5 things you've got wrong about the Giving What We Can Pledge

9 min read
15 May 2024

How well do you know the details of the Giving What We Can Pledge? A surprising number of people we’ve spoken to — including many who know a lot about effective giving — shared some or all of these pledge misconceptions.

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Misconception #1: If you sign the pledge, you have to donate at least 10% of your income each year.

The Giving What We Can Pledge is a public commitment to donate at least 10% of your lifetime income to the organisations that can most effectively use it to improve the lives of others. Giving 10% of your income each year is a good rule of thumb for most people, as it helps them stay on track with their lifetime pledge. However, there are certainly cases where it doesn’t make sense to give annually. Provided you continue reporting your income1 on your personal pledge dashboard, the “Overall Progress” bar will show you where you are with respect to fulfilling your lifetime pledge.This way, you can continue to progress towards your lifetime pledge even if you need to skip a year.

While we recommend giving annually for most people, here are two examples of cases where it might make sense to skip, bunch, or otherwise donate on a non-annual basis:

  • Tax benefits: In some cases, donating every few years instead of every year is better from a tax benefit perspective. For example, if you live in the U.S., you often have to donate quite a lot in order to receive tax benefits for a particular year. Thus, some U.S. pledgers “bunch” their donations by saving the amount they would have donated and then donating a much larger sum every 2-3 years.
  • Significant financial commitments: Not all years are equal from a finance perspective. Perhaps you were hit with a bunch of medical expenses this year, or you made a down payment on a house. While many pledgers are able to fulfill these commitments and continue donating, for some, it may make sense to skip a year and then “catch up” over the next few. Provided you remain serious about fulfilling your pledge, and are able to increase your percentage in the next few years to make up for the skip, this is perfectly reasonable and still very much in keeping with your lifetime income pledge!

Misconception #2: Only the charities on the Giving What We Can Platform count towards your pledge

The Giving What We Can Pledge is a public commitment to donate at least 10% of your lifetime income to the organisations that can most effectively use it to improve the lives of others.

This means you can donate to any organisation you’d like, as long as you have good reason to believe it qualifies as a highly-effective organisation. (We do suggest familiarising yourself with the concepts of effective giving, our high-impact causes page, and our charity recommendations and donation platform when deciding where to give, because the effectiveness part of the pledge is a key aspect of its impact.)

It’s also a more seamless experience to choose from the charities on our platform, because you won’t have to do any reporting; you’ll merely choose where to donate, set up recurring payments, and then these payments will automatically show up on your pledge dashboard and be counted towards your pledge. That said, you can absolutely donate to an organisation outside of our platform; you’ll just need to report it on the pledge dashboard yourself if you want to see your progress.

We’ve used the word “pledge” to signify a serious commitment. However, this type of pledge is different from “pledge” as defined by the IRS or in a similar legal context. The Giving What We Can pledge is not legally binding. It is, rather, a serious commitment made to yourself and displayed publicly that you will donate at least 10% of income to the organisations you believe can most effectively use it to improve the lives of others. As such, you can:

While we see the pledge as a serious commitment, we hear from some that they are scared to take it because they don’t know what the future holds. We think, depending on the level of uncertainty you have, it’s usually better to pledge and give yourself the option of resigning if you need to than to never pledge at all. If your level of uncertainty is relatively high, we would recommend a trial pledge, which you can do for a set amount of time and then renew or increase if appropriate.

Misconception #4: There’s no plausibly good reason to sign the pledge if you’re already donating 10% or more

(Note: This isn’t to imply that anyone who doesn’t find reasoning similar to the below compelling holds a “misconception.” Rather, it’s intended to express that an argument can be made for the value of signing a pledge even if you are already donating.)

One of the primary reasons the Giving What We Can Pledge was created was to help influence the social norms around charitable giving, with the goal of making it common and expected for people in high-income countries to give a portion of their resources to help those in need. So while the pledge is a great tool for living up to your own values and holding yourself accountable, signing it is about much more than this: it’s about being part of a global effort to fundamentally change how people in high-income countries approach charitable giving.

We go over some of this in our How change happens video (an oldie but a goodie!) Here, we discuss the power of social proof in setting norms and influencing behaviour. Signing the pledge contributes to the goal of widespread adoption — the longer the list of names, the more normal pledging becomes. And even before we get to the “norm setting” vision, we’ll be inspiring others to give more significantly and more effectively, helping to get to a better world.

