My Year-End Giving Summary

Where and how I donated in 2020

This is a follow-up to my earlier article about why I donate 10% of my income to charity.

In that piece, I talked about why I made a public commitment to giving away 10% of my lifetime income, but I didn’t get into how I direct those donations. I’ll do that in this piece, as well as share a breakdown of how my distributions panned out in 2020, and some practical tips that have helped me stick to my commitment.

Where I Donate

I’m far more confident in my commitment towards donating generally than I am in my decisions about where to donate—which is kind of ironic, since donating to the wrong places could obviate or even negate the theoretical good that comes from donating. (For example, I’d argue that someone who donates 10% of their income to Harvard is probably adding less net benefit to the world than if they just spent that money throwing awesome parties.)

As a starting point, I generally follow the principles of effective altruism, a utilitarian philosophical movement that uses evidence-based analysis to figure out where one’s donations can do the most good.

EA—which is both a general philosophy and a specific philanthropic organization—was a significant innovation in philanthropy. It’s a vast improvement over the way most people donate, which is usually based on some combination of what makes them feel good and what’s been in the news lately. It seems obvious to me that if you’re deciding between funding, say, clean drinking water or deworming in the developing world, you should just figure out which gives you the most bang for your buck. (Spoiler alert: it’s deworming.)

It gets trickier when you start to think about the long term. We can easily compare the relative effectiveness of two direct health interventions, but what’s the most effective way to put your money to use to, say, stop climate change? The EA movement has done some thinking about this; by default, when you donate to their general fund, 25% of your donation is allocated to their long-term future fund, which focuses on low-likelihood, high-downside risks like advanced AI and pandemics (timely).

I donate to the general EA fund and leave all the allocations at their default: 25% each to global health, animal welfare, long-term risks, and EA infrastructure (the meta fund that helps promote the merits of effective altruism itself). I do this for basically the same reason I invest in index funds—smarter people have thought about this more than I have, and I’d rather just trust their conclusions.

56% of my donations went to Effective Altruism Funds this year.

Okay, But What About Politics?

Effective altruists generally recommend against donating to political candidates, for two reasons: 1) politics is full of money already, so the marginal impact of an additional donation is likely to be low, and 2) calculating the impact of a political donation on a specific outcome is almost impossible.

Nonetheless, 20% of my donations this year went to political causes—largely Democratic Senate candidates, with a bit to Stacey Abrams’ voting rights org Fair Fight. I give to political causes for two reasons that fall outside the traditional logic of effective altruism.

The first is that my personal ethics allow some prioritization of doing good in America over doing good elsewhere. I go back and forth on this point, as it’s based as much on a gut feeling as it is on concrete logic.

My best practical argument here is the Kantian idea that since we know our own communities better than others, a world in which no one prioritized their own communities would be extremely inefficient. I don’t think that argument takes you all the way, though. I could be easily convinced in a conversation that all political donations are ethically suboptimal, but intuitively this still feels like the right thing to do, and as much as I acknowledge that our intuitions are not always a reliable moral guide, I have trouble fully overriding them.

The second reason I give to political causes is that I’m willing to take Rube Goldberg-esque gambles on addressing issues I care about. In a perfect world, the causal chain of my donations to Democratic Senate candidates goes something like this: my preferred candidates win > Dems take Senate > Senate passes ambitious climate legislation > U.S. leads as a model for other nations > climate change is addressed.

There are so many places this chain of events could break down that analyzing the impact of my donations is basically impossible, especially compared to something like direct cash transfers to the poor. Still, I believe some risk here is worth taking when these more complex issues are at stake.

You can apply EA principles even when donating to causes that, like political candidates, EA would disapprove of. For example, I donated $500 to Mark Kelly’s Senate campaign in a fit of pique after Ruth Bader Ginsburg died. Had I done a bit more research, I would have learned that Kelly was heavily favored to win and had more money than he knew what to do with already; my $500 would have been better spent on a different candidate.

Practical Tips (i.e. How to Not Cheat)

My first tip for sticking to a commitment like this was implicitly addressed in the last section: don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Since I direct the majority of my donations to EA Funds, and generally try to think about how I can do the most good with my money, I can already be confident that my donations are vastly more effective than the average person’s. I therefore don’t worry about squeezing out that last 10% of efficiency, especially since doing so might turn donating into a chore and therefore make me less likely to adhere to this commitment in the long run.

I also make my donations manually, every time I receive new income, rather than setting anything on auto-payment, or putting money into a separate account and making one big donation at the end of the year. I’ve found that this maximizes the good feelings I get from donating, which helps me want to keep doing this. I don’t want these donations to become like a Netflix account, getting charged to my credit card in the background while I forget all about them. (Just kidding, I still leech off my parents’ Netflix account, but you get the idea.)

Lastly, if one of my friends (defined loosely) is raising money for a cause, I always donate, no matter what the cause is. (I suppose I would make an exception for a cause I found actively objectionable, but such a case has yet to arise.) When I was crowdfunding for my Detroit mansion restoration project—which wasn’t even a charitable cause—I remember how meaningful it was to see friends, especially those I wasn’t super close to, chip in $10 or $25.

Where I Donated in 2020

Here’s the full breakdown of where all my charitable contributions went in 2020. This reflects giving that was well thought out, as well as the occasional impulse donation or error in judgment, like that $500 to Mark Kelly.

This system is assuredly not perfect, but looking at this graph, I feel pretty good about where my money went in 2020. I’ll update you again next year.

Yours in realizing these signoffs are my version of the Simpsons couch gag,

Max


Read of the week: this post on some obscure blog, which I forget how I found, asking if 2020 was a good year. Six short perspectives, my favorite of which is the first: “1. It was a bad year because all years are bad years, full of human misery.”