part of the reason for the correlation is that happier people give more. See: Boenigk, S. & Mayr, M.L. J Happiness Stud (2016) 17: 1825. doi:10.1007/s10902-015-9672-2, link.
For a more comprehensive review of the question, see Giving without sacrifice, by Andreas Mogensen, Giving What We Can Research, Archived Link, retrieved 6 April 2017.↩
We estimate that it costs the Against Malaria Foundation approximately $7,500 (including transportation, administration, etc.) to save a human life.
Source: Your dollar goes further overseas, GiveWell, Archived link, retrieved April 2017.
10% of $77,000 is $7,700, which is enough to prevent one death per year.
Note that GiveWell's figure has changed over time, and may change again in the future. GiveWell are also keen to point out that their estimate is highly approximate, though attempts to be conservative. Finally, the estimate ignores other important benefits of malaria treatment. In their full intervention report on insecticide-treated bed net distribution, GiveWell gives the figure of $3,000 per life saved equivalent. Archived link, retrieved 7-April-2017.↩
- This is based on estimates suggesting that the top 10% of income earners account for a bit over 50% of world income (PPP) from Global Income Inequality by the Numbers: in History and Now written by Branko Milanovic and published by The World Bank Development Research Group. While these figures are from 2008 we expect they remain fairly accurate today.
So, if the top 10% give 10%, then that’s 5% of world income. World income is about $75 trillion so that’s $3.5 trillion. Source: World Bank, retrieved 6 April 2017.↩
- Economists have estimated it would cost $159 billion close the “poverty gap”, or the distance between every poor person’s income and the global poverty line of $1.90 a day.
The average person in extreme poverty lives on $1.33 per day. It would therefore take just $0.57 per day to rescue them from this plight. That observation invites a thought experiment. If it were somehow possible to transfer without cost the right amount of money into the right hands, how much would it take to end extreme poverty altogether? The answer is just $159 billion a year, according to the World Bank, or less than 0.2% of global GDP.How the other tenth lives, The Economist, 2016, Archived Link, retrieved 6 April 2017.
Research and development expenditure as a % of GDP was about 2.1% in 2013.
Source: World Bank, 2013 data, Link, retrieved April-2017.
If world GDP is about $75 trillion annually (see footnote 6) it would cost about $1.6 trillion per year to double global R&D.
Globally an estimated 263 million children and youth are out of school. If we suppose it would cost $1000 per year to provide them with education, that would be $263 billion per year.
Source: UNESCO Institute for Statistics, Archived Link, retrieved 6 April 2017.
In 2012 contributions to the arts totalled $31 billion annually, so it would cost $31 billion to double it.
Source: Archived Link, retrieved 6 April 2017.
Summing all the above gets us to just over $2 trillion annually, so we’d still have $1.5 trillion to spare. So, although all these figures are very imprecise, we don't doubt the basic point that it would be a huge amount of resources to the most urgent problems.
If this many resources were actually suddenly given to charity, it would take time for the economy to adapt, and might have other unpredictable effects; however, these figures at least show there is the potential for enormous gains from greater and more effective charitable giving.↩
- For a detailed discussion of the origins and accuracy of this graph see our blog post How accurately does anyone know the global distribution of income?
Briefly, the data for percentiles 1 to 79 were taken from PovcalNet: the on-line tool for poverty measurement developed by the Development Research Group of the World Bank. Note that this is in fact a measure of consumption, which closely tracks income and is the standard way of tracking the wealth of people towards the lower part of the distribution. The data for income percentiles 80 to 99 were provided by Branko Milanović in private correspondence.↩
- According to the World Bank US GDP was about $18 trillion in 2015, 0.2% of that is $36bn (data retrieved April-2017). Over a four year term that’s $144bn.↩