- Published 28 May 2021
- Updated 16 May 2022
Something I've found to be shockingly common is that uncertainty around how much we should give to charity can often prevent people from giving anything at all.
Yet if you search the internet for advice, you'll mostly find claims that there's "no right answer" and that it's a "deeply personal decision." While these answers are largely true, they are not very helpful. They don't actually provide any actionable advice, any directions whatsoever for what we should do.
Instead of dodging the question or trying to divine a single prescriptive answer from the fabric of the universe, we are going to look at a range of standards that you could apply to your life, and recommend some approaches that might work for you.
To start with, let's look at the extremes of giving.
There are some people who believe that the right amount to give is nothing, ever. They might believe that charity doesn't help people, that it's not their responsibility, or they're not excited by the incredible opportunity most of us have to use our money to help others. If that's you, I'm not going to dissuade you here (but we recommend that you check out our myths about charity page).
Others believe that they should give nothing, yet. This might be suitable for you either if (a) your material circumstances are very dire; or (b) you are a patient philanthropist who is putting away money now in order to give to charity later (and have taken measures to make sure you'll actually follow through).
The other far extreme of giving is to give everything humanly possible right up until your circumstances are equal to those whose welfare you are concerned about.
According to Singer, given that there are millions of people around the world in need, engaging in frivolous consumption instead of donating to charity is quite like walking past a drowning child and not saving them for fear of damaging a fine suit.
The trouble with this thought experiment is that, taken to its extreme logical conclusion, it becomes very morally demanding. Not only are we morally required to give something to help others, but we should give all we possibly can.
One man did just this. After converting to Christianity, evolutionary scientist George Price was convinced that he had a moral obligation to give away all of his possessions to the poor.
Price would seek out the homeless and give them anything they asked for, from his money to the clothes off his back. If they needed a place to sleep, he hosted them at his place indefinitely. Eventually he had given away so much that he became homeless and as poor as those that he was helping. This, very unfortunately, eventually led to his suicide.
His altruism is in many ways admirable, but it's clearly not a healthy path to follow, and is ultimately going to be self-defeating (leading to less good for everyone involved, not more).
So, when we look down the barrel of these two extremes and see that neither of them are right for us, we may ask ourselves this this begs the question: "What is the right amount for us to give to charity?"
Let's look at some standard approaches to giving.
If you feel a strong moral obligation to help others, you might decide to give what you don't need. This idea has been formalised by Oxford philosopher Toby Ord who was inspired by ethicists such as Peter Singer.
In 2009, Toby felt that he had a true moral obligation to give what he didn't need. He knew that a significant portion of his income could be so much more valuable to others than it would be to himself.
To put this into practice, he set himself a living allowance and then gave everything that he earned above that level away. He calls this the Further Pledge.
Toby later founded the Giving What We Can community and after more than a decade, he is still giving everything above his inflation-adjusted living allowance. Many others have since taken this Further Pledge, and even more people have modelled their giving on this 'living allowance' idea. Deciding what they need to live on sustainably, and giving away the rest.
You might be more motivated to have a steady increase in your standard of living as your income rises, but still want to give a meaningful amount that is more generous than what most people give.
If you are earning above average income in your country, it's likely that you can give more generously than an average person can give. If you were born in a high-income country it is likely that your income is at least 10x that of the average person and roughly 100x that of someone living in extreme poverty.
Philosopher Willam MacAskill calls this the "100x Multiplier":
"Imagine a happy hour where you could either buy yourself a beer for five dollars or buy someone else a beer for five cents. If that were the case, we'd probably be pretty generous –next round's on me!" – William Macaskill, Doing Good Better
This realisation has led many people to choose to be generous with their relative wealth - whether they see this as an obligation to share their luck, or as an incredible opportunity to make a difference.
Religious traditions across the world also ask their followers to not just give, but to give generously. In Judaism and Christianity this is made more explicit as a 10% of income contribution referred to as 'Tithe'.
The Giving What We Can Pledge also uses 10% as a benchmark number for giving generously.
Ten percent has a few perks as a giving standard:
- It is low enough that it's accessible to those who have means;
- It is high enough that it really feels meaningful to most people;
- It is much more generous than what most people are otherwise giving;
- It's not so high as to be off-putting or overly demanding; and finally
- 10% is very easy to calculate.
Many people would jump at the chance to take a job if it were more meaningful, even if it paid 10% less.
So if you're seeking to make a meaningful contribution (and you aren't under any financial strain), this is probably the right number for you.
If you care about helping others but don't want to give more than average, you could aim to give what an average person gives.
This can vary significantly by income level and country, but for many people this is roughly 2-6% of their income.
At the very least you could give what you wouldn't miss. This is the idea behind the Try Giving pledge and the One For The World pledge, both of which encourage people to give at least 1% of their income. Similarly, The Life You Can Save pledge recommends a variable amount that's calibrated to have a "barely noticeable" effect on your standard of living.
