The effective altruist philosophy of giving to the most effective charities seeped into my consciousness in early 2014. Having been aware of Peter Singer from my university course (which steered a once fussy eater toward becoming a vegetarian enthusiast) I listened to his TED talk when it made it’s way into my podcast queue. I also accidentally stumbled across an inspiring Development Drums podcast interviewing Toby Ord about the principles behind Giving What We Can.
These ideas really resonated with me. Why should the fact that someone is miles away as opposed to right in front of me diminish my desire to help them? What must it be like to know that any day I, or my family, could get sick just from drinking water? Uncertainty at work makes me nervous but I know I always have family, even the state, to fall back on; what must it be like to know one bad harvest means loan sharks or starvation?
I gave money to charity previous to signing up to Try Giving, but based on the most emotive stories in TV. advertisements and the friendliest phone calls from volunteers, not on what cause would be the most effective. Yet when I really thought about it, about the individuals at stake and the extraordinary opportunity I had to help, how could I settle for that?
I also did the maths on my philanthropy. I thought I was quite generous with my donations each month, yet it turns out I was donating 0.01% of my income. Ouch.
We hear a lot in the news still today about how the richest 1% will soon own more than the rest of the world's population. It’s hard to comprehend. How can this be right? Why doesn’t somebody do something? And yet even average young professionals like my boyfriend and I fall within the richest 5% of the world! That shocked me. A lot. Maybe I should act.
Yet I have to be honest and say it still took me a while to act. It’s easy to procrastinate and make excuses. I have a very busy job, I’m trying to save to buy a house, there’s always a birthday or a bill or something coming up. Maybe when I’m a bit older. Maybe when I earn more.
As they say, why put off something until tomorrow that you can do today?
Fortunately for me I have a brilliant mechanism for encouraging myself into action. I have a Day Zero List. This is a list of 1001 things to do in 101 days - like a bucket list but with a time frame long enough to complete big projects, and short enough that there is some urgency to act. I added task 11 “Donate 5% of my income to charity for at least a year” and clarified to myself that it must be before tax income and should ideally be to one of Giving What We Can’s top charities.
So I did it. I put aside 5% of my income each month, went online and pressed ‘donate’.
Do you know what the funny thing was? After that it was easy. Having made the decision I no longer spent time making excuses to myself and devoted that energy instead to making it happen. From then on I really started to feel part of a wider community. A community full of passionate and compassionate people just looking to make the most difference they can in the world.
I chose to donate to the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI). It was frequently mentioned as a top effective charity but it didn’t seem to receive the attention of the Against Malaria Foundation for example. While the rationality of making the most difference possible appeals to me I have to admit I’ve been slightly swayed in a preference for SCI by enthusiastic, personable and regular emails from Alex in their team. She sends me regular updates on the latest data on the most effective interventions in Neglected Tropical Disease and provides that human element we all connect to, some information on the people it made a difference to. Effective Altruism hasn’t meant no longer caring about that emotive story: if anything I feel all the closer to others having given my donations so much conscious thought.
Yes I could have waited until I was able to give 10%, until I’d bought my house, got a better job. But what would that have meant for the specific people who received treatment now? Would they have gotten sick instead? Would a little boy have missed the chance to start school last year? Would a mother have gone blind?
I still plan to donate 10% and maybe I just need to take the plunge on that now too. Either way Try Giving gave me the perfect step to make a difference now. Why put off something you can do today? Why wait around to make the most difference possible when you can make an amazing difference right now?
Photo: flickr creative commons