A different take on giving back

Opinion by Claire Zabel
Feb. 5, 2015, 11:11 p.m.

In 40 B.C., the Roman historian Sallust praised Cato the Younger, saying “he preferred to be good rather than seem so.” But, two thousand years later, some say we’re still more focused on looking good than doing good.  Stanford’s starry-eyed and resume-padding idealists, talking about passionate plans to save the world, are a cliché. So many of us volunteered during high school that it was the subject of an Onion satire piece back in 2003. Many more look overseas for even less fortunate communities to help. And what about after graduation? Students who want to do good often plan to continue their altruistic activities by working for a nonprofit. Is this image of what doing good “should” look like so ingrained that it has distracted us from other, better opportunities? Some philosophers and philanthropists think so, arguing that we can do far more good by doing the last thing expected of a true altruist: making as much money as possible.

The average Stanford student makes about $120,000 annually mid-career, and those who focus on high-earning careers can earn far more. In contrast, the average salary at nonprofits in the US ranges from approximately $46,000 to $49,000. A committed altruist graduating from Stanford could live modestly while supporting several nonprofit workers through his or her donations. And this is no pipe dream. Already, a small but growing number of Stanford students have joined an international community of people who go into high-earning careers then donate much of their income to charities–a practice called “earning to give.”

This is especially relevant to Stanford students who choose career paths that don’t lend themselves easily to direct action. We interviewed several Stanford students who are earning to give, or intend to do so. Michael Dickens ‘16, an MCS major, said, “Even when you’re trying to do as much good in the world as you can, it’s important to do something that works for you. Software development works for me. I don’t think direct work would work for me.”

A law student who chose to remain anonymous added that many socially impactful careers are highly “replaceable.” That is, if you didn’t do the job at a nonprofit, someone else would be eager to take your spot, and they would probably be nearly as good at it. Essentially, most nonprofits are limited by their funds, not available talent. “Almost any Stanford Law grad can go into a big firm… and donate a good portion of that money to increase the capacity of the public interest institutions that you want to support,” the student continued.

To many people, there is something fundamentally laudable about working on the ground, planting trees or teaching kids to read, rather than from the comforts of a cushy corner office. Most well-meaning people choose vocations not only for their positive impact, but because the work feels meaningful. Perhaps the do-gooders among us seek the enrichment that comes from directly helping those in need, preferring to couple our moral code with daily conduct.

Earning to give does not necessarily deprive one of this feeling. Where did people get the idea that doing good indirectly is hollow and unsatisfying? When did we decide that the only sort of activism that ‘feels real’ is knocking on doors and working in clinics? Working in your area of strength, and in turn contributing to effective charities, lets you know how much good you’ve achieved as well. As Kelsey Piper ‘16, a CS major who has pledged 30 percent of her lifetime income to charity, said, “It is tremendously empowering to know how many lives you are affecting with your donations, to know how much good you are doing in the world.”

Sometimes the way to feel the most helpful and make the greatest difference is the same, but when it isn’t, we should choose the latter. This ideal inspired Kelsey to found Stanford Effective Altruism, a group committed to helping Stanford students identify the best way to maximize their social impact. These students seem to be at peace with their role as intermediaries for redistribution of the wealth many Stanford students so fortunately acquire. In a world of extreme and growing inequality, perhaps that isn’t a bad thing.

Stanford students have a special opportunity to strategically channel their high earning careers and make lasting social change. It is our duty to the world to consider these unconventional paths to helping those in need. So maybe you should stop being selfish, and go make some money.  

Contact Claire Zabel at czabel ‘at’ stanford.edu and Joseph (Joey) Zabel at joezabel ‘at’ stanford.edu 

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