Very few people would notice a difference if they were to live off only 99% of their income, rather than 100% of it. Almost everyone would take a job that paid 1% less if it brought them more meaning in life.
We've covered some income-based giving standards, however there are a few other approaches that you may take:
- Wealth-based approaches such as the Giving Pledge where billionaires pledge to give away at least half of their wealth, and Zakat where muslims donate 2.5% of their wealth each year.
- Event-based approaches such as increasing your giving when you get a raise; donating your bonus, stimulus checks, or tax rebate; giving when you receive an inheritance (e.g. Generation Pledge); or giving from a liquidity event such as the sale of a business (e.g. Founders Pledge).
- The 'fair share' approach where you give the amount that would lead to the best outcome if everyone in the world gave the same amount. The problem with this approach is that most people will not give their fair share, and it's incredibly difficult to calculate what your fair share would in fact be.
- Earning to give where you seek out high paying jobs so that you can give much more than ordinarily (e.g. working on Wall Street while donating 50% of your income).
- Leaving a bequest where you give from your estate when you pass away.
Now that we've covered some of the most common standards, here's what I would personally recommend.
Unless you're financially insecure, I recommend that you start giving something.
Getting into the habit of giving will change who you are as a person. You will become 'someone who gives money to charity' and will start to experience the joy and satisfaction that you get when you know that you're helping others with your money.
Beyond giving something, I recommend that you pick a standard that makes it meaningful to you. Be bold, be ambitious, be generous!
You might want to start small and work your way up – each year – to your ideal target, sit with that for a while, and then challenge yourself.
My favourite example; one couple reported that they increase their giving by 1% of their income each year on their wedding anniversary.
If you're wealthy, give much more. Perhaps follow the example of many notable philanthropists like Andrew Carnegie and start drawing down that wealth before you die so that there's less inequality in the world, and so that your children will not be spoilt with excess wealth.
It's not just how much you give, but also how effectively you give that matters. This is because the differences between charities and their impact can be astonishing.
A $1 donation to a highly effective charity is going to be worth tens, hundreds, or thousands of times more than the same donation to an average charity… and worth infinitely more than a donation to a charity that accidentally does harm.
Giving 10 times more effectively is much easier than giving 10 times more.
Combining these two approaches is ideal: if you give 10 times more and 10 times more effectively then you've increased your impact a hundredfold. Impact multiplication is a really powerful force.
For more on this topic, I recommend that you check out Giving What We Can's effective giving recommendations.
Another way to multiply your impact is to influence others through social proof. This is the well-established psychological phenomenon entailing that people tend to do what they see others doing. Because as humans, we are incredibly social animals.
If everyone kept their giving private, most people would think that giving isn't normal. On the other hand, giving publicly can influence others to follow your behaviour.
By being public (but not boastful) about your giving decisions – for example by making a giving pledge – you can help create a social norm where people give more, and give more effectively.
Take the view of giving over your lifetime. Ask yourself 'what will be sustainable? because you don't want to end up like George Price, and you don't want to give too much, too soon if it causes you to burn out and stop giving.
Take the time to plan your giving. Think carefully about how much you want to give and how you are going to do it.
Some resources for giving sustainably:
- Why you should save 6-24 months runway by 80,000 Hours.
- Personal finance course for beginners by Yeild and Spread.
- Personal finance articles on the EA Forum.
- Why not give 90%? by Hayden Wilkinson
I recommend you also give regularly. This is because regular donors are more generous, and therefore more likely to have a bigger impact. They are estimated to give around 42% more per year, and up to 440% more over a lifetime.
Giving habitually means you are more likely to continue, less likely to skip donations, and you can budget your giving much better.
Regular giving also helps the recipient charity to operate more efficiently since they will receive more predictable revenue, and also spend less on fundraising.
If you are a patient philanthropist and want to invest to give later, use a mechanism like a Donor Advised Fund to get the immediate tax benefit while preventing value drift, and making sure that you'll live up to your values.
Finally, share the joy of giving with other people. This will not only help establish norms around giving, but it can help you make better decisions, and you will have people to share this meaningful part of your life with.
Involving your family with your giving is a great way of building a family culture of care, generosity and critical thinking. Involving your friends and colleagues can be a great activity to bond over. You could try running a fundraiser, a giving circle, or a giving game.
If you want to discuss your donation decisions with others, you're very welcome to join the Giving What We Can community, or attend one of our public events.
At the end of the day, charity is optional. No one is forcing you to give away your money, it is truly your choice…and that is what makes it so incredibly empowering.
We get to choose to make the world a better place. We each have an incredible opportunity to use our money to help others.
Not only does this make the world better, it enriches our own lives too.
So how much will you choose to give?