Learning about effective altruism can be intimidating at first.
Given so many opportunities to make the world a better place, shouldn’t we invest all of our resources towards that goal? Even if it comes at the cost of our wellbeing, doesn’t the outsize impact of our actions justify giving it all we’ve got?
Helen Toner describes her experience applying this mentality to her work at Open Philanthropy:
"It got to the point where — even though I cared a great deal about the work, loved my coworkers, and felt lucky to have the job — some days I just felt miserable. I wanted to run away, go live by the ocean, and never think about any of it ever again."
But fortunately, she came away from the experience with a better outlook.
"If we prioritize sustainable motivation — which means building a rhythm that works for you — we can remain motivated over the course of decades, rather than pushing ourselves hard for a few years in our twenties."
Though she was primarily focused on motivation at work, her point applies equally well to charitable giving. Many factors go into how to donate, but charitable giving should be sustainable in order to be effective in the long-term.
Donating should be something you can continue indefinitely as part of a healthy lifestyle — it must not incur large personal costs or risk burnout. In other words, philanthropy should be rewarding and should lend support to your pursuit of a good life.
Beyond the personal benefits, this approach to giving can increase your lifetime impact and help get others involved. Let’s look at why it can increase the effectiveness of your donations and how altruists can ensure that their giving is sustainable.
On a purely practical level, giving sustainably can increase your lifetime contributions to charity. Giving excessive amounts to charity risks causing financial distress or burnout. These events can cut future contributions to virtually zero, counteracting the benefit of giving more in the present. In the moment, it may feel like giving more increases your impact, but too much generosity can limit your ability to do good over the long term. Remember, what matters is your total impact over your lifetime, not the amount you give this year. Taking the long view necessitates a robust approach to philanthropy that will last for decades.
The good you do doesn’t end with your personal donations, inspiring others to give means that you can multiply your impact. Crucially, giving sustainably can encourage others to donate. If philanthropists give sustainably while living happy and fulfilled lives, others will be more inclined to follow suit. But if philanthropists suffer under the burden of their generosity, few will emulate them. Your altruism doesn’t occur in isolation, you are a role model for a particular approach to doing good. Taking a more inclusive approach to increasing total contributions means providing an achievable example so that others can follow in your footsteps.
"Nobody is perfect. This gives us license not to be perfect either. Instead of aiming for an impossible goal, falling short, and not doing anything at all, we set an arbitrary but achievable goal designed to encourage the most people to do as much as possible. That goal is ten percent." --- Scott Alexander, Nobody Is Perfect, Everything Is Commensurable
Perhaps paradoxically, giving sustainably starts with helping yourself. Simply put, if you cannot take care of yourself, you are not in a good position to help others. Ignoring your physical, mental, relationship, and career health is just as unsustainable as donating too much. Beyond promoting giving and maintaining donations long term, your happiness is just as important as the happiness of those you seek to help. A person who focuses on charity at the cost of making themselves miserable is counteracting some of the good they do. As Julia Wise points out, the importance of self-care can often be lost on younger altruists:
"But younger people in particular seem to struggle with the balance of self-care and altruism. Often after I speak to a student group, someone will tell me they wonder if they're wrong to spend money traveling to visit far-away friends or buying things for the mother that scrimped to send them to college. It's hard to think of a better recipe for burnout than distancing yourself from friends and family! No, I don't recommend cutting out this kind of thing if you want your passion for helping others to last more than a few years."
Giving sustainably also entails giving regularly, which has several benefits.
First, giving regularly can serve as a consistent reminder that your actions are having a positive impact, which can improve your long-term motivation. The warm glow that comes with doing good can help reinforce the habit.
Second, regular donations remind others about the importance of charity and demonstrate your commitment to philanthropy. This goes hand-in-hand with the goal of promoting altruism to other people.
Third, like with most habits, repetition is key. Donating on a regular schedule makes philanthropy a consistent part of your life and it becomes easier to maintain over the long term. Just think about how much easier it is to stay active when you make a weekly commitment to exercise.
Fourth, spreading your giving out over regular intervals makes it easier to adapt financially. Frequent donations directly impact your budget more than a large payment deferred years into the future. This immediate feedback can help you adjust the amount you give and ensure that it is compatible with your lifestyle.
Giving effectively is also an important part of giving sustainably. Many people find giving to cost-effective charities incredibly meaningful. The sheer number of lives that can be improved through effective donations is excellent motivation to continue giving. Finding impactful causes you are truly excited about is the best way to make philanthropy rewarding, making it that much easier to stay consistent.
Giving sustainably helps ensure that philanthropy is a continuous, fulfilling part of your life. Considering that it can raise your contributions all while setting a good example for others, sustainable giving should be a priority for all altruists.