No matter which career you choose, anyone can make a difference by donating to charity, engaging in advocacy, or volunteering — especially if you do so in the most effective ways we’ll introduce here.
Unfortunately, many attempts to help others in these ways are ineffective, and some even make things worse.
Take 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 throw themselves out of planes to draw attention to whatever charity they’ve chosen to support. This sounds like a win-win: The fundraiser gets an exhilarating once-in-a-lifetime experience while raising money for a worthy cause.
However, according to a study of two popular parachuting centres, over a five-year period (1991 to 1995) approximately 1,500 people went skydiving for charity and collectively raised more than £120,000. That sounds 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.
Second, 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 (usually health-related) charities, the health service spent roughly £13, so the net effect was to reduce resources for health services.1
What about volunteering? One problem is that volunteers need to be managed. If untrained volunteers use the time of trained managers, it’s easy for them to cost the organisation more than the value they add.
In fact, the main reason many volunteering schemes persist is that if someone is a volunteer for an organisation, they are more likely to donate. When FORGE cut their volunteering scheme to be more effective, they inadvertently triggered a big drop in donations.
So while volunteering can be effective in the right circumstances, it’s often not.
In our research, we’ve found that any college graduate in a rich country can do a huge amount to improve the lives of others — and they can do this without changing jobs, or making big sacrifices.
We’ll cover three examples: donating 10% of your income to an effective charity, advocating for important causes, and helping others be more effective.
Table of Contents
- 1 1. Donating effectively
- 2 2. How to help through effective political advocacy
- 3 3. Make a difference by being a ‘multiplier’ — and help others be more effective
- 4 Conclusion: Anyone can make a difference
1. Donating effectively
How can you take whichever job you find the most personally rewarding, and do a huge amount of good?
Give 10% of your income to the world’s poorest people. It’s as simple as that.
How much of a difference can donations make? A lower bound
Since 2008, GiveDirectly has made it possible to give cash directly to the poorest people in East Africa via mobile phone.
We don’t think this the most effective way to donate to charity by any means – later we’ll discuss higher-impact approaches – but it’s simple and quantifiable, so it makes a good starting point.
As we’ve written about, the more money you have, the less additional money will improve your life. For instance, in the US, doubling your 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. (Though note this shows correlation only – 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 already takes account of the fact that money goes further in poor countries.
The average US college graduate had an annual individual working income of about $77,000 in 2017, or $54,000 post-tax.3 This means that, assuming the above relationship holds, a dollar will do about 108 times more good if you give it to someone in Kenya rather than spending it on yourself.4
If someone earning that average level of income were to donate 10%, they could double the annual income of 11 people living in extreme poverty each year. Over the course of this person’s career, they 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?
Normally when we think of doing good with our careers, we think of paths like becoming a teacher or charity worker, which often pay under half what you could earn in the private sector, and may not align with your skills or interests. Compared to switching to those careers, giving 10% of your income could easily be less of a sacrifice.
Moreover, as we’ve discussed, once you start earning more than about $40,000 per year as an individual, 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.
(Read more on whether giving 10% of your income 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 that you can send your money to the best organisations in the world, working on the biggest and most neglected issues. 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. GiveWell, a leading independent charity evaluator, estimates that the Against Malaria Foundation can prevent a death for about every $4,000 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.
With a typical US graduate salary, donating 10% of your income to the Against Malaria Foundation could therefore 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 a previous article, we estimated that a typical doctor in clinical medicine saves five lives over their career. So by donating 10% of your income, you could achieve eight times as much impact.
We’ve just used the 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.
Some charities work on issues that seem even higher stakes and more neglected, such as preventing a catastrophic pandemic. See our summary of which issues we think are most pressing (or this more popular introduction).
Some charities use approaches that potentially offer a greater scale of impact per dollar than direct services, such as research and advocacy. We think it’s often possible to do more good by taking a ‘hits based’ approach.
Read more about how to identify the most effective charity to donate to.
Whatever you think is the best way to spend the money, the impact of making donating 10% of your income more normal would be profound. If everyone in the richest 10% of the world’s population donated 10% of their income, that would be $4.4 trillion per year.7 That would be enough to double scientific research funding, raise everyone in the world above the $1.90/day poverty line, provide universal basic education, and still have plenty left to fund a renaissance in the arts, go to Mars, and then invest a trillion dollars in mitigating climate change. None of this would be straightforward to achieve, but it at least illustrates the enormous potential of greater giving.8
How is this possible?
It’s astonishing that we can do so much good while sacrificing so little. How 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 citizens of countries like the US and the UK, we know we’re rich by global standards, but we don’t usually 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 this quick calculator (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 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 have been so persuaded by these arguments that we’ve pledged to give at least 10% of our lifetime income to the world’s most effective charities.
Some of the team, like Habiba, actually went a bit further and pledged to donate all income above a certain threshold, chosen to be the amount they think they need to stay happy and productive, adjusted for inflation.
