How to approach the conversation about Giving What We Can

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Members of the Giving What We Can community often ask us what the best ways are to share their interest and involvement with others, whether friends, family or strangers. Many people find it hard to know how to approach conversations about charitable giving, yet the most common way our members first hear about us is through a friend, which shows just how valuable these sorts of conversations can be!

This guide is by no means a definitive answer, but offers some suggestions, based on anecdotal experiences gathered by staff from conversations we’ve had with people about giving more, and giving to more effective charities. Ultimately conversations are obviously very context-dependent, and outcomes will depend on your own background, the backgrounds of the people you’re speaking with, where and when they happen, and so on. But we hope it will be helpful to have some ideas to make these conversations easier!

Are you worried that your friends will think pledging sounds too rigid?

Here is a way to address that worry:

  • Pledging is like promising: it’s a serious commitment, but we all agree there might be cases in which it’s not possible to keep it. The Giving What We Can pledge is a promise, but like all promises it can be reasonably broken or suspended if something truly drastic comes up.  Something serious might happen, and it might make sense for you to suspend your pledge. The pledge fights against our natural disposition to assume that, no matter how much money we have, we need all of it to be happy.  That does not mean people should keep the pledge if it leads them to a particularly precarious situation.

Are you worried that 10% comes across as too extreme?

Some people are afraid that giving 10% will be too much for them personally, others might be worried about the impact this will have on their children.

Here are some things you could say that can help address that worry:

  • Frame it as spending/living on up to 90% of your income. This emphasises how much you still have left after giving 10%.
  • Compare it to taking a job with a 10% lower salary. Friends and family would often be supportive of this sort of decision if it e.g. made you happier, fitted your long term goals etc.
  • Many families get by on less and still look after their children really well. Also, many parents want their children to have everything they need, but don't want them to be spoiled. They want them to see that helping others is something that's important to the family they are brought up in.

Read about Lloyd, Julia, and Bernadette's experiences

Do you find it difficult to find ways to start the conversation?

Here are some ideas:

  • Talk about something you’ve recently done that is related to donating, Giving What We Can or effective altruism. If you volunteer for Giving What We Can or effective altruism, have joined a chapter, have attended talks, or read a related book, it can be good to start the conversation by commenting on these things. It might be easier to start from concrete experiences, rather than directly tackling the general topic!

  • Set up a fundraiser. You can ask your friends to donate to an effective charity as a way to celebrate your birthday or to sponsor you for a run. During that occasion, you can explain why you chose that charity and what those donations can achieve. Here is a blog post with some ideas on fundraising.

  • Share information on social media. Here are some ways:

Read about Catherine's experience

Are you afraid of coming across as preachy or boastful?

Here are some ideas to avoid that:

  • In general, present donating as an opportunity (rather than an obligation). It might help to present donating as an amazing opportunity to help others, and stress the incredible things that each of us can be achieve by donating to effective charities. Sometimes this is better than speaking in terms of moral obligation, since people are more likely to be put off by this sort of approach, and to become defensive or unreceptive.

However, being honest is really important. If you believe there is an obligation to donate effectively, and you think it’s important that people are aware of this, you should of course talk about that. There are also some situations where referring to an obligation may work well: for example when giving a talk, which is usually a more impersonal setting, or speaking to a very close friend, or someone who especially likes philosophical argument. To avoid any risk of being off-putting, it’s a good idea to avoid saying what other people should do, and instead to speak in the first person e.g. ‘…I realised I was very fortunate, and felt I should be doing more to help others…’.

  • Focus on the fact that donating is something that makes sense for you, given the way you are or what makes you happy (rather than presenting it as something they should do). It might be helpful to present it as a personal choice. For example, some people feel that by donating they are acting more in line with principles they hold, that they’re being more consistent. In general, trying to phrase things in terms of “the way I think about it” or “the way I feel about this” can help - since it stresses the fact that it’s an opinion.

  • Focus on facts that you found surprising. Another way to avoid a preachy tone is to present the topic by focusing on facts you found especially surprising: in this way, the point of the conversation becomes sharing new and interesting information, rather than admonishing someone for failing to donate. Here is a list with some ideas.

Read about Dominic and Catherine’s experiences

Are you worried about coming across as aggressive?

Here are some things you could say that can help address that worry:

  • Try to stress the fact that some organisations are exceptionally good, rather that saying that others are bad. Believing that we should fund the most effective organisations first is not the same as saying that less effective charities are doing something bad. Many of these organisations do good work, and do more with our money than what we do with it the majority of the time.

  • Volunteer objections to the conversation. Consider possible objections you think your interlocutor might have at the beginning of the conversation, even if they don’t bring them up themselves: this signals that you think the subject is complex and it avoids setting up the conversation in adversarial terms.

  • When presented with objections, try to understand these concerns and take them seriously. This is probably very obvious, but it can still be difficult to do. Suppose you are talking to someone about Giving What We Can after an event that was just put on, and suppose the person you’re talking to raises the following objection:

Objection: But won’t giving 10% make my children worse off than they would have been?  I’m not willing to do that to my kids.
Direct Response: If you give 10%, you’ll still be in the richest [e.g.] 1.5% of the world’s population.  Do you think it’s really legitimate for your kids to be complaining that they aren’t in the richest 1.2%?Persuasive Response: I understand how you feel. I don’t want to make any sacrifices on my kid’s behalf - that’s your worry, right?  Yeah, I can see that.  But when I thought about it more, I realised that by donating one can actually improve his or her children’s lives by demonstrating important values.  Or at least, that’s how I see it.

The first response has the details right - it gets right to the heart of things.  But it probably won’t persuade. The person you’re talking to will feel like you’re arguing with them, and that you haven’t really understood their objection.

The second response is better in several ways:

  • It acknowledges the objection and takes it seriously.
  • It ensures you’ve understood what they’re worried about.
  • It helps you find out whether the person was convinced.  This is a good way to draw out more objections, to get to the heart of what is preventing you from agreeing.

Read Hayden’s experience

Looking for some general suggestions?

  • Ask questions about people’s opinions/objections they may have. Questions can be a good way to figure out if the person you are speaking to has any uncertainties about the basic ideas of giving more or giving to more effective charities, and what these are. Try to understand these concerns and take them seriously. This also makes the conversation more relevant to them personally, rather than just being about something quirky that their nice friend does.

  • If your friends look interested, offer to give more information. Following up with people can be very important if they showed interest in effective giving or effective altruism - for instance by sending them the link to a TED Talk on effective giving, lending them a book on the topic, or inviting them to an event organised by your local chapter. You can find helpful resources here.

  • Know when to move on. Some people just aren’t interested, and may never be convinced. This is true even of people who profess to have ethical commitments that entail that they should be giving more. It can be demoralizing to pursue it with people who really aren’t interested (especially if they are hostile). In this case, do not insist -  just move the conversation onto a new topic.

  • Try not to feel disheartened. It’s easy to feel a bit disheartened when people don’t react very positively. This may be especially true when trying to communicate ideas you care about with people you are close to. Only a small percentage of people are likely to be really enthusiastic right away. So even if you feel like you haven’t made much headway in one conversation, you’re still contributing to greater awareness and this could lead to good outcomes further down the line.