Blog post

Member Profile: Michael Aird

6 min read
13 Nov 2020

This profile is part of the "People of Giving What We Can" series.


Tell us about your effective giving journey.

When I was a teenager, I started doing late-night Wikipedia philosophy article binges. This led to me feeling struck both by how privileged I am, and also by how much more joy and less suffering the world could have. I wanted to do something about this.

During those years, I learned about the philosophy of utilitarianism, and the charity recommendations of GiveWell and Giving What We Can. I started to think that, even as just an ordinary person, I could have a big impact if I donated a significant amount to those charities.

At that point, my plan was to first get a job and a house and then donate everything I earned above around 20,000AUD to GiveWell-recommended charities.

In 2018, I got my first full-time job. I chose that job because I thought it'd be a good way to make a difference. Halfway through the year, I started wondering whether I was really having much of an impact. So I started looking more closely into GiveWell's recommendations, basically just to get warm fuzzies from thinking about all the impact I'd later have via donating (even if my job itself wasn't doing much). I also found myself on the 80,000 Hours website, learning more about how I could make the world better through my career itself.

These sites then led me to the effective altruism movement, which I was so excited to discover. It turned out there was this whole community of fantastic people thinking hard about how to do the most good, and then working hard to actually do it!

This scenic route led me back to Giving What We Can, and I decided to finally actually take The Pledge, after years of just planning to take it later.

During this process, I learned a lot more about some important ways to make a difference that I'd never properly thought about before. One of these ways was to help ensure the long-term survival and flourishing of humanity -- this the cause I've now switched my career and donations to focus on.

What motivates you to give?

There are ways in which my life is far easier than the lives of many others (including the lives of nonhuman animals). This imbalance is through no fault of those others, and no particular good deeds of mine. And there may even be future generations who never get to exist due to our actions this century, which would of course also be no fault of theirs.

I'm motivated to give because there really are some cost-effective ways to improve the lives of those people and animals, now and into the future. It's not "$5 a day will totally fix the world's problems", but rather, "a bunch of people who care a decent amount can genuinely change things".

This ability to improve lives makes giving feel to me both like a responsibility ("with great power comes great responsibility") and like an exciting opportunity (which helps me perk myself up).

Also, I'm quite a happy guy in general, but sometimes I get a feeling of aimlessness or wonder what I'm doing with my life. That's become far less common since I learned about effective altruism, took the Giving What We Can Pledge, and better aimed my career at making a difference.

Why did you take the Giving What We Can Pledge?

I took The Pledge because I want to increase the chance that I actually follow-through on my beliefs. Making a public pledge seems like a good way to do that. I hope it might cause some other people to also consider giving effectively.

Which organizations do you give to?

Last year I mostly gave to the Effective Altruism Long-Term Future Fund. This year I'm likely to give to the Alliance to Feed the Earth in Disasters (ALLFED) and/or the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute.

Do you ever find it difficult to give?

To be honest, not really. I think this partly reflects how privileged I've been. But I think it's also because I'd been planning to give a large share of my income since before I actually had an income, and I took the pledge within a year of starting my first full-time job. So I never really became accustomed to the idea of earning a lot of money without using a substantial portion of it to benefit others. And it therefore doesn't feel like giving is "costing" me some of what I'd come to expect.

Do you try to effect change in any other way?

After learning about the effective altruism movement, I decided to switch my career path. I now do research aimed at increasing the chance of a flourishing long-term future, including by reducing risks of extreme catastrophes. I also do some volunteering (e.g. helping run events for my local effective altruism group) and some common-sense do-goody things (e.g. donating blood).

What effective giving tips would you like to share?

I think it probably makes sense for many people to save or invest a decent amount of money that can be given later (when you've earned interest or learned more about where to donate), or that can provide you with the security needed to make "riskier" career decisions in order to have more impact. So if someone ultimately wants to give 10%, it could still make sense to take the Try Giving pledge first. If someone ultimately wants to give more than 10%, it could make sense to stick to 10% first, and then aim to give a lot of savings later (that's the approach I'm currently taking).

By the way, here are two sources that influenced my thinking on that:

What are your visions for the future?

For one thing, it'd be wonderful if more people cared more about reducing suffering and increasing flourishing for all beings - including people far away, people in the future, and animals - and about using clever, cost-effective approaches for doing that. This might look like far more people taking the Giving What We Can pledge, or adopting some of the principles of effective altruism. But if they get there some other way, that's great, too!

Have you found anything helpful in talking to people about effective giving?

I generally try to share my story, my reasons for giving, and my reasons for trying to be effective in my giving. I think that might work better than directly trying to convince people of what they should do.

This interview is part of the “People of Giving What We Can" series which profiles a selection of the Giving What We Can community. The Giving What We Can is a community of people from all walks of life, with different perspectives and motivations for giving – all united by their desire to make a significant commitment to use their income to effectively helping others. Read more member stories. Share your effective giving story to help inspire others to give more, and more effectively.

For more information about Giving What We Can we recommend you check out our frequently asked questions, our effective giving recommendations, our giving pledges, and our homepage.