We did it through an organisation called Giving What We Can, with whom we are partnered.
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.
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% until after you graduate. You’ll be joining over 5,000 people who’ve collectively pledged over a billion dollars.
The pledge is not for everyone. We’d recommend being cautious if you’re planning to have an impact mainly through your work, and especially if that might involve lower-wage work (e.g. at a charity), if you have significant debt or financial problems, or if you’re not sure you can stick to it.
If you’re interested in taking the pledge but not quite ready yet, Giving What We Can allows you to pledge to give as little as 1% of your income for any period you choose to see how it goes before making any long-term commitment with the Try Giving pledge. Another option is to donate your will or see this advice on saving money.
If you’d like to learn more about how to pick an effective charity, read our article.
2. How to help through effective political 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 generally 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 US electoral system is determined at the state 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.
Remember, the US federal government is very, very 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 if voting takes you an hour, it could be the most important hour — the highest in expected value -—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 on why voting is important.)
We’ve used the example of voting since it’s quantifiable, but we expect the basic idea — the very small chance of changing a very big thing — applies to other forms of (well-chosen) advocacy, such as petitioning your Congressperson, getting out the vote for the right candidate, or going to a town hall. We think this is likely to be even more true if you’re careful to focus on the most important and more neglected issues, though more work is needed to determine the best policies to promote.
If you’d like to explore advocacy more, see all our articles and podcasts on the topic.
3. Make a difference by being a ‘multiplier’ — and help others be more effective
Suppose you don’t have any money or power, and you don’t feel like you can contribute by working on an important problem. What then?
One option is to try to change that. We cover how to invest in yourself — no matter what job you have — in a separate article.
That aside, you might know someone who does have some money, power, or skills. So you can make a difference by helping them achieve more.
For instance, suppose you’ve come across a high-impact job, but you’re not sure it’s a good fit for your skills. If you can tell someone else about the job, and they take it, that does as much good as taking it yourself, and in fact more if they’re a better fit for it than you (and saves you a lot of time!).
This is an example of being a multiplier. By mobilising others, it’s often possible to do more than you could through just your own efforts.
For whichever global issues you think are most pressing and neglected, you can find ways to share them with others. This is not about preaching, or struggling to convince people. Only share with people you think will find the issue interesting; you probably know some who would.
This is also not just about raising awareness. Try to identify concrete actions that people can take which might help (like taking a specific job), and spread knowledge of those. Many people are interested in contributing if there’s an opportunity that’s actually effective.
Besides spreading issues, you can also spread important norms to guide action. There are many norms that are important to promote in society — see Everyday Longtermism by Owen Cotton-Barratt for a discussion in the context of longtermism.
One nice feature of taking a multiplier strategy is that you can multiply the efforts we mentioned earlier. For instance, if you pledge to donate 10% of your income to charity, you might well encourage someone else to do it as well, doubling your impact. Leading by example can be powerful, as many of our readers have discovered. Cass Sunstein’s research suggests that a few early adopters can sometimes trigger a chain of adoption by many others.
As another example of a multiplier, it’s often possible to raise more for charity through fundraising than you might be able to donate yourself. One easy example is to ‘donate your birthday’. Or, if you work at a company with a donation matching scheme, you might be able to encourage other employees to make use of it.
If you’re interested in effective altruism, then an especially good option in this category is to help run a local effective altruism group and to host events in your area or workplace groups. It’s often possible to get several other people interested in having a big impact, doing several times as much good as you might do by yourself.
If you’re still at university, you have especially good opportunities to reach people. We know several cases of people who seemed to have more impact by running a student group part-time than they did in their first years of work.
Another example of a multiplier strategy is to find someone who’s having a huge impact, and then to help them achieve more.
Kyle became the assistant to Nick Bostrom, a researcher he thinks is doing world-changing work. If he can save Nick time compared to the next-best assistant, then he’s enabling him to perform more research, and so also contributing to the world-changing work. Read more about being a high-impact assistant.
But you can also support people you know who are doing great work without changing jobs. For example, you can help them by giving them a great recommendation for a productivity tool. Or, if you have more experience in an area, you could give advice to someone less experienced.
What matters is that more good gets done, not that you do it with your own hands. 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”.
In summary, you can be a multiplier by:
- Telling people about high-impact opportunities
- Spreading knowledge about effective solutions to neglected global problems
- Leading by example and spreading good norms.
- Running a local effective altruism group
- Finding someone who’s having a big impact and helping them increase it
You can also read more about effective volunteering.
Conclusion: 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.
Here are some key ways to make a big positive impact without changing jobs:
- Give 10% of your income to effective charities
- Use your political influence, such as by voting or going to a town hall
- Help others have an impact, through mentoring, leading by example, or introducing them to ideas or resources
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.
What if you want to make a difference directly through your career? If you can achieve so much with just 10% of your income, then what you could achieve with your entire job over decades could be huge. That’s what we aim to help you do with most of our work at 80,000 Hours.