No matter which career you choose, anyone can make a difference by donating to charity, engaging in advocacy, or volunteering.
Unfortunately, many attempts to do good in this way are ineffective, and some actually cause harm.
Take sponsored skydiving. 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. What could be the harm in that?
Quite a bit, actually. 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 charities, the health service spent roughly £13, so the net effect was to reduce resources for health services. Ironically, many of the charities supported focused on health-related matters.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 the organisation FORGE cut its volunteering scheme to be more effective, it 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 effective charities.
- Advocating for important causes.
- Helping others be more effective.
Reading time: 12 minutes
Table of Contents
- 1 1. Donating effectively
- 2 2. What if you don’t want to give money? How to help through effective political advocacy
- 3 3. Being a “multiplier” to help others be more effective
- 4 Conclusion: anyone can make a difference
- 5 Want to come back later?: Get the guide as a free book
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 good can donations do? 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 saw in part one, 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 a half-point gain in life satisfaction on a scale of 1 to 10.
These surveys have been extended across the world. There are examples in the chart below.2
Poor people served by GiveDirectly in Kenya have an average individual consumption of about $800 per year.3 This figure is based on how much $800 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 has an annual individual working income of about $77,000 (in 2023), or $54,500 post-tax.4 This means that, assuming the above relationship holds, a dollar will do about 68 times more good if you give it to someone in Kenya rather than spending it on yourself.5
If someone earning that average level of income were to donate 10%, they could double the annual income of seven people living in extreme poverty each year. Over the course of their career, they could have a major positive impact on hundreds of people.
Grace is a typical recipient of donations from GiveDirectly. She’s a 48-year-old 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 saw earlier in the guide, once you start earning more than about $55,000 per year,6 extra income won’t affect your happiness that much — while acts that help others, like giving to charity, probably 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.7 In part, this is probably because happier people give more, but we expect some of the effect runs the other way too.
(Read more about whether giving 10% will make you happier.)
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,8 estimates that its top charities (such as Helen Keller International and the Against Malaria Foundation) can prevent a death for about every $5,000 in donations it receives.9 In addition, this provides other benefits that come with the treatment of malaria — such as improved overall quality of life and increased income — which causes further positive 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 the previous article, we estimated that a typical doctor in clinical medicine saves three lives over their career. So by donating 10% of your income, you could achieve around 10 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. We’ll discuss why we think pandemics are more pressing than global health later in the guide, and you can read our separate article about which charities are highest impact.
If everyone in the richest 10% of the world’s population donated 10% of their income, that would be $5 trillion per year.10 That would be enough to double scientific research funding, raise everyone in the world above the $2.15 per 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 $1 trillion in mitigating climate change. None of this would be straightforward to achieve, but it at least illustrates the enormous potential of greater giving.11
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 $60,000 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.
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
Many of the staff 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.
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 9,000 people who’ve collectively pledged over $3 billion.
The pledge is not for everyone. We’d recommend being cautious if you’re planning to have an impact mainly through your work (especially if that might involve lower-wage work, like at a charity), if you have significant debt or financial problems, or if you’re not sure you can stick to it.
And if you’re not quite ready yet, Giving What We Can allows you to take a “trial 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.
2. What if you don’t want to give money? 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 1 in 10 million and 1 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 $187 billion in extra foreign aid over their four-year term.14 One millionth of that is $187,000. 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.)
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 meeting. We think this is likely to be even more true if you’re careful to focus on the most important and more neglected issues.
3. Being a “multiplier” to 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, if you could enable two other people to give 10% of their income to charity, that would have even more impact than doing it yourself.
These are both examples of being a multiplier. By mobilising others, it’s often possible to do more than you could through just your own efforts.
Some ways you can be a multiplier include:
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. (But look out for accidentally putting people off.)
This is also not just about raising awareness of an issue. 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.
You can do this by talking about the issues with your friends, sharing resources with them, posting links and ideas on social media, or simply by leading by example.
You can also help more indirectly by attempting to uphold important values — like compassion towards others, including animals and future generations; or having an open, honest, scientific mindset towards new evidence.
For example, Ben cofounded SecureBio with Kevin Esvelt. In Ben’s opinion, Kevin has designed the most comprehensive agenda to radically reduce the chances of future pandemics. By directing SecureBio’s strategy and operations, Ben enables Kevin to perform more research, and so also contributes to preventing pandemics.
(For more information about helping people who are already having a big impact, see our career review about being a high-impact assistant.)
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.15
You can also read more about effective volunteering.
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.”
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.
- Help others have 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.
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’ll cover in the next three articles.