Why ‘earning to give’ is a great option for Stanford graduates looking to do good

Opinion by Nick Pether
April 21, 2017, 12:09 a.m.

It’s less than nine weeks before I graduate, and the question of what I’m supposed to do with myself out in the real world is making itself hard to ignore. Like most people, I want to help others. It’s fairly clear that we live in an unfair and broken world. Worldwide, a billion people live on less than $2 a day (yes that is adjusted for cost of living expenses — you can buy perhaps a couple of bags of rice every day and that’s it). Close to one in 20 children die before the age of five. Millions of people perish every year due to preventable causes like malnutrition, malaria and diarrhea. And then there’s the quite significant chance things are going to get a whole lot worse. Climate change, the exhaustion of natural resources and dangerous new technologies have the potential to harm billions of people. Acknowledging this reality leads to the obvious question: what can I do to make a difference?

I can’t answer that question exhaustively, but I think a great option to look into is “earning to give.” Earning to give can basically be summarized as, “Give money to the most effective charities, and maximize your impact by earning more and spending less.”

This is likely to clash with a lot of people’s intuitions about how to do good and even sound a lot like “selling out.” Most people I speak to at Stanford probably see their best ways of doing good as being something along the lines of research, lobbying or civic engagement, perhaps through directly working for an advocacy organization or charity.

What this line of thinking often fails to consider, however, is something called “replaceability.” Good work is ‘replaceable’ when someone else would have done it anyway. A lot of nonprofit work is in fact replaceable. If I were hired as a campaign manager for an advocacy group, probably someone only slightly less qualified for the position misses out. Say she would have done a decent job anyway, had I not applied for the position. How much good am I doing by being there? Only as much as the difference between how well I do in that position and how well she does. This means that if I happened to be vastly more capable than any of my competitors, then I should certainly take the position. However, if the position is very competitive and I’m only slightly better, I’m actually only making a small difference.

Compare this to my going to work as a software engineer, earning a higher salary and donating enough money to the same advocacy group to fund the salary of the position I just declined there. The advocacy group can now afford to hire two people instead of one and, if we assume the work they hire them for is important, potentially do twice as much good as before. Given that very few people donate significant portions of their income, the good I do by earning to give is not replaceable. The next potential hire after me at the tech company probably would have spent their entire salary on themselves, so they wouldn’t have done something of comparable value. This means the total amount of good I do amounts to the total contributions to society of the person in the new position at the advocacy group, rather than just the marginal difference in performance between my closest competitor and me when there’s only one position.

Something that’s worth noting, however, is that not all causes are equal. The nonprofit world is riddled with well-meaning interventions to help people that turn out to be useless, wasteful or even harmful. Fortunately, there has been a significant body of research in recent years on how to do the most good for your dollar.

Giving What We Can (GWWC) is a UK based organization that researches thousands of charities and recommends the most cost-effective to its members. Their current top charity, the Against Malaria Foundation, distributes insecticide treated mosquito nets, an intervention they estimate has averted around 450 million cases of malaria since 2000. According to a tool provided on the GWWC website, a Stanford graduate with a salary of $82,500 (the average salary of a Stanford B.A. according to PayScale) could, by donating 10 percent of their pre-tax income, fund the distribution of 1,270 bednets or 6,504 schistosomiasis treatments, equivalent to saving two people’s lives every year.

It’s worth noting that even if you have reservations about the potential effectiveness of GWWC’s recommended charities (say you think there are more tractable or pressing causes than overseas development aid) then that doesn’t mean earning to give isn’t a good idea. It just means you may need to look elsewhere for someone doing good work with room for more funding.

Earning to give might not be for everyone. Certain kinds of work might be the only path to personal satisfaction for some people, or you might have found a more direct means of doing good that does even better than earning to give, but it’s a great baseline against which to compare other options. It’s also a great thing to do early in your career, when you’re not sure which problems are the most pressing, or you want to build up skills for more effective direct work later.


Writer’s note: To learn more about earning to give, read the “Why and how to earn to give” page on 80000hours.org’s website. For criticism of GWWC’s research approach to overseas development aid, read Emily Clough’s article “Effective Altruism’s Political Blind Spot” in Boston Review. For GWWC Director of Research Hauke Hillebrandt’s response, read “Effective Altruism, Continued: On Measuring Impact”, also in Boston Review.

Contact Nick Pether at npether ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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