The sceptics among us might think: that all sounds plausible in theory, but practically, how much good would adding my name really do? Well, that depends. Let’s say only one other person in your network hears that you took the pledge and is inspired to do the same. That could drastically increase the impact of your pledge, especially if this person wouldn’t have otherwise heard about the pledge and wasn’t already donating. (And this isn’t all that unlikely considering that awareness of the pledge in the general population is quite low.) If two people in your network were inspired to pledge based on your decision, that would be even more impactful.2 While one or two people might not seem like a lot, if you consider how much good 10% of even a modest income could do over someone’s lifetime, it should begin to feel more valuable. For example, around $200 a month donated to one of GiveWell’s top charities would be enough to prevent someone’s death…every two years. So if you got two extra people to donate this amount over the course of their lifetime (who wouldn’t have otherwise donated)3 that’s a lot of suffering and death prevented — not to mention anyone they might inspire to pledge down the line!

Perhaps you're also sceptical that anyone in your network is going to follow suit. Maybe you aren’t really planning to talk about the pledge, add it to your email signature, or post about it on social media. Or maybe you are planning to do these things but you don’t think they’ll make a difference.

Whatever the case, even if you don’t directly inspire anyone else to take the pledge, you’ll still be adding to the total number of pledgers and contributing to that goal of widespread adoption discussed above.4 In other words, down the line, your action (combined with the action of other similarly on-the-fence donors who didn’t see any value in pledging) could collectively greatly increase the number of people involved in this global effort to change the norms around charitable giving.5 And this could significantly move the needle: for example, imagine you come across something that seems interesting and compelling but only fifty people have done it. Now, imagine you come across something that seems interesting and compelling and 50,000 people have done it. In which case would you be more likely to sign up?

But what about the marginal value of adding my name, you say? Well, I’d argue that — looked at from today’s vantage point — the marginal value of an extra name may be low, if you don’t expect anyone to follow suit. But looked at from some vantage point in the future, each of those names that contributed to reaching 50,000 or more pledgers played an extremely important role. This means that the marginal value of your signature will be higher the earlier you are in that list.

Put another way, widespread adoption is a slow process, but being a first follower (the first person to jump on board, or in the case of the pledge, one of the first 10,000 or even 20,000 to jump on board) is one of the best ways to help achieve it. After all, it’s much easier — and much less impressive — to do something that nearly everyone is doing. So if you care about the marginal value of your contribution, it’s best to jump on board as early as possible.

And if you’re not convinced by the above, that’s okay. I see your marginal value…and I raise you a counterfactual. In other words, what’s the marginal value of not adding your name if you’re already donating? (See misconception #3 if you’re concerned about constraining your future self forever; see misconceptions #1 and #5 if you're concerned about flexibility.)

So maybe it’s time for a reframe: if you already donate 10% or more, perhaps there’s no good reason not to sign the pledge. After all, you’re already doing the hard part. And there may very well be quite a bit of value in making it official.

Misconception #5: There’s only one pledge

The Giving What We Can pledge actually has several options:

  • You can pledge exactly 10% of your lifetime income.
  • You can pledge more than 10% of your lifetime income.
  • You can choose to pledge 2.5% of your wealth instead of 10% of your income, if this amount is larger.

Outside of the standard Giving What We Can Pledge, there are also other pledge options that you may or may not be aware of:

  • There’s a Trial Pledge for people who aren’t quite ready for a 10% or lifetime commitment but are interested in making some commitment. The Trial Pledge allows you to pledge a custom percentage of income for a custom amount of time. You can then renew your pledge when it expires, either at the same level or with a gradual increase. Or, you can decide to upgrade to the full Giving What We Can pledge when you’re ready. Some people who wish to pledge a percentage of their income but don’t ever want to do 10% keep renewing their trial pledge for their entire career.
  • There’s a Further Pledge where you can choose to live on a specific allowance and then pledge everything above that. Some people prefer this way of thinking about giving, as they find it easier to choose what they need to live on than to commit to giving away a specific percentage.
  • There’s a Company Pledge, where you donate 10% or more of company profits annually.

So….how did you stack up? Or more accurately — how did we stack up? We’d love to know just how common these misconceptions are so that we can improve our communications going forward. You can help by filling out this 1-min survey (which just involves clicking yes/no/not sure to each of the five misconceptions we covered to indicate if you would have thought it was a true statement prior to reading this